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Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA – A Study in Film Narrative

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A slapstick crude-and-cruel-taste prank-film by Johnny Knoxville and his crew of jackasses is the last place I expected to find an intriguing study in film narrative, but that was what I got from Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.

Having gorged on the five star meal that is DePalma’s Scarface for the 10, 000th time, I needed to feed my brain something less intense before submitting to the temporal death of sleep. Despite my affinity for indulging in mischief and madness I had no desire to see Bad Grandpa since it came out last year. However this seemed like the perfect condition – a no-brainer movie for a no-brainer mood. I certainly did not expect to be taken on an interesting screen-ride.

Right before the titular Grandpa sticks his penis into a soda machine (it’s Jackass, what else did you expect?) 2 of the final 3 opening credits grabbed my attention: “story by” and “screenplay by”. The suggestion that there is a story here intrigued me. A story means narrative, structure, a creative and technical way of telling. This opposed what I expected: a showing of randomly organized or loosely connected sketches much like the other Jackass movies or The Onion Movie. But if there was a story here, and if Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Her) is one of those telling it, I was surely going to pay attention.

What followed was an interesting and unique twist on film narrative. A hybrid of fiction and filmed-reality. An experiment (Inadvertently so?) in the film art of storytelling. What is it about this creation which most would shudder to call a film that makes it intriguing? First let’s look at …

Story and Structure

Bad Grandpa is a standard road-trip buddy-comedy with a simple character arc and three act structure:

Exposition: 8 year old Billy tells complete strangers in the waiting room of a law office about his crack addict mum who will soon be going to jail. In another part of town Grandpa Irving Zisman learns that Grandma has finally passed away. The sad news comes as a great delight to Grandpa, he is now free to chase tail, having not got any “nookie since the 90s”. At Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum tells Grandpa he has to take care of Billy. She abandons the kid with Grandpa Irving and bails.

Rising action: this unexpected responsibility is an obstruction in the way of Grandpa’s newfound freedom, so he arranges to pass Billy over to his father, Chuck Muski – an irresponsible computer hardware salesman (he has like 3 old computers for sale) who only wants Billy for the $600 the state will assumably pay him for being a single (unemployed) parent. Grandpa and Billy set out on the drive from Nebraska to North Carolina. What starts out as a tedious trip soon turns into a bonding adventure as Gramps and Billy revel in their shared love for pranks and juvenility.

Resolution: Grandpa reluctantly drops Billy with his father and leaves, fearing for the kid’s well-being. However he has a change of heart and returns to rescue Billy from his abusive father. The duo head over to a beauty pageant for one last prank (in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine) before throwing Grandma off a bridge – her preferred burial choice.

In total there are 23 major prank scenes, which make up the main scenes, 22 junction scenes (non-prank scenes which link the narrative) and a few minor/sub prank scenes in the spaces between. The plotting shifts from prank scene to junction scene in alternate progression. Mostly one prank scene followed by one junction scene; occasionally two or three prank scenes followed by a junction scene or two. Combining the three act structure with the prank and junction scenes gives us this:

MTV reality show

Three act structure in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

This structure blurs the line dividing reality and fiction, delivering an unexpected narrative.

Constructed Narrative/Anticipatory Narrative

All narrative in fictional films is constructed. The phrase “making a movie” aptly defines what filmmaking is – a process of building. The idea, premise, script, acting, cinematography, editing, aesthetics, style etc, are the blueprints, foundation, blocks, rods, roofings and more which are used to build a film. These features drive conscious narrative.

Bad Grandpa, however, delivers a narrative which is not defined by construction alone. On one hand it is a collection of pranks caught on camera, thus categorizing it as filmed-reality. Yet the fictional story is cohesive enough to be called a film. Prank scenes (so long as they are not staged) cannot be wholly constructed, they can only be set up then left to develop themselves based on reactions of the pranks’ targets (who become catalysts). The pranksters (actors, director etc) may aim to steer these reactions towards preset destinations or just go with the flow.

A story being a feature of the film means the prank scenes in Bad Grandpa are not independent entities but part of the narrative. Thus we expect them to ask or tell us something about the plot, characters and character relationships. Since prank scenes cannot be wholly constructed pranksters can only go into the scene with expectations. For the viewer this circumstance creates a sense of thrill, which to my surprise has strong playback value. Most importantly, the expectation arising from this circumstance creates an element vital to the telling of the story: an anticipatory narrative.

