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Zola’s Story: A Master Lesson for the 21st Century Screenwriter

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Money, sex, kidnap, murder, Zola’s story – a neo-noir black comedy told with savvy grit – has it all and then some! You’ve probably read or heard of the story, the tale of a wild (or hell maybe regular) weekend in Florida as told by Aziah King @_zolarmoon.

Zola’s story isn’t just a great read, it’s actually a great study on how to tell a compelling story especially holding the contemporary audience-storyteller climate in consideration. I tried and successfully failed at resisting the urge to go all nerd-writer and do a structural analysis of Zola’s story, henceforth titled Florida Nights, and that’s basically what this post is.

So here I breakdown the nuts and bolts that make up Florida Nights and how they work to make the story compelling. Being such a visually vivid tale, and being a scriptwriter, I naturally assess it from the angle of a screenplay.

My focus isn’t whether the story is true or false but for the purposes of examination I treat it as a work fiction. This post is merely a structural analysis of the tale and is not in any way concerned with or a reflection of the broader (controversial?) issues surrounding the story and their implications.

If you haven’t read Zola’s story click any of these two links and read it before going any further:

Zola’s story on the Complex website.

Zola’s story on Huffington Post.

If you have read it, then let the analytic games begin! (sfx: dramatic theme music.)

THE PLOT

Florida Nights is told in such a fluid manner that I feel bad about reducing it to its key plot components, but well, necessary evils and all that. The story can be broken down to a three-act structure of sorts:

Act I

Exposition – working at a Hooters restaurant in Detroit, Zola meets Jessica, a fellow stripper. The two exchange contacts, promising to hook up on a stripping job. Jessica soon invites Zola on a trip to Florida. Cautious but enticed by the money-making prospects, Zola links up with Jessica, Jarrett (Jessica’s boyfriend) and Z (Jessica’s pimp).

Inciting incident – after failing to make any money on their first night out, Z suggests the girls go trapping (stripper slang for “sex work”) and Jessica agrees.

Act II

Rising action – Zola helps Jessica attract a high number of sex customers. Jarrett discovers Jessica went trapping and blows his top. Z humiliates Jarrett and orders him to drive Jessica to meet other customers. Jessica goes to a hotel to meet a customer and gets kidnapped.

Climax – Z goes to the hotel where Jessica was snatched. He shoots the kidnapper and makes a run for it with Jessica.

Act III

Falling action – Z sends Zola and Jarrett back to Detroit while he, his fiancé and Jessica remain in Florida to keep trapping.

Resolution – back in Detroit, Zola receives a collect call from Jessica who has ended up in a Las Vegas jail with Z. She reveals to Zola that Z is wanted for trafficking and murder. She asks Zola to help bail her out or get Jarrett to help. Zola declines, wanting nothing to do with any of them. Zola later learns Jarrett has a new girlfriend and Jessica is also in a new relationship and expecting a baby.

Now let’s look at features which contribute to Florida Nights being such a compelling story:

The set up

Probably the most popular way of setting up a plot is through a climactic plot. A climactic plot is basically the hook which is meant to keep the audience curious to the very end (e.g Will Neo become “the one”?). However, decades and decades of movies and series have seen audiences become so accustomed to climactic plots they scarcely carry any genuine weight anymore.

Movies have largely failed, or refused, to adapt to the 21st century’s audience’s familiarity with climactic plots. Thus their presentation has become so formulaic they have mostly lost the additive value of excitement and anticipation. Most hooks end up presented with mechanical drabness, as if the storytellers (studios, producers, directors, scriptwriters) are prescribing an analgesic – you know what it will do, so just take it.

Florida Nights does NOT do this. Rather than a clear cut climactic plot (e.g will Zola make it back to Detroit alive?), the story looms with a pervading sense of something. An uneasiness that suggests things are going to get ugly. But the story doesn’t define this something and never presents it, rather it lets it unravel as we meet the characters and begin to understand the interplay of character relationships.

