AiW Guest: Pelu Awofeso
Actor and performance coach Toyin Oshinaike is teaching 80 thespians in an actors’ workshop at the Lagos Theatre Festival (28 Feb-5 March); all on their feet and attentive, they form a large rectangular ring around him. “Sometimes you dip gently into the water and sometimes you dive in,” he begins. ‘In theatre, we dive in; and if you’re drowning, we’ll rescue you.”
Life’s a script
Oshinake’s task this Tuesday morning is to ground the greenhorns especially in the basics of acting and at the same time help them shake off the fright and nervousness that comes with facing an audience. To do this, he employs a blend of morale-boosting tactics: first, he shares some lessons learned in the course of his own acting journey spanning 25 odd years; then motivating snippets that highlight his own rise through the ranks, from a self-driven young adult in the 1980s to a known and regarded name in the performing arts.
In-between demonstrations, he throws in meditation exercises, impromptu workouts and rib-tickling sound bites. “The actor is not a puppet,” he says, shortly after the participants have introduced themselves. “As an actor, you bring finesse to the script.”
His teaching style mixes the comical with the strict and by turns draws laughter and deadpan attentiveness from his listeners. He stresses the importance of discipline and concentration for anyone who desires to succeed in acting and the fact that an actor should always humanize whatever roles he’s been given.
“It’s part of your preparation—nothing more,” he says at some point, taking slow and measured steps back and forth. “I didn’t start acting from my mother’s womb. I didn’t go to any university to learn how to act. I chanced upon workshops. I took opportunities.”
Opportunity is what the Lagos Theatre Festival has provided hundreds of performers since 2013, when it was launched by the British Council “to foster exchange and collaboration between Nigerian and British artists through the presentation of high quality Nigerian and British theatre”.
More money, more audiences
A good number of the individuals in the room are part of 500 actors and crew that will feature in 70 performances in 16 different locations around the host city in six days. Downstairs, inside the Freedom Park, the festival’s main hub, participating theatre companies rehearse their presentations; and everywhere around them, artisans carve out multiple spaces for the festival’s curated and fringe shows.
This year, the organisers expect a larger turnout. “Last year we estimated that 4 out of 10 people who heard about the festival came to the festival grounds,” says Artistic Director Kenneth Uphopho, when he had a free moment to sit down for a chat. “This year, we expect a conversion rate of seven out of ten.”
Uphopho, who’s been in the theatre trade as a dancer, actor and, recently, director, for some two decades has good reasons to back his projections. There has been a rebirth in Lagos of quality live theatre, some of them big-budget productions that pull in audiences by the hundreds with tours abroad to boot, as exemplified in the musicals Saro and Wakaa and the plays Hear Word and V-Monologues. And not to mention the return of classics like Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame, and the rise of more contemporary plays by like Itan (The Story) and Shattered that explore themes the younger generation can relate with.
“The audience for theatre has increased in the last three to four years because there is a growing trust of consistent theatre month in and month out,” Uphopho says on the festival’s opening evening. “The culture of theatre going is gradually coming back. People now understand that there is an artistic, entertaining and commercial element to plays. Besides, we are trying to make our play more interactive.”
Live theatre and performances flourished in Nigeria before and after independence; then the local economy fell on bad times and the audiences diminished and then disappeared completely.
“In the past, we had over 170 professional groups who travelled around the country and lived of their craft,” says Prof. Femi Osofisan, delivering a keynote address at the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Conference, which held on the sidelines of the festival. “By the end of the 1980s, we had gone from oil boom to oil doom, most of that money had been squandered. A great social insecurity came after this. People became poor, lost jobs and so on. A lot of criminality began in the cities and urban areas and it became impossible to go out at night to watch movies and plays.”
The country has come full circle and things are looking up. Lagos State has already announce that it has approved a contract to build six new theatres across the state and it is partnering with the federal government to revamp the long disused National Theatre, built in the 1970s. What’s more: In 2016, the British Council signed an MoU with the government of Nigeria to help boost the country’s under-valued and under-performing creative industries.