The story is therefore shaped by this dual/hybrid way of telling – a constructed/anticipatory narrative.Three features about this narrative captivated me:

Unity and Continuity

The narrative’s unity lies in the scenes where the filmed-reality and fictional story merge inseparably. The strength of this merger prevents the story from collapsing in the second act which mostly consists of pranks with very thin story value. The junction scenes provide motivational shifts from one prank scene to the next, a continuity needed for the unity to make sense. This is strongest in the first act and the beginning of the second act:

Prank scene: Grandpa learns about Grandma’s death.
Junction scene: Grandpa, happy to be free, tries but fails to get into an oriental massage parlour and a strip club.
Prank scene: horny and frustrated Grandpa decides to satiate himself by sticking his penis inside a soda machine.
Prank scene: at Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum abandons her son with Grandpa.
Junction scene: in his car Grandpa further expresses reluctance to take care of Billy. So…
Prank scene: Grandpa, Billy, and a (really sweet) guidance counselor chat with Billy’s dad and agree to drive Billy over to his father in North Carolina.
Prank scene: Grandpa tricks 2 movers into putting Grandma’s corpse inside the trunk of his car.
Junction scene: driving to North Carolina Billy asks that they stop and get something to eat.
Prank scene: while getting his meal Billy tries to play on a broken ride. Grandpa tries to test the ride but it malfunctions and sends him flying through a huge glass window.
Junction scene: back in the car an angry Grandpa decides he absolutely cannot take care of Billy. So …
Prank scene: Grandpa hides Billy inside a box and tries to send him to North Carolina by courier (the shocked attendants actually consider whether a kid can be couriered or not).
Junction scene: realizing he can’t get rid of Billy so easily Grandpa resigns himself to a long ride.

Without the junction scenes we would be watching a poorly told story progressing with missing portions that would make certain prank scenes insensible. For example, if we don’t see Grandpa failing to get into the oriental massage parlour and strip club, sticking his penis inside a soda machine would just be a random prank.

Acting

The most enjoyable thing about any prank is watching the targets react to the situation, and Bad Grandpa takes this a step further.The presence of a story turns the targets from victims of a prank into co-actors; co-actors who do not even know they are being co-actors. They are telling a story without knowing they are telling it. They are in the fictional world of Bad Grandpa yet they are not of it.

They play an important role by giving the narrative that clinical bit of unity and continuity. For example, when the two women at the courier office refuse to mail Billy to North Carolina they actually motivate Grandpa and Billy to take the road-trip, this later becomes crucial to the duo bonding.

In another scene a bystander watches in shock as Grandpa drags Grandma’s corpse into a motel room, Grandpa asks for directions to a strip club which the bystander gives. Unknowingly “acting” as a bystander the man i) makes the story of the scene effective through his shock and ii) furthers the narrative by linking it to the next scene. The narrative wouldn’t break if the bystander doesn’t give the directions, the scene could simply cut from the motel to the strip club and still make sense, but in giving directions the bystander adds that extra bit of value and detail.

The quality of comic timing and line delivery from these co-actors is impeccable and stands as a testament to the inherent hilarity of life. Replicating such natural rhythms with equal efficacy in a wholly fictional movie is a challenge which I doubt can be fully achieved.

Suspension of Disbelief

The constructed/anticipatory narrative turns conventional suspension of disbelief on its head. Suspension of disbelief is an age long agreement between storytellers and audiences: I am going to tell you a fictional story but I will make it credible; I am going to treat your fictional story as a reality unto itself. So the audience willfully ignores any data or stimuli which reminds them that this thing being watched is a lie so as to see its truths.

In prank shows or other filmed-reality productions viewers are aware they are watching reality, thus there is no disbelief to be suspended. In reality TV shows, fiction (i.e constructed narrative) is frowned upon. What the audience seeks is not an imaginative involvement but a voyeuristic one.

Bad Grandpa fuses these two worlds into one, resulting, at least for me, in a rather unique and pleasant state of perception. The viewer’s mind bounces from suspension of disbelief to awareness of reality in a topsy turvy thrill-ride. Again the junction scenes are very important here; as the prank scene asserts the reality of what you’re watching, the junction scene snatches you back into the realm of fiction. The climax delivers the strongest sensation from the fiction-reality fusion.

Set in a bar where a group of bikers known as Guardians of Children are hanging out we immediately sense the tension. What will a group of hardcore bikers who love to protect children from harm do when they realize Chuck Muski is an abusive father? The fictional story and filmed-reality flow into each other in a seamless symbiotic relationship leaving the viewer simultaneously in the pleasant spots of two separate worlds.

