How theatre-makers’ conservatism hurt the business of the craft
Kenneth and Brenda Uphopho are two cultural producers, who are working a quiet magic on the theatre turf. The Lagos Theatre Festival, which they produce, comes up on Friday, February 28 through Sunday, March 5, 2017, is so dear to their heart. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUORU and ENIFOME UKODIE, the couple outlines the festival highlights and gives indications to some of the constraints that limit theatre in the country
Looking at this year’s festival, what should theatre-lovers expect?
Kenneth: So, one of the key objectives of the festival or one other objective of the festival, apart from learning is development and trying to become a marketable festival. We want to make this festival become a world class festival of inclusion, one that includes everybody across the border.
For the first time, we are going to be incorporating a play for people with disabilities. It is such an exciting thing and we are really looking forward to it. Last year, we did theatre for children; we have expanded on that. We have some festivals included in the festival this year that are dedicated to children. We have some shows dedicated to children. This particular one for people with disabilities is a special one for us; we want to welcome those people into the festival this year.
How are you reaching out to bring them in?
Kenneth: As part of the build-up to the festival, we had workshops; we had call-outs. There is a particular company, led by Katie; she is based in Bariga, Lagos. Her focus is on developing work for people with disabilities.
Brenda: It is not just for them to come; the performances will be by children with special needs; you know, the ones that use wheelchairs and Down Syndrome children. They will be the ones performing.
Kenneth: We have a plug-in for the festival; they are bringing all their activities, all their gaming, their comic workshops, their panel discussion and all of that. They are bringing these as part of the Lagos Theatre Festival. So, this year would be much more than what we had last year, in terms of programming, not in terms of the length of performances. It is more robust; the diversity is more.
What is the theme for this year’s festival?
Kenneth: ‘Rhythm of the City.’
Brenda: The festival is really based on two parts. There is the curated part of the festival and there is the fringe. What happen was, in 2013, the first time they did the festival, they just called production companies and asked them to take part, and they did that. The following year, we realised that it wasn’t enough, because what had happened was that, people watched the plays and after they left. We thought that it should be more festival-like and so we started the evening programming, where we would get already existing platforms like Taruwa, Open Mic, and invited them to the festival. So, that people were still around, enjoying performances. When we went to the Brighton Festivals we realised that that fringe part we were trying to develop, in other countries, it is actually a very big festival on its own.
So, we decided that we were going to call them, and give them the same opportunities. The only difference was that, for their curated festivals, they were not funded. What we could do for them was a space to perform, the marketing, the exposure on the platform, everything in general. We even supported them technically; we supported them with welfare, but we couldn’t just pay them.
However, they could keep their earnings at the gate-takings and what we also realised was that we wanted to expand and get more venues on board. So, we started trying to educate the venues on the importance and the impact of the festival, why the festival is necessary. And then we started making it look more profitable by telling them that whatever is earned at the gate, we will give a certain per centage. So that way the festival becomes more sustainable, you understand?
Could you trace the origin of this festival? How did the idea come into being?
Kenneth: The British Council, at some point, realised that theatre producers didn’t have enough space to do their work. There was also the case of Site-Specific theatre becoming the norm or new trend in the U.K. and Site-Specific involves you creating work and allowing you display your work in response to the space. So, they tried to tie those ideas together.
In Nigeria, you know we don’t have space. Site-Specific theatre encourages you to work out of the traditional spaces, where you can do work at non-conventional spaces. This how it started, and that is why they did the festival in 2013.
Site-Specific Theatre like you staged at the Presidential Suite at Eko Hotel, with Shattered?
Kenneth: Yes. But because it was new in a sense, the initial plays that they got at the time were adapted to suit the venues. So in 2014, they now decided that okay, ‘now that we have produced that festival perhaps it’s time to try and make it homegrown, that is, make it more organic. These theatre-makers that we are trying to curate into the festival should produce the next one.’ So, they did a call to the production companies to collaborate and produce the festival. That was how we came on board and from 2014 till now, we have been the ones at the helm of affairs in expanding the festival, in both design and strategy. But the British Council Nigeria has always helped at the back-end with the administrative part of it; the major part of the funding has come from the sponsors. And that has to be justified on paper, of course. So, in terms of learning as well, and capacity building, they have shown all the roads in project management. The back-end side of managing something as huge as this, they have provided that support from their own angle. That is where we are now.
