The Nigerian theatre industry sits so close to the edge of non-existence if it sneezed it would fall into a pit of blazing lava and burn into extinction forever and ever till the end of all time in the world ever. Ok, maybe things are not that dramatic (see what I did there?) but you get the idea. The large scale ignorance about commercial theatre in Nigeria would alarm most people from countries where the art is common practice. As Nigerian theatre struggles to overcome this ignorance and bring itself into the mainstream, there are myths which hinder its progress. Ghouls, spectres, that try to scare it off that edge into calamitous descent (cue Wilhelm scream).

To know your ailment is the first step to finding a cure, so let’s whip out the ol’ pointy finger and start … er … fingering these diseases. Part 1 of this article looks at 3 myths and part 2 (starring Dolph Lundgren) will examine another 3. Ladies and gentlemen (cue drumroll), I give you the 6 BIGGEST (echo: biggest! biggest! biggest!) myths about Nigerian theatre.

1. THE ‘COMIC RELIEF’ MYTH

The Yoruba joker

Oremi, do you know how I got these scars?

The Myth
The mantra to this myth goes, “You know Nigerians, the only thing they are interested in watching is comedy”. The belief is that Nigerians are so stressed and depressed due to the endless woes of being Nigerian that when they come to see a theatre show they are ONLY interested in laughing their sorrows away, hence they only want to watch comedies. What scares me is how often I’ve heard this asserted BY THEATRE PRACTITIONERS.

The Impact
So corrosive is this myth that some practitioners contort or limit their artistry to comedy – or what they mistake to be comedy, thus ironically making a joke of their art. The biggest damage has been the retarded development of non-comic content in Nigerian theatre. Deduct dance and song from the equation and you’ll find performances struggling to genuinely hold the attention of an intelligent teenager.

Among actors you find those who cannot perform a non-comic role without impressing comic stylings upon it. The ‘serious’ performances end up as limp imitations of generic physical and vocal of expressions. (Ever noticed how similar the line delivery of various actors sounds? Think of how practically every actor talks the same when playing the part of an African King.) Most vulnerable are students of theatre who have to create for an audience whose tastes are prone to erroneous constriction.

The Reality
Here’s a question: how come these so so depressed Nigerians are eager to engage with tragedies, romances, thrillers, and horror stories from other countries? Does our own depression discriminate against us? (If so God punish am!) Nigerians aren’t an alien species. Nigerians are human beings. And human beings have a range of emotions. And human beings are interested in art that explores these emotions. The difficult question we must ask is: how good is our handling of non-comic content in theatre?

The sad assumption that comedy is easier to accomplish than other genres is itself a farce of ignorance. Any comic actor worth his/her weight in Lannister gold knows that assumption is a great injustice. What many tend to call ‘comedy’ is plain old buffoonery (*cough*cough* Mister *cough* Ibu *cough*). On the positive side this myth seems to be on the Grim Reaper’s path. As frequency of theatre shows increases, albeit marginally so, diversity of content is inevitable.

2. THE ‘APPLAUSE IS APPROVAL’ MYTH

Standing ovation

“The audience was a great success, but the play was a disaster.”

The Myth
What we have here is a belief that no matter how tamely or mechanically an audience applauds a performance it means they absolutely love it. Now I hear you saying, “but of course”; yet to see why this is a myth you must understand a fundamental of the psychology behind the audience-performer relationship in Nigeria. You see, criticism of Nigerian performance art is TABOO. (“How dare you say that a shit work of art is shit!? Where your own dey!?“) Professional or casual, critics are not welcome – except you are here to heap praise in which case, please, come feast at my house, I shall kill you a calf!

This partly arose out of the good intention to support indigenous art, then veered off track as it became a defense mechanism used by producers and performers against failure and ego bruises. (Could this also be tied to our larger attitude of docility, whereby even if deservedly so we are not supposed to question culture or teachers or leaders or Jose Mourinho?) Over the years audiences have come to accept this lack of open criticism as a norm. As a polite gesture which is their part to play. And so a myth was born. And the people looked at it. And they saw it was good.

The Impact
This is one myth whose growing impact should worry us. For one thing, the quality of our already watered-down dramatic criticism will continue to decline. We’re already stuck with a fair number whose indepth opinion about a performance begins and ends at “it was good oh, they tried”. Again students of theatre are the most at risk here; which puts everyone at risk for when, after graduating, these students begin to f@#k with the industry, they transmit whatever diseases our educational system infected them with into society.

Individuals and groups also lose out on a vital organ of the arts which helps artists develop. Then there is the emotional maturity of the industry which will continue to go Benjamin Button unless we get a grip on it. The biggest impact remains that in the mid-long term we will not develop the kind of audience attendance needed for live theatre to flourish simply because WE ARE NOT LISTENING to our audiences.

The Reality
Look, if a dude dresses up, drives (or treks, all na movement) to a theatre show, spends a couple thousand naira on a ticket, sits down with a drink and a snack to spend an hour plus of his allotted Jack Bauer (i.e 24) watching a stage performance, he is highly likely to force himself to have some damn fun. Reinforce this with his belief that open disapproval is impolite, especially so as not to be labelled the ‘oversabi‘, and you get a submissive audience member who smiles outwardly but inwardly is dissatisfied. Now multiply by 80% of the people at the show.

I always try to get a few people I know to see a play I also intend to see, then ask them how they felt about it 2 or 3 days later. Free from the compulsive environment of the event, I find genuine opinions are more accessible. Ultimately, the truest opinion about the quality of a show rests on (i) the audience’s eagerness to see it again, (ii) their excitement to recommend it to someone, and (iii) the treasured memory of it in their hearts.