“Never has the saying been truer that if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,” says Connie Price, British Council’s Country Director in Nigeria, in her welcome remarks on the festival’s opening day. “Through our collaboration, we are reaching new audiences which allow us to ensure that the arts, like education and healthcare are not the preserve of the elite few but for everyone.”
The sound of Lagos
The plays for 2017 have been selected to fit into the year’s theme: “Rhythm of the City”. So they explore vastly contemporary subjects: disability (Ijakadi; Planet of Inclusion), romance (Yoruba Romance), LGBTQ (Sisi Pelebe), feminism & infidelity (Wedding Blues); family (sour carrots); violence & incest (You Must Be Mad, Yes you!), rape and ambition (The Audition), displacement (Refugee Saga) and much more.
“The theme was selected to capture through performance, the sounds of Lagos expressed in the comings and goings, the repetitive activities and the music of the city,” according to a piece on the British Council website. “We hope to see work created that reflects specific auditory perspectives like noises, rhythm, beats, language, etc. from a range of socio economic and geographic groupings across Lagos.”
It must be said that Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and entertainment hub, is like no other Nigerian city: it has a vibe, energy and an air all its own. It’s as much a hustler’s paradise as it is a spirited metropolis. “If you’re born in Lagos or if you’ve lived in Lagos for a while, you will hear your own noise, something you can relate to in the play,” says Zara Udofia, whose Oxygen Concepts is producing one of the festival’s five curated shows, A Slice of Good Things, the story about young Lagosians who have to survive and succeed through the city’s almost ceaseless clatter and the sheer greed of patrons. “It is that noise and rowdiness that drive us along.”
If any of the festival plays exemplifies ‘noise’ that is the character of Lagos and the pressure Lagosians feel to survive, raise a family and thrive by all means necessary in the city of 20 million, then it must be One Chance (written by Bode Asiyanbi), which takes a light-hearted jab at Nigeria’s social failings using Lagos as a prism.
In it the audiences encounter everyday people in the city doing their bit to eke out a living and who cross paths at some time or the other: a bell-wielding preacher promising miracles and healing, so long as his patrons do not fail to pay their tithes; a suave banker who needles traders until they open accounts, which help him to meet his targets and keep his job; an aspiring musician plots his own abduction to get his mother, a petty trader, to pay a ransom so he can book recording sessions at a studio downtown.
None of this scenario is new. “These issues have been with us since independence [October 1960],” says director Tunji Sotimirin, a lecturer at the University of Lagos. “The first generation of Nigerian writers put issues like these in their stories back then.”
Wedding Blues (written by Joy Isi-Bewaji) goes all tense and touchy-feely, engaging the audience in what’s more like a conversation between two generations, the one rooted in indigenous precept and the other, weaned on millennial culture. On the morning of her wedding, a young bride is tutored by her parents on the do’s and dont’s of life after spinsterhood. She is told that to be a wife is to measure up to her husband’s expectations, meet his every need and do his bidding at all times.
Amidst the pomp and ceremony, the bride, by now disillusioned and having a headache, feels unqualified and unprepared for that role. “A lot of the message in this play speaks to the family and the society,” says producer Bikiya Graham-Douglas at rehearsals. “It just makes us confront how unreasonable we as a society can be sometimes.”
Still Single in Gidi (written by Sheila Ojei) toes a similar track, offering social commentary on what it’s like to be single in Lagos. Says the producer: “This play will make you think about the weight of societal pressures on unmarried persons.”
After this year’s hugely successful outing, Uphopho is already looking at making the 2018 edition even bigger. “Some of our international collaborators have called already to say they will be part of it,” he says. “We hope to use the LTF to attract more tourists and the spending power that comes with it.”
Pelu Awofeso is an award-winning travel writer and culture reporter. Author of three books, he also blogs at wakaabout.wordpress com. Read more about Pelu’s travel writing in this interview with Africa in Words.