2017 is the fourth edition, but the third edition that we are managing as the producers.
Brenda: One thing we realised when we came on board was the lack of stories that were Site-Specific. There was nothing like that.
So, how did you fill the gap?
Brenda: we did a marriage. What we started doing was, first of all, we started speaking to writers; what we did was to guide them. We did a call-out for a competition, and we made it competitive. We realised that we should talk to young playwrights; you know, engage them. So we did that competition, and made them go through a process of workshop – you learn, you re-write your script, and then you submit, from start to finish.
We have developed a minimum of six good new writers playwrights, writers that their voices have never been heard. In fact, one of them, Paul Ugbede, went on to win Beeta Universal Arts Foundation prize. This is someone, who has been writing for so many years. The competition is so open that there are people sending in scripts from Australia, and from everywhere and then they go through these workshops.
Professor Ahmed Yerima has been so gracious. From the first day, he has been on the project; he has come to Lagos every time we have the competition. In 2016, we had him for two whole days, going through scripts, talking about them, reading them; you won’t know how tedious teaching can be. It is such a prized workshop that I always feel sorry for writers who don’t come in. So, that is another legacy project that is part of the festival.
Kenneth: That is one area that has, in a way, suffered; the writers have stopped dreaming.
So, apart from the Soyinkas, the JP Clarks, and the Femi Osofisans, what has the outlook of play writing been in the country?
Kenneth: The output of playwrights in the intervening years has been so thin. It is almost non-existent.
So, is this workshop like a bridge of sorts?
Kenneth: Yes. Yes!
Are there possibilities of publishing the scripts that came out of these workshops?
Kenneth: Yes! Last year we tried to do a couple. It is one of the dreams in the pipeline.
Brenda: It is in our dream book somewhere. Maybe one day somebody would fund it, to publish the book so that people can have access to it.
Why don’t you do a small anthology that is a bit manageable in terms of cost first?
Kenneth: We were hoping to speak with publishers, who would give us good ideas. We were hoping to do a Coffee Table edition first. That is why the first step was to do the Coffee Table Book. So, in doing 50 books, for instance, you have a launching and invite people to come see it. Then the money that is realised from that is used to further print more books.
One of the other legacies from this festival would be to go international. We are accommodating more international acts. The turnout of the applications we got came from Argentina, Brazil, South Africa… So, more people are hearing about the festival and they are interested in it. It has gone beyond just the Nigeria-U.K. series now.
There are a lot of book and arts festivals in Nigeria, but hardly any specifically on theatre. In each of the festivals, drama is like a sidekick, with prose and poetry dominating, but drama seems to be on the margin. Is this not the case?
Brenda: Even before we started the festival, getting new materials was such a challenge. We have gotten to the point where production houses, were in a way, arguing over “I am going to do so-so play this year; I am not going to do so-so play this this year!”
Kenneth: The content of the work out there were not plays that you wanted to do. They were easy and interesting to read but the scope of producing them takes years. You know, you just thought of the production cost of actualising them and you’re like, ‘please, just let it go.’ So, theatre was marginalised but there were festivals, only that they were not taken seriously by the craftsmen, the theatre-makers themselves, do you understand? So, there was FESTINA; that one went on for years. That that festival should still be around now, and bigger. Look at the Lagos Poetry Festival they just started, see how big they make noise. I think that is the fundamental problem with theatre-makers. We don’t make much noise; we are very conservative. We are very ‘cerebral and artistic.’ So, we forget the business out of this craft. There is a business side to show business. We do the show and forget the business. That is why we feel marginalised. Nobody marginalises us; we marginalise ourselves.
The business side of theatre and the arts generally has been pretty much lacking. Now, with your experiences in the past three to four years with the British Council, how much of the business side of theatre do you think has not been tapped?
Kenneth: All aspects of theatre have not been tapped.