3. THE ‘GO BIG OR GO HOME’ MYTH

Greedy worm

Said the worm to the burger, “you gon’ learn today!”

The Myth
This is very much connected to our ostentatious culture and the belief that quantity supersedes quality. So long as its BIGGER, even if it’s crap, it’s BETTER. The misconception therefore is that the only theatre worth making is a theatre of spectacle. The corporate world plays a part in the prevalence of this myth. Being a major source of funding, corporate institutions are solely interested in a theatre of spectacle which reflects their brand power. And they are totally justified! No one spends five or six million naira and expects a ‘nice little’ show (if na your money you go gree?). Where we have a myth is in the belief that mid-small scale theatre shows are not productive; that ONLY mega productions have business value and so are the only ones worthy of sponsorship or investment.

The Impact
This is possibly the most damaging of all 6 myths. Now, don’t get me wrong, big theatre isn’t bad. I’m a young Nigerian theatre practitioner, I spend waking hours conceiving big shows. But making ONLY big theatre is BAD FOR BUSINESS. Every art has certain constants it needs so as to be profitable. Musicians and record companies, for example, need their music to be heard constantly. So, airplay and downloads, despite the latter’s impact on record sales, are crucial for success.

In theatre, the indispensable constant is: shows. Shows! Shows! Shows! Day after day, week after week. But you can’t spend 5 million naira every month of the year on one show that will only run for 3 days, can you? Focusing only on big shows we produce a phenomenally low number performances annually. I’d go so far as to say there are states out of the 36 which have close to 0 commercial theatre performances yearly. (Oy! Performances by all them defunct art councils don’t count, bruv!) The limited number of shows simply means that the theatre industry – from the sponsors to the investors to the theatre companies – is not making nearly as much money as it could be.

Another impact is of course the comatose state of mid-small scale productions. The mentality that they are “poor” has seeped into the minds of audiences who now believe these shows are not worth attending. Theatre directors aren’t spared from the scourge of this myth. Unable to have the frequency and variation of practice needed to hone their art, coupled perhaps with the laziness of some to put in the mandatory extra self-development work, and the pressure that comes with ‘big money’ productions, the director doesn’t develop an individual philosophy and style. He limits himself to archetypal theatrics which quickly become predictable and boring for the audience. (If you are a frequent theatre-goer with a keen eye you may have noticed that ‘spatially‘ a lot of stage peformances are basically the same – but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Reality
Mid-small scale shows are just as – probably even more – important for the business of theatre as the ‘big boss’ productions. They may or may not make gazllions in returns but they certainly facilitate the mid-long term generation of Juicy J profit (Bounce it!). On da flipside! it must be admitted that the infrastructure for frequent commercial theatre performances does not exist. But that, mes amis, is why theatre is the most adaptable of all performance arts; it can thrive regardless of this deficit. We mustn’t wait until infrastructure exists to make the all-important step towards performance constancy. Innovative thinking and key partnerships can solve the problem. But, well, that’s easier said than done in a “na based on who you sabi” society.

Perhaps a too-pessimistic point of view would be to say we lack the volume of creative personnel for performance constancy. Eventually our creative monotony would be exposed. Stripped of the deceptions of fancy lights and costumes, our art, in the nude, would reveal an ugly form. Perhaps it is fairest to say this is both true and false?

Either way, let me end with a story to illustrate this clear and present danger:

In school we were trained on how to produce the popular “big Nigerian theatre production” – flashy lights, hypnotic songs, bulldozer acting, exuberant dances and a village-sized cast. This one time (in band camp … sorry, couldn’t resist) a 3rd year student working on her directing practicals with a cast of about 30 students was having a horrible experience. As always this was mostly due to unruly and nonchalant student-actors.

One day I shared a thought with her. “Why not choose a different play?” I suggested, “Something that has 3 or 4, maybe 5 characters, so that you’ll just work with the serious actors and give the rest other duties?”
“No oh,” she replied in shock, “ha! I don’t know how to direct that kind of play, oh. They did not teach me that one. If I do that one there will be plenty space on the stage, that is when I will now have to do the real directing. It is this crowd-crowd type I know. At least if I put twenty people here,” she gestured to her right, “and twenty people here,” she gestured to her left, “it is just one small space in the middle that will remain. That is the way I know how to do it.” I cannot begin to explain the many levels of screwed in that thinking process.

Hey, thank you for reading! If you read the whole thing you just won yourself a toaster! If you didn’t, scroll back up and read the whole post, come on! Look out for the second part of this article where I’ll write on the other 3 biggest myths about Nigerian theatre.

i. The ‘All They Do Is Boogie’ Myth
ii. The ‘Messiah’ Myth
iii. The ‘Bankruptcy’ Myth

What about you? What myths are there about theatre or other entertainment industries in your country? I’d love to hear about them.

READ: Part 2 – The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third person)

Africa Ukoh (@Pensage – abeg, follow me for twitter oh!) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, theatre director, and arts administrator. And protector of the realm. He is a co-founder and artistic director of African Renaissance Theatre & Entertainment, an Abuja-based performance art outfit. He has been the recipient of awards such as the BBC African Performance competition and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. In 2014 he won the prestigious Oscar award for best actress in a supporting role … Oh, no, wait, that … that was Lupita N’yongo. His works have appeared on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology, and more. If you’d like to get in touch with him you can send N1500 MTN recharge card to 08036207841 and he will call you back, sharp sharp. Or maybe just email him: africaukoh@gmail.com.

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