Zola starts the story by letting us know it’s about a falling out, so we begin knowing things will go wrong. Knowing they are strippers we have a suspicion of what could go wrong, but the mastery of the telling is in not hinting at how things will erupt by putting forward the stakes. Instead Zola’s story makes us wait and watch as the pieces fall in place like a game of Tetris then fall apart like a house of cards.

We can identify the hook as “will Zola make it through the weekend”, yet Zola manipulates this hook expertly. “Bitch you got me fucked up! I’m not about to play with you ho. I’m going home!” This is the first line in which Zola suggests the climactic plot’s angle yet she immediately switches it by feeling pity for Jessica when the latter starts crying.

Essentially, Zola goes from wanting to escape the weekend to wanting to see Jessica through it and not minding making some money while hating the weekend. The climactic plot is distorted from its typical linear format and turned into a zigzag. The hook doesn’t latch unto us, it sinks into our skins. Slowly. Patiently. Disbursing sensation across our senses.

Conflict

Key to a great story is conflict; a gripping interplay of forces that drive characters such that the tale remains in a continuous eruption of fluctuating tensions. Conflict is very simply about a clash of desires. That’s all. How this clash is complicated or simplified is up to the writer.

Three prominent problems with conflict in lots of today’s movies are:

  1. The save the world factor – which is basing conflicts on overly grand scales arising from the erroneous assumption that being bigger will make more people relate to the conflict.
  2. Forcing the conflict – which is a) failing to establish a strong link between the characters and their desires, and b) failing to establish unique desires and counter-desires. Both cases lead to the use of generic or cliché clash/interplay of desires.
  • Cushioning – which is softening the degree of crises involved in the conflict (maybe the writer goes soft on his characters, maybe the producer or studio goes chicken) thus depleting the emotional and psychological impact of the story.

Florida Nights deftly avoids each of these pitfalls.

The scale of the conflict is very personal. In fact, the story never leaves the world of these particular sex workers before us. This draws us into it wholly because that’s how highly personal conflict works. We all, after all, identify with wanting something desperately, whether trivial or major.

We are never left in doubt about the value of these desires to each of them. Being sex workers they all have a common desire – getting paid, but the clash comes from what they are willing to open themselves to in pursuit of the Benjamins. Two crucial characters in this regard are Z and Jarrett.

Z, being the dominant physical presence, lords himself over everyone, forcing them into situations they may opt out of where it not for him. This factor of forcefulness is vital to the sense of danger in the conflict.

Jarrett, being the only one who isn’t a sex worker, provides a very important counter balance to Z’s bulldozing. He doesn’t need Z and he interferes with Z’s desire (Jessica). Despite his physical weakness, structurally Jarett is a very strong character. Conflict wise, he’s a crucial opposition, keeping Z’s character from running amock unchecked.

As far as cushioning goes Florida Nights pulls no punches. The tale unveils its world the way it was seen by our point of view character. Whether that is or isn’t too much is left to you.

Subtext

One thing Florida Nights does well is that it never comes off as being on the sleeve. Our point of view character, Zola, guides – and perhaps, suggests – what our feelings should be but never such that it feels like we are being told what to feel or think, or what stance to take.

We live the entire story through Zola’s eyes, and expressing her feelings towards the occurrences rather than about them allows the story’s subtext rise to the precise level it needs to be – just beneath the surface where we can see enough of it to tempt us to dive in further.

The wild adventures of the weekend stretch from the very beginning to the very end, permitting only very little time when the drama of events isn’t revolving. Structurally this is a stroke of genius. It allows the story maintain momentum without forcing the characters into a position where they reflect on the situations which would compromise the subtext.

Suspense

A major reason the suspense works is because the writer understands a crucial factor about suspense – it’s all about information. What is there to be known? Who knows it? When does it become known to other characters? When does it become known to the audience?