Brenda: First things first; we have one major challenge; the structures and venues are not available. This has greatly impacted the business because, if you spend a lot of money to use a space to produce, it starts to affect your margin. By the time you are giving an investor the number, because it is a game of numbers, it just doesn’t sell. The real truth is, all around the world, for a theatre production to break even, you have to do plenty number of shows and those shows are not in tens; they are in hundreds. For a theatre company carrying out production to become very successful at it, to make money from it, that production has to be around for years and years and years.
That is where the money comes in, after the first couple of years, you understand, because the investment is now reaping, and the production costs are going down. But, unfortunately, because we don’t have purpose-built venues for us here, it becomes quite draining to be able to pay hundreds and hundreds of thousands of naira, one million, two million to be able to put up these productions. And this is for a production of one week, just one week. Some are one-day or two-day shows, most of the time.
In your book of dreams, how are you purposing to overcome this challenge?
Brenda: I mean, we are still here. Because you try to create a model that would work and you look at the environment that you are, if not you will become a failure, honestly. And here in realistic terms, first of all, somebody coming to do the work only at Easter and Christmas cannot sustain business. So, theatre-markers, actors, light and set designers, they cannot survive on two commissions a year. It is not sustainable. What used to happen in the past at Terra Kulture was space that allowed for some kind of sustainable theatre and creative economy to grow.
Unfortunately, it has been closed up for a year. Prior to that time, we had worked out a system, where, when you get a discounted rate from Terra Kulture, in exchange for the number of people walking into that space. They have other things going on there – food, library and bookshop, and there was this thing where you are sure of making a play. It meant you had customers, who were around year in, year out and we were sure of some kind of income.
So, what it meant was that in truth set designers, light and all of those people would be guaranteed of a certain kind of income, which would give them the reason to work at smaller amounts for the more consistency. So the more consistent the work was, it was okay to say ‘oh! This month this is what I can pay and next month, maybe if we work harder and get people in the door maybe we could pay you more.’ It was more of a collaborative effort; we knew that at Terra Kulture we couldn’t expect to be paid a lot of money, but what it gave you was an opportunity for your works to be seen and gain commissions. Or for actors to be picked up for other projects, which is what usually happened.
It became a place to hone talents, you know. A lot of actors were picked up from were picked up from Terra Kulture. But since Terra Kulture has been off, the idea of even collaborating is hardly happening for producers, who had that place as a soft-landing. Last year, we produced only, if I am correct, about three projects only and ideally, we would have done maybe six or seven in a year minus the recession, which has affected everybody.
The truth is our Site-Specific programing came as a result of trying to manage resources. The venue at Eko Hotel was a little bit more affordable than another venue outside. So, we looked at it and said ‘this is the project we want to do; this is our advocacy work; we can make it Site-Specific; we can do this, we can do that.’ That play was a radio play, originally written for radio.
So, can you elaborate a little more on the coming festival?
Kenneth: It is a six-day festival. This year, we segmented it and it is more targeted. The first three days will be for learning and development and capacity building. We will have workshops and producers forum. There is a meeting for actors, festival management workshop, young critics’ workshop as well. There is a taste of theatre whereby an American facilitator is coming to talk about play to film adaptations. There is going to be that one on how to do live streaming of your plays as well as Women in the Arts Forum.
Brenda: It is multi-generational, a power panel and it is on an advocacy. We are now so repressed in this world; it is ridiculous. Not just women; women have a special case. I know that I cannot go and protest, but I know that I have a voice and that can be vital. It is just to get people to understand that this thing is not just about making money; let’s not forget why the arts were created in the first place. The arts were created to organise the people towards a revolution and a change.
So, we need to come back to that. There are so many things that Soyinka said in all his plays. As much as we want to be a campaign theatre, it is not the real thing if we want to bring about change and action. People should understand that art is also a tool for that kind of movement.
Is it also going to be multi-venues as well?
Kenneth: Yes; we have multi-venue, and it is a challenge. But we have managed to develop a template that we are following. Freedom Park, for instance, that is the festival hub. We have about 12 venues. There is a school in Banana Island, the National Theatre, a field in Bariga, one at Igando and more; we are trying to reach out to those other places as well.