***

The experience of watching Bad Grandpa turned out to not be the brain cell massacre I had expected. I found myself weighing the possibilities of how else this dual/hybrid narrative can be put to use. The problem with Bad Grandpa is the juvenility of its content which makes viewers not take what I found to be a delightful technique of storytelling seriously. For me the jackassness takes nothing away from the narrative. I find myself pondering the possibilities of telling a story using this constructed/anticipatory narrative in a more intricate way. What if we could tell a detailed fictional story which uses real people and heads towards unplanned destinations?

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Writer’s Dictionary: Sponging

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Sponging
n.

A technique used by writers to improve their work especially stream of consciousness writing. When sponging a writer refrains from writing for a certain period of time focusing instead on accumulating experiences through activities such as reading, traveling, spending time with loved ones, observing society etc. The stimuli from these experiences are not analyzed but allowed to seep into the writer’s subconscious then poured out at the point of return to writing.

I can’t write with a cast on so for now I’m just sponging.

Sponge
n.

The state or condition of absorbing experiences so as to influence one’s writing later.

I tend to be a lazy writer so I have to be careful to not get stuck in a sponge.

The Grand Nollywood Plan … Or Lack Thereof

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Where is the Nigerian film industry headed? When does it aim to get there? What is its vision? What are its goals? Are there any targeted milestones? Does a plan exist to lead the industry to some El Dorado or is Nollywood content to go wherever the wind blows?

Nollywood Nigerian film industry

First Encounters of the Twitter Kind

Sometime in July when the film adaptation of Half of A Yellow Sun was in the news for being banned by the Nigerian Censors Board, a lady I follow Twitter posted a comment about a conversation she had with a Nollywood director. He had told her that the ban on HOAYS would discourage Nigerian filmmakers from tackling serious and controversial, perhaps politically risqué, topics. I found this odd.

Nollywood isn’t exactly renowned for producing movies which shake the Machiavellian foundations of the Nigerian polity. I replied the tweet with a question that zapped into my mind: can an industry be banned from doing what it wasn’t doing in the first place? If Nollywood filmmakers weren’t making controversial content, can a ban, unjust though it may be, really be considered a hindrance?

Her response was that the few who do make controversial content must be protected from bans which poach on an endangered species. Though I agree with this, I expressed a countering conviction – a story will always find a way to tell itself. To this she replied that while that may be true, the realities of Nollywood, a world where things must happen sharp-sharp-sharp, does not accommodate the adventures that come with a story finding a way to tell itself. Adventures after all are expensive, a luxury that tight budgets and tighter production schedules cannot afford.

What I found most intriguing about this opinion was its accordance with a belief in the Nigerian film industry which has always discomforted me: the well-widespread belief that Nigeria’s socio-economic stumbling blocks, so huge they dwarf the Great Wall of China, prevent Nollywood from growth such that the industry can only produce mediocre content, with the occasional exceptional work; but these average works should be lauded as excellent, they are testaments to Nigerian ingenuity. In my frank and ebonics-flavoured opinion, that’s some ol’ bullshit.

But why, pray tell, do I consider that belief equal to the faeces of Bos primigenius? Well, because it erroneously concludes that extensive and innovative planning CANNOT provide solutions to the industry’s problems. Granted the sharp-sharp-sharp world of Nollywood is often like a rampaging bull at a rodeo, yet to tame the beast must the cowboy not plan and be well prepared?

Second Encounters of the Critical Kind

A few weeks later I came across an article, Nollywood Nightmare At Durban Int Film Festival by film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo – a really interesting read. As can be surmised from the title he details how “Nollywood films took a beating at the Durban film festival due to the quality of our films”, with noted inferiority next to Ethopian, Kenyan and South African movies.

So what about this article caught my attention? The writer looks at two different receptions to a “much-hyped” South African film, Cold Harbour. One critic Kavish Chetty had positive reactions “hinging his praise on two politically charged scenes” while filmmaker Jozua Malherbe was “unimpressed” as the film “gave the impression … that it was a thriller but it failed to be a good example of one”. Then the writer expresses an opinion which reeled me back to my previous encounter on Twitter.

Reacting to Malherbe’s criticism of Cold Habour, the Nigerian critic finds himself thinking, “here is a man spoilt by a national cinema producing excellent films regularly. Nigerian cinemagoers don’t have that luxury. A film half as well made as Cold Harbour will meet with deserved acclaim. Expression of chagrin at the little letdowns of a film with such production values as Cold Harbour is a privilege exclusive to customers of better fare“.