These four questions are the pillars of suspense. Great suspense is created from the manipulation of these four points, the more the information moves around those four questions in a non-linear manner, the more complex the suspense.

In Florida Nights, even basic information which other stories may toss aside becomes fodder for suspense. Take Z for example, for a quarter of the story we and our point of view character, Zola, don’t know his name – an uneasy feeling for a “”hulking black” stranger we just took an interstate trip with.

Then just when he is threatening to kill someone we learn his name – Z. A single letter. In that subtly blistering moment when Jessica cries, “don’t kill him Z, just kick his ass”, Z is simultaneously humanised and dehumanised. We learn his name yet more mystery is instantly thrown on it: what does Z stand for? Why just the one letter? Why that letter?

Contrast

Black comedies are tough to execute. The line between humour and darkness is very thin, and in today’s highly cause-oriented society it has become even thinner. Yet Florida Nights straddles it excellently.

The contradiction between Zola’s narration and the grim nature of the events leaves us in a restless middle point – we laugh at the situations, we laugh with Zola, yet we are appalled by the dismal happenings and at our delight towards them. This middle point is the Shangri-La of black comedy.

The contrast executed thus keeps us bouncing between distanced participation (which allows us laugh at the situations) and closer introspection (which makes us discard laughter and take a serious look at things). It’s the mirror-image technique used exquisitely and this becomes key to the story’s moral ambiguity (examined below).

A second way contrast works in the story is an adept manipulation of vulnerability. The general rule of vulnerability is: the most vulnerable person in the scene is the strongest one in it. Florida Nights applies this rule to .

The characters are stripped of their guards and laid bare. This exposure of everyone’s vulnerability creates a dynamic flow of ever-present energy. At any point in time this energy from vulnerability is surging through individual characters or the entire group. This is why it works so well as an ensemble cast.

For the audience this energy becomes a constant feeling of thrill. A feeling which doesn’t slump when the energy of one or two characters slows down, because when one character’s surge takes a breather, the surge of another rises and fills the space. And when the vulnerabilities of all characters collide (the scene where Z has sex with Jess in front of Jarrett, the scene where Z rescues Jessica, the scene where Jarrett attempts suicide) what beautifully smouldering intensity erupts.

Another intriguing aspect of vulnerability is in the relationship between the viewers and Zola the narrator. Zola’s control of the story as its narrator contrasts her lack of control in the events of it. And to be able to tell a story from the position of one who is now safe yet create a gripping sense of danger really is masterful. For the viewer that middle point is again evident – we are safe with Zola as she tells this tale yet at risk of harm as she is in it.

Moral ambiguity

“In the place where there is neither good nor evil there is a field, I will meet you there”. If this quote from Rumi was advice to writers it would read, “…I will write you there”. If you’re not interested in a didactic tale and also want to create a work that will stir group debates and personal reflections, you need to embrace moral ambiguity.

Discard notions of good and bad, forget right and wrong, toss aside black and white and allow your characters embrace the beautiful shades of morally ambiguous grey.

Two lessons from Florida Nights about moral ambiguity.

Firstly, no moral judgment is passed on any character/situation by the characters or the narrator. And if any is suggested it is weighted with a counterbalance so as to keep the scales in the ambiguous zone.  Secondly, the story’s central character relationship – Zola and Jessica – is also where the strongest moral ambiguity lies. This allows the ambiguity to seep into other characters/character relationships connected to the centre.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding moral ambiguity in the story is: does Zola abuse Jess by pimping her?

Voice

Much has been said by others about Zola’s narrative voice so I’ll just highlight two other key angles to it. One reason it works so well is because Zola genuinely sounds like she’s talking to a friend or a close knit group of friends.

The presence of this quality, more importantly than being in the style of the narration, is in the energy of it. That indescribable quality we can’t or don’t want to put into words but which resonates with us.

