50 gbosas for culture amazon, Bolanle Austin-Peters
Nigeria is now becoming more sophisticated to the extent that people can follow their passion, and it’s because we created this platform. When we started, not up to three years now, nobody believed in it… What we are doing here, it’s a revolution. By the time we have a proper stage it will be a completely different thing.”
The above captures Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters’ foray into musical theatre production, and how she has succeeded in changing the narrative, for good. And indeed, there is a sense in being an internationalist, in bringing experiences and passions garnered in foreign lands through travels into concrete and actionable objectives and programmes. It is what Austin-Peters has transformed into a cultural business for which the audience has continued to ask for more.
Having travelled to some of the best places around the world and having savoured the cultural programmes on offer, she wondered why the situation was different back in Nigeria. That was what motivated her to set up Terra Kulture in 2003, which started first as a hub for local languages’ teaching to young ones, an art exhibition centre and which also offers Nigeria’s rich cuisines. Eventually, the hall, which mostly served as venue for corporate events, soon changed according to the changing dynamics of Nigeria’s cultural offerings. It then threw its doors open to budding theatre companies, which lacked venues to stage their plays.
That was how Theatre@Terra was born, and Wole Oguntokun’s Renegade, Kenneth Uphopho’s PAWSTUDIOS, Ikenna Jude Opala’s Wazobia, and other young theatre groups got their groove plying their craft at Terra Kulture hall. Of course, the audience was small, almost grudging in numbers. Sometimes, five audience members will sit through an hour’s play performance.
Obviously, Austin-Peters was watching the trend with keen interest, but she didn’t want to do the usual. She had her eyes set on bigger things. Then Fela! On Broadway hit Lagos stage at Eko Hotel. It became the turning point for Austin-Peters. It was as though a raw nerve had been seared in her heart. Why would foreigners bring Nigeria’s own Fela to them for an insane amount?
She did her mathematics, and arrived at her own conclusions. If a foreigner could insult Nigerians with that kind of Fela, surely Nigerians could do a lot better.Thus emerged Bolanle Austin-Peters Production (BAP), the theatre production arm of Tera Kulture. And today BAP has become a force of nature, as it has singlehandedly reengineered Lagos cultural landscape, with its mouth-watering offerings in the last four years. BAP’s offerings so far include Saro, Wakaa, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, and the last collaborative offering, Moremi the Musical. These productions signpost a shift in theatre tradition.
She confesses that one of the influences on her life is the legendary Afrobeat king, Fela. According to her, “I love Fela, which inspired some of our musicals and we have used one particular piece he sang: Water no get enemy, and it occurred to me that you can’t fight water no matter what.”
After staging Saro the Musical at Oriental Hotel and Wakaa at MUSON Centre, Austin-Peters realised how badly the absence of purposed-built theatres were hurting theatre practice in the country. These makeshift venues charged an arm and a leg for less than charming performance value. This would motivate her to build Terra Theatre Arena in record time so she could take charge of the entire value chain of her productions, as is customary in civilised climes, where repertory theatre is a culture. She energises Christmas holidays with her performances.
Although Terra Theatre Arena may not be the entire solution to the absence of platforms for stage production, it is a significant step in the right direction. Her ingenuity in spotting prime business in an area otherwise previously seen as making poor returns on investment prompted Lagos State government to select Austin-Peters to handle the proposed six theatres across the state to counteract the comatose and wasting National Theatre that has since become a blight to the state’s performance landscape.
Austin-Peters’ uncanny ability for reviving belief in a theatre sector that has lain comatose for many years stands her out, as an Amazon who dared to thread where trained thespians had thrown up their hands in apparent despair and defeat. Nollywood became the only beacon for trained thespians, but even that sector has its own ugly baggage that has undermined its ascendancy. Now thespians can look forward to the stage as a place to ply their craft, because one woman dared to believe and invested her energy and talent to make it where to be. And because of Nollywood’s less sterling offerings, having exhausted its goodwill and initial novelty, Nigerians can once again step out of their homes and troop out to the stage to see a play in their numbers.
For Austin-Peters, it is not all about making good business out of theatre; she also deploys her theatre for social campaigns as well. BAP’s ongoing production is Election Fever, which deals with issues about elections and the correct behaviour to adopt all through the process. Ford Foundation is funding it. Three years ago, she also went to some secondary schools in the state with Batoga, a play that harps on the dangers of child abuse and trafficking.
Terra Kulture has made significant strides in visual arts practice, not just with her gallery but the auctions that have been held to energise the sector and raise it to international standards. She, alongside other gallery owners, through their activities over the years, has taken Nigerian visual arts to the global arena through exposures and other formats.
One area of concern to Austin-Peters is the potential for youth talent the culture sector could engage and take off the streets and crime and other vices. Nigeria, she often says, has a rich tradition that can be commoditised for job creation, but it has sadly been left to fallow. Her job, as she clearly defines it, is clear – harness artistic avenues out of Nigeria’s rich culture and get it to produce jobs for her youth talent that would have otherwise gone to waste. And she is making a fine job of it. With not less than 60 persons working in every production at the same time in a period of three months, what employment possibility could be bigger than that?
She has, in a way, liberalised the space, and others are following her footsteps and have kept widening it to accommodate others, who keep more youth talents out of unemployment. That is the quintessential Mrs. Austin-Peters, a woman whose passion for developing the arts is so infectious corporate Nigeria, which ordinarily doesn’t believe in what the art community is doing, has begun to take a serious look in. Why? She has large numbers to her side, one major requirement that has been lacking until now.At 50, Austin-Peters deserves all the cheers for her doggedness and commitment to her passion for the arts.
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