Malherbe’s dissatisfaction is apparently justified since as filmmaker and cinemagoer he feeds on a regular diet of quality productions. But more importantly because socio-economic circumstances permit him to feed on such a diet. Were it about a Nollywood film such criticism would apparently be unjust because of the harsher realities faced in producing a Nigerian film. While it is true production realities are tremendously challenging, a poisonous seed lurks in the subtext – mediocrity is excusable.

Common Threads

I find both encounters lined with a common thread of thought: due to the challenges of filmmaking in Nigeria, to survive the industry must sacrifice quality. Hype becomes a vital weapon, as well as a blind support for “our own thing” regardless of its quality – a long-running campaign in the industry. Early in the 21st century, the branding-boom and growth of digital filmmaking technology added two crucial instruments to the Nollywood survival kit; with them the outer shell of Nigerian films could now be made more attractive though the meat within was still uncooked.

Counter Hem

While believing in the sacrifice of quality has aided Nollywood’s continuity it is a double-edged sword leaving more than its fair share of wounds. As already stated, it is an easy access-road to mediocrity. Indeed one can link the pervasion of this notion to old Nollywood (i.e the pre-digital era 1992 – 2006) and its band of unskilled filmmakers who needed a justification for their less-than-mediocre home videos, knowing that they couldn’t do any better. (It’s a deviously ingenious marketing scheme, to be honest! Exploiting our sense of indigenous pride and search for a common identity.)

The most grievous damage remains the industry’s inability to continuously evolve effective and innovative plans unique to Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions. Plans that position the industry to produce quality films, rather than deluding ourselves that that new boring movie is great and even if it isn’t so good at least they tried sha. I feel the urge to lay out various benefits of good planning but that’s too damn elementary, Watson! The essence of a plan is undeniable. Heck, every good villain, both real and fictional, knows that a plan is vital to achieving efficient destruction. How much more so when you are trying to build?

Planning isn’t merely an act; it is a philosophy, an attitude, which we as a people – not we as individuals, now – are yet to develop. As a group of people bunched together by brethren Frederick Lugard, we are way more reactive than active. Even when staring at a blatant problem we refuse to take the initiative until calamity erupts then we start scrambling for half-baked solutions. Our original sin is passivity. Probably the most common solutions to social problems are 1) Pray to God and all will be magically fixed without us having to break a sweat or 2) Just wait until some other person finds a solution then do exactly what he/she/they did even if it doesn’t entirely apply to us. Generations have used these approaches to graduate from Universities with top honours, how won’t they apply it to every aspect of life?

A Long Walk To Nearby Destinations

Maze of truth
In its quest to win international acclaim Nollywood is taking the needlessly long route to confronting a homegrown problem – the absence of a plan. It should be obvious without experiences like the one at the Durban Film Festival that ours is an industry void of an identity and starved of a common purpose. We needn’t be pissed or scared about this, we just need to sit down and fix it.

Having buried the value of excellence so deep you’d have to multiply six feet by six to locate it, the journey ahead is a long one. The allure of the global limelight – being the first Nigerian to win an Oscar and all that – would only help if tempered with patience. So far we are impatiently clawing at international success. As dust raised in hyping the ostensible Nollywood renaissance settles it is becoming more obvious that HD cameras alone do not make a good film, certainly not a good industry. Access to cinema’s international community also serves as slaps into realization. There the struggles of Nollywood, its no-be-our-fault and just-manage-am-like-that strategies, are impotent. The solution always bring us back to the same point – we need a plan, holmes!

The resistance to accept the unavoidable truth is understandable. The old mentality is too saturated into the consciousness of some; catharsis will take time. Some sense that in the sea of impending change they will drift to extinction. Perhaps what scares the industry most is the (sub)conscious awareness that, to achieve the next level of progress, the mentally pauperish pillars which have long upheld it must be destroyed. Delusions of grandeur, banal praise and subtle compulsion will repetitively lead to the same old thing – weak films which will be praised at home but lambasted in the wider world.

Reel-ality Twist

The confusion of an industry without a plan is humorously captured in the way neo-Nollywood sought to disassociate itself from old Nollywood. Back when all we had were shitty scenes poorly shot on video cameras with an Igbo woman bellowing a theme song every ten minutes, the poor quality of home videos was unquestionable. Yet the industry refused to confront this issue. It took the easy way out: screw looking for some sort of way to improve, let’s just defend these movies no matter what.

