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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