The second aspect of vitality to the narrative voice is how extremely personal it is. The narration is ZOLA talking to us. ZOLA. Not a stripper. Not an ex-stripper. Not a ghetto girl. Not an African-American woman. If any of these aspects are present in the voice they are present merely as that – aspects, features. But at the heart of Florida Nights is a story told not by a stereotype or an archetype but by Zola aka Aziah King aka @_zolarmoon.

Contemporary Awareness

The last thing I’ll say about Zola’s story is the reason it is a master-lesson for 21st century screenwriters.

Writing for a globally linked world which has access to over a century’s worth of cinematic content, the 21st century screenwriter (and filmmakers as a whole) is in a peculiar position. Additionally, the information age has long burst the bubble of exclusivity to the tricks of the trade.

Hence, just like a corporation announcing its quarterly reports for public scrutiny, today’s audience is or can be as aware of the traits of storytelling as the storytellers themselves. The challenge then for the storytellers is to be able to use the same tools which audiences are conversant with to entertain that very same audience.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge on the creativity of storytellers, the answer is very simple: tell your stories from your unique perspective. That perspective of you as a person. Bring to the tale that indescribable quality which can only be present if you tell it the way you know how to.

This is the summation of what Zola does in her story. The components used are not new, nor does she reinvent any but she uses them in a way no one else but Zola can.

Naturally the long-standing factory process of filmmaking frowns at the individual voice, it goes against the factory formula. Boosted by advances in the marketing industry mainstream cinema will persist with factory processed films for as long as it can. And if history will, as it almost always does, go in a circle, we will at some point revolve into a period where the individual perspective will become the thrust of mainstream stories once more.

And that’s that! And like Zola said, if you stuck with this analysis to the very end, you’re absolutely awesome!

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Writer’s Dictionary: Subtext

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Subtext
n.

1. A process in which a writer figures out exactly what he/she wants to say in his/her writing then says it in such a way that is isn’t exactly said.
2. The thirdly deadly weapon of scriptwriting.

The characters need to be very complex, so that makes the subtext all the more important.

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.

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.

Writer’s Dictionary: White Board

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White board
n.

A thing or (preferably) person upon which a writer throws all his/her ridiculous ideas so as to open up mental and creative space for the ingenious ideas to flow in.

Writing the final scenes was a headache but once Esther came in as my white board I was able to figure out the ending.

v.
White-boarding

To serve as a white board for someone, typically a writer.

I love white-boarding for John whenever he starts writing new work.

“54 Silhouettes” in Pictures

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Last year ended on a theatrical high as NovemberDecember saw the premiere and 3 follow up performances of my (warning: shameless plug alert) double award winning play (BBC African Performance, 2011; and Stratford East/30 Nigeria House, 2012) 54 Silhouettes. Great fun and lots of lessons learned.

Being a theatre artist in Nigeria is like jumping out of a helicopter with no parachute over the Grand Canyon. It’s an industry that has no central financial source, hasn’t been able to build a stable audience base for decades and suffers from a paucity of creative business approaches – despite the various institutions which exist to support it.

Regardless, so strong is the love for theatre in some that we jump out of that helicopter over the Grand Canyon without parachutes because underneath our skin we feel the relentless itching of wings desiring to explode. I can’t wait to put so much of my thoughts on Nigerian (African?) theatre into writing and share with you guys. Until then, do enjoy pictures from 3 nights of performances of 54 Silhouettes. (Ps: you can listen to the BBC World Service’s abridged audio version of the play here.)
All photos are courtesy of the brilliant Timothy Aideloje (@jtimdal).

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“54 Silhouettes” Written & Directed by Africa Ukoh Hits the Stage

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This November, the premier production of my (self-tooting horn alert) double award winning play “54 Silhouettes” finally hits the stage!

Where? Alliance Française, Jos
When? 16th November
By? 5pm
For? N500

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You can listen to an abridged radio version of the play produced by the BBC World Service here. And check out other stories here, here, here, and here.

It’s time we paint Africa!

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