Then boom! digital filmmaking technology became accessible. A new path appeared before our Nolly-feet. And then the funniest thing happened. Actors, directors, marketers and publicists who migrated from old to neo-Nollywood, seeking to improve their brand by showing how much better the new era films are, began to criticize old Nollywood. Suddenly all the criticisms which were vehemently defended a few years back became weapons of attack – and they knew just were would hurt the most. Now that’s a priceless piece of irony and the trademark of a vicious cycle.

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third person)
Playwright Africa African
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage – abeg, follow me for twitter oh!) is a playwright, screenwriter, creative director, and arts administrator. And protector of the realm. 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.

BREAKING: NIGERIAN SCIENTIST DISCOVERS NEW TREATMENT WHICH COMPLETELY PREVENTS EBOLA

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Listen to this because it just may SAVE YOUR LIFE. We have all heard about EBOLA, the deadly virus which has entered Nigeria and is causing widespread panic. As you should know by now ebola CANNOT BE CURED. The only possible treatment which exists is an experimental drug in America, and the United States believes it is “too early” to experiment a cure for a disease on the people whom the disease kills the most.

HOWEVER, a patriotic Nigerian scientist has taken THE BULL BY THE HORNS and invested countless months of research and experimentation into DEVELOPING A TREATMENT for this deadly, and to be honest satanic, virus. As God will have it his research has been successful, leading to a GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERY that can stop the scourge sweeping our country.Please note that while this treatment does not CURE ebola, it COMPLETELY PREVENTS a person, specifically Nigerians, from contracting ebola.

How is this possible? The groundbreaking treatment targets A GENETIC CODE UNIQUE TO NIGERIANS which controls the IMMUNE SYSTEM. Then it boosts or elevates the immunity in a way that makes it specifically target the EARLY STAGE SYMPTOMATIC EVIDENCES of Ebola, isolates them so as to PREVENT VIRAL FUSION then TOTALLY DESTROYS them before they can mature into a killer virus.

Do you want to be free of the fear of Ebola? Do you want to be able to go to work or play football or go to the market without fear of people touching you? THE ANSWER IS HERE. You only need to apply this treatment ONCE and you are SAVED. Read the EASY TO FOLLOW instructions below and set yourself on the path to good health and Ebola freedom.

STEP 1: Go to any branch of Union Bank anywhere in Nigeria.

STEP 2: Deposit a minimum of N10, 000 (ten thousand naira – minimum) into the following account:
Account name: Africa Ukoh
Account number: 3036968530
Branch: Any

STEP 3: Take the pink-slip teller home with you. DO NOT drop it into the teller-box in the bank. On your way home If you do not have salt and kolanut branch and buy some.

STEP 4: Place a large pot of water to boil on your gas cooker (please, kerosine and charcoal stove will not work). Break the kolanut into pieces, add into the pot of water. Cut the pink-slip teller into small pieces, add into the pot of water. Add 7 (seven) tablespoonfuls of salt into the pot of water. Now continuously stir until the mixture comes to a steaming boil.

STEP 5: Drink a full cup of the mixture while it is still hot. You can serve it with your breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, should you so wish.

STEP 6: Use the remaining mixture to take your bath.

STEP 7 (not compulsory): Go to church and give thanks and share your testimony.

After this you can consider yourself FREE from EBOLA. However, the efficacy of this treatment is INDIVIDUALLY EXCLUSIVE. In other words, it can ONLY work on one individual. Should you and your family, or you and your bae, wish to take this treatment, you must all make separate deposits and mixtures.

Fellow Nigerians, with this I am happy to say the END OF EBOLA is here. We no longer need America and their oyibo-oyibo experimental medicine that they are keeping in the freezer until it is “too late” before they start experimenting it on the people whose lives it could possibly save.

I will also be posting other new treatments which completely prevent and/or cure diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer. But before doing so I will need to open a GTB account.

Part 2: The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre

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The Nigerian theatre industry sits so close to the edge of non-existence if it snee– Wait! Hold on! I already used that line in part 1, didn’t I? Ok, quick recap! Previously we looked at the: Comic Relief, Applause Is Approval and Go Big Or Go Home myths; examining how these pervading falsities unleash wraths so horrendous upon our dearly beloved industry they’d give Hades a hard-on. So without any ado!

