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On Art and the Element of Play

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Great works of art carry a distinct mark about themselves – an element of play. Not play in the sense of drama/theatre but play as imaginative freedom, as unrestrained and childlike creativity. Play as a surpassing of ‘reasoned’ and ‘logical’ approaches to creation and tapping directly into the intuitive, the superior knowing of the aesthete needed for the art to truly be, to come alive.

Perhaps more than ever in the history of civilization, artists must protect this element of play in their works. Stubbornly, determinedly, artists must strive to see this element of play makes it into the final form of the art that reaches its audience.

Art in the 21st century exists against a backdrop of centuries upon centuries of predecessors, and having the methods and products from so so many years means producers/studios/financiers today have a large enough database to restrict (reduce?) art to a formulaic process. This, combined with advances in the craft of marketing which has improved the ability to sell (even questionable creations), means that the element of play becomes, to the producer, bothersome.

Why so? Because the element of play brings a strongly personal and often experimental voice to artistic creations it very often falls outside the scope of ‘creativity’ within the formula which producers and financiers are comfortable with. Also, misconceptions about what constitutes serious art makes some erroneously reject the element of play as juvenility.

For these two reasons (and possibly more?) artists who understand the true power of the element of play in their works must strive that bit extra to guard it. Sometimes this may mean playing the politics of the business behind the show, other times this may require educating the powers that be on the necessity of the element of play to the work.

Sometimes this element of play is enforced by artists who have attained top level of respect in their fields, enough to demand creative control. A favourite example is John Travolta’s reported insistence that the only way he would play the part of Charlie Wax in From Paris with Love is if he got to keep a goatee. The contribution of that element of play to the performance is obvious, Travolta had a blast! (Despite the movie being meeeh.)

Other times this element of play is enforced by unknown artists who merely posses the requisite testicular fortitude or care so much for it they are willing to sacrifice losing the job/contract/deal if that playfulness isn’t going to be part of the work.

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Producers, administrators, marketers, and people from the business side of creative industries will always hold little value for the inclusion of this element of play in artistic works. Often it is those with a background in the artistic side (former artists, appreciation for art developed in childhood, genuine desire for artistic/cultural development) who understand and/or are willing to take chances on the element of play in works of art.

What makes these people unique, and in my opinion, superior, is that they understand the value of creative ingenuity, of the element of play, to the business prosperity of the art. They understand that a work of art needs that incomparable spark, that inexplicable thing which can then be used to the benefit of the work’s financial viability.

Among artists and audiences we find, worrisomely so, a loss of value – or worse, of understanding – for the relevance of the element of play. Two reasons stand out for this: one is caving to the ever growing pressure from the business side to submit to the formula, the factory process of creativity. A second reason is the massive access to massive amounts of information in a global society whose cultural and artistic development isn’t being supported as much as its technological development.

Terms of the suspension-of-disbelief contract seem to have been forgotten, or breached. But not destroyed. Such is the innate beauty of art that at worst valuable aspects can only be forgotten for a very long period of time, but not destroyed. Art is energy, it cannot be destroyed.

However, now is the time to reignite ourselves with the power of play in art. The fire still burns in many. Among the best of humanity’s works of art we find this common thread – the element of play, that freedom and energy and endless possibilities of a child at play. Picasso said it best, “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain a child when one grows up.”

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Whether the creation is comic, dramatic, horrorful, sorrowful, thrilling ecstatic … it is always there. That element of play. It’s Pacino on a saying hello to his “liru fren”. It’s Gaiman playing with gods in America. It’s Fugard murdering Sizwe Bansi. It’s Jim Carey yelling “sssmokin’! ” It’s Soyinka revelling in the duplicity of Baroka. It’s the swagger in Cumberbatch as he adorns Sherlock Holmes’ hat. It’s Coelho alchemising. It’s Sartre in a hell-room with three strangers. It’s Denzel Washington in the final scene of Training Day. It’s Ocampo finding faces in leaves and clouds, finding the beauty of a woman’s curvature in hills and flowers. It’s Rod Serling welcoming you to … It’s Achebe tearing the centre apart. It’s Donne daring death’s pride. It’s Shakespeatre at the steps of the capitol with Mark Anthony. It’s Nas telling you how It Was Written. It’s Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. It is Stan Lee swinging around New York on spider webs. It’s Kendrick Lamar going “Tu-tu-tu-tu!“. It is Okigbo summoning Idoto.

That element of play is an electrifying spark, an erupting force, an indescribable energy that ignites your art. Find it! Create it! Protect it!

“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!

Theatre From Africa: 54 Silhouettes

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I got a theatre show coming up in Jos city “J-town”, Plateau state, Nigeria. Watch this space from lots of awesome photos from rehearsals and performance.
Find out more here: http://wp.me/p2VHfW-HP

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Coming Soon: “54 Silhouettes” a play written and directed by Africa Ukoh

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I GOT SOMETHING COOKING!!

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