4. THE ‘ALL THEY DO IS BOOGIE’ MYTH

The Myth
The (mis)belief here is that the only thing there is to the art of theatre in Nigeria is dance. The true danger lurks in this myth’s harmful subtext: Nigerian theatre is a narrow practice which offers little value to society – apart from the occasional distraction of watching people twerk in ankara. Trying and failing to be concave lenses to this myopic notion is usually due to: selective blindness of the myth believer (you know that thing about illusion being tastier than the truth?), a need to deliberately deride the arts as a study/practice (a very complex issue, this), inability of the practitioner to demonstrate specialization, or just good ol’ innocent-minded ignorance. The paucity of commercial theatre shows also keeps this myth well fed.

jungle boogie

Thespian boogie! Parara-parara! Thespian boogie! Get down!

The Impact
Apart from sounding like an insult from a 1970s blacksploitation movie (“Hell, them no-good jive turkeys? Only thing them cats know howda do is boogie!) this myth leaves grievous psychological scars in its wake. Its subtextual damage occurs at the delicate level of “image and perception“.

The image of every study/profession is polarized in positive and negative terms. We associate studies/professions with: dignity, power, stability, wealth, sacrifice, sufferhead, mysticism, etc. The more positives, the more attractive the study/profession. Externally this manifests in the value placed on objects which become prideful emblems – the doctor’s angelic coat, phallus-like stethoscope; the lawyer’s/judge’s black superhero-cape and that annoying wig thing that looks like a sheep’s butt.

When negative perceptions about Nigerian theatre seep into our social consciousness the barriers raised in response hurt the industry. The would-be audience member comes to consider himself too good for Nigerian theatre, even if he has the cultural sensibility of a wet mop. The student of theatre develops an inferiority complex, and to disassociate herself from the cause becomes academically nonchalant – losing out on general benefits the academic experience offers. (This is especially stronger if the student was forced to study theatre, as, sadly, is the case with most.) Some students start out resilient but eventually cave to this myth; others spend four years in confusion, oscillating between dedication to the study and derision towards it.

The practitioner must constantly prove the worth of his profession to the larger section of society who neglect or just don’t care about it (… yet). This makes marketing theatre, a process which is already a chore, A CHORE!!! Some will find themselves, having failed to conquer PDP-and-APC-fueled unemployment, returning to the very studies they neglected for sustenance; then years of nonchalance will return with Piranha-sharp teeth for vengeful bites.

The Reality
Do I need to say Nigerian theatre offers immense value to society? Do I really? We are talking of THE art form which gave us a Nobel Prize winner, need I remind yo’ ass! Thankfully, history suggests theatre will remain valued by the highly cultured; the true arts lover; the seeker of aesthetic joys; the traveller of imagination’s endless acres.

HOWEVER! Practitioners must take responsibility for the perpetuation of this myth. In Universities a lot of theatre arts departments place so so much emphasis on dance, inadvertently reinforcing this myth in the student-audience’s psyche – from there it’s an easy extension into the scathing subtext. Students go through four years of higher education without receiving advanced (sometimes even basic) education on other vast practices in theatre. This constricts the value they place on the study thus enabling rogue behaviour.

Practitioners must enlighten whatever segment of society is within their reach and influence. This need not be a tedious or confrontational activity. Demonstrating expertise the non-practitioner doesn’t possess sets society on a road to realization. The recognition that “this vocation requires a level of skill beyond what I (the layman) has and which only the professional can provide” gives our practice much needed respect for growth. Think of how much reverence filmmaking earns from ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘making of…’ documentaries.

5. THE ‘MESSIAH’ MYTH

The Myth
There is a tale they tell around camp fires in green rooms. Not merely a tale … a prophecy. A prophecy in the ancient book of Thespis which speaks of a great theatre show which one day shall come.

So magnificent a performance shall it be, a never-before-seen splendor in its invocation of spectacle, that it shall revive the entire Nigerian theatre industry. There shall be rejoicing as infrastructure and institutions shall appear out of the very earth and stretch far into the sky. There shall be singing of Eminado and dancing to the music of Don Jazzy again as sponsorship worth millions of naira shall flow steadily from the pockets of telecommunication companies and rich politicians like Loya milk (Looooyaaaa!).

And the people will look at it. And they will know that it is good. And no longer will there be hunger in the land. And no longer will they have to eat Fayose-and-Fayemi flavoured rice.

statue angels

And with the coming of the saviors hammering and chopping of money shall be plentiful.

Among practitioners and investors, you will find some who believe that a single show (the one they are, conveniently, currently working on) will be so successful it will revive the moribund Nigerian theatre industry. Of course it is believed that if this revival is not (conveniently) limited to the myth believers, it will be spearheaded by them. You’ll often find shows, usually large scale ones, stating as their objective: “we hope this performance can revive the theatre industry in Nigeria”. It would be all nice and cheery if this just ended as pretty talk, but yawa dey gas when people start believing it.

The Impact
The constant pursuit of instant success, a defining characteristic of the Nigerian huzzle, holds much blame here. Other times it’s just the pressure of pursuing a passion in an economy more twisted than Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (make I use google form effizzy, o jare!). And sometimes it’s just plain naivety. When the expectation of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune is DASHED by reality’s rocky ground, the effect can be destabilizing.

A great loss of confidence invariably follows – “e no suppose be like this, I suppose don blow by now“. The practitioner having spent the entire production process hyping himself up for the coming of the messiah is left feeling dejected. If he mistakes dejection for disillusionment, he is likely to voluntarily become a chairman of the “there is no future in Nigerian theatre” committee.

If he continues to practice, horrendous project planning haunts the rest of his career. Indeed it was this together with unrealistic expectations from having no well set production goals which screwed dude up in the first place. He throws himself into the constant chase of the messiah or half heartedly executes theatre projects when they come along. Any slim chance there was for business/artistic research and experimentation is gone with the wind (Swish!).

The impact on the investor can be summarized thus: as him money don troway, chairman pack him load run! But let’s delve a bit deeper. The defining impact on the investor who falls prey to this myth is a loss of confidence in theatre’s financial viability. Typically he bails out of the business sharp-sharp. Should he chop liver and remain, it will be marked with a discomfort towards new ideas and approaches; or worse, an inability to take calculated risks. However, henceforth, everything will be done on his terms. Of course he is too busy to go through the paces of acquiring proper knowledge on the business of theatre, so he treats it like any other business. When this equally fails, as is practically inevitable, he grows more convinced that Nigerian theatre is a waste of Naira.

The Reality
Don’t get me wrong, instant success isn’t impossible (though closer examination reveals instant isn’t always as instant as we mythologize it to be). Yes, there are those who rose to fame quicker than a plate of ijebu-garri soaked with half sachet of pure-water, but this isn’t something you plan for. If instant success comes it will be in your favour – except you aren’t prepared for it.

Get your head out of the clouds, but keep them in the sky. Translation: DREAM BIG WITH A PLAN. Short term, mid term, long term – HAVE A PLAN. A realistic plan with measurable goals. And ps: realistic does NOT mean inferior. Plans change or don’t always evolve as expected but organizational skill allows you stay flexible. Reading all the ‘how to’, self help and motivational books in the world is pointless if at the time of ACTION you can’t APPLY.

And can we agree to take a collective chill-pill on the messiah-performance neurosis? The future of Nigerian theatre does not rest on the shoulders of one, two or twenty shows. What will lead us to the gates of the promised land is efficient administration. Development and application of innovative and efficient operational frameworks, achievable in Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions, which will turn these shows we love making from short-lived independent entities into finely woven symbiotic organisms of productivity.

6. THE ‘BANKRUPTCY’ MYTH

The Myth
In the entirety of the english language there are no seven words which spear my heart deeper than these: THERE IS NO MONEY IN NIGERIAN THEATRE. Goodness gracious f@#%ing hell what da actual f@#k?!!!!! Ok … Calm down … Breathe … Breathe … This one stands in contention with the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth for most damaging misconception. Amongst those who propagate this myth the most pertinent are financiers.

Investing money in Nigerian theatre is considered a fool’s venture that ends in a pit of financial wastage. The ardent spokesperson for this myth is commonly an investor whose previous foray into the business of theatre ended in grave financial loss. Or he/she is considering making an investment but witnessed, or heard the gist of, some other person whose dice failed at the gamble.

The belief that the only good kind of arts business is a corporate scale business (see the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth), coupled with having the closest thing to a fully functioning outfit in only one out of 36 states, reinforces the faith that (must thou spear me again, ye words?) there is no money in Nigerian theatre.

atm machine

 

The Impact
Belief in this myth has strangulated the practitioner’s ability to develop a financially sustainable structure for Nigerian theatre. Hence, the industry is almost entirely (if not completely) sponsor-based. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with sponsorship, theatre needs sponsorship (subsidies don’t hurt either, so anytime you’re ready Ministry of Arts and Culture, NICO, NCAC); however no serious business can function sustainably on sponsorship ALONE – and certainly not an ENTIRE industry. But the practitioner’s brain is so hardwired to seek sponsorship he can’t think outside the box. (And believe me, for theatre to blossom we have to think outside the whole freaking box manufacturing factory.)

The sponsor-based business model has more potholes than the road from Ogba junction to retail market (na one road for Lasgidi), and in these crevices lies Nigerian theatre, clawing at sparse patches of available coal-tar. Being not only sponsor-based but corporate sponsor based means we remain snared in the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ myth. The corollary is simple: failing to turn out a large enough number of annual shows to generate broader scale business interest, the industry will struggle to see any appreciable growth, and with this the contorted conviction that “there is no money in Nigerian theatre” will persist – and that’s just a fine ass piece of irony!

More ironic is the counter-approach taken by some investors. Dedicated to the vision of reviving Nigerian theatre, mixed with an appetite for chopping big-time arts money, they come to a strange conclusion. They decide to throw an inordinate amount of money into a commercial theatre set up, doing something like building a theatre house or purchasing a large amount of equipment without any sustainable plan for profitability. The chain of thought (one I cannot wrap my head around!) seems to be: I’m not totally certain how to make money from this business, so I’m going to randomly spend an excessive amount on it and the sheer Voltron force of my money will make it work.

Panic sets in when the cash doesn’t come in as expected. The investor now employs constraints to the point of administrative asphyxiation. Again the courage needed to take calculated risks dissipates. And now he’s pissed! He’s royally pissed! Millions of naira, a fair amount of which could have been well spent on family and/or runs-girls, have gone down the ol’ drain. And what does he blame for this loss? His uninformed business decision? No, he blames it on the Nigerian theatre industry.

The Reality
Keep calm and know there IS money in the Nigerian theatre industry. We are talking of an art which has persisted, thriving sporadically, ever since the 40s – and even further back. It has survived cinema, Nollywood, and television – all of which falsely heralded its doom. Obviously there’s a resilience in there we aren’t harnessing.

Theatre makes money in its own way, this must be understood and accepted (not the same thing, mind you). Though there are similarities commercial theatre for the most part doesn’t function like concerts or galas or launches. It can’t be expected to make money in the same way. It is an art and a business in its own right. It has its constants, variables, gestation periods and birth expectancies. These, alongside much else, must be well grasped if you want to earn back your bucks and then some.

A peculiar reality that must also be confronted is that there is no actual Nigerian theatre industry. We just call it that because … well, wetin else we wan call am? The Nigerian theatre paroles? The Nigerian theatre hustle? Wouldn’t make for intelligent writing in a proposal, would it? The proper infrastructure doesn’t exist. The equipment is far from accessible. The fluidity of capital is turgid. The provided service comes so infrequently market/audience stability is a perpetual struggle. What we have is a semblance of an industry at its thinnest.

Money is almost always invested into theatre shows NOT the theatre industry. Understanding this difference can mean the difference between success and failure. I’ll give one example: money invested into a theatre show can only work for as long as the show is alive i.e its performance run. Since socio-economic factors only allow for brief performance runs, the investment has a specific gestation period (mostly days, often weeks, occasionally a month or two) within which to deliver returns. If you were investing in the theatre industry, the gestation period would be waaaay longer.

Ultimately, be honest with yourself. This is the cornerstone which not only the builder refused but breaking the stronghold of any myth relies on. Understand and accept that the business of theatre isn’t for all-comers. It requires a businessman with a particular set of sensibilities which may not be in your personality. It requires a wealth of passion and courage and not everyone is rich in every way.

There once was no money in Nigerian music and stand up comedy. Artists pursuing careers in those fields were considered fools. Any businessman sowing his money in those fields was an even bigger dodo bird. That was just a little over a decade ago. Today, they are both thriving sectors for artists and investors alike with the music industry possibly reaping more than grandpapa Nollywood. Ask yourself this, what are those industries doing right for themselves that Nigerian theatre isn’t for itself?

And there you have them! The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre! Did you dare brave the treacherous terrains of scrolling and megabyte consumption to read all 6? If so, you’ve just won yourself a loaf of bread to go with the toaster from part 1. Thanks for reading.

READ: The 6 Biggest Myths About Nigerian Theatre (Part 1)

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

African Playwright Africa Ukoh

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 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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