Theatre producers meet for better arts criticisms, reviews

Participants at the event.

Theatre criticisms in Nigeria have been described as a midway review between journalism and academic criticisms. This was the stand of Mr. Ben Tomolujo who moderated a panel at the International Theatre Critics’ Conference of the just concluded British Council Lagos Theatre Festival organised by the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) in Lagos

Speaking on the topic, Theatre Criticism In Print Media And The Polity Of Newspaper Documentation Policy In Nigeria, Tomolujo said it’s important to understand the pioneer attempt of theatre criticism in the country, which according to him had no prestige in the late 60s and 70s.

“The power of the review by the middle class Nigerians in those days were reduced to mere reviews. At a certain stage, people were interested in the human angle to the lives of artists; the kind of girlfriends they were going out with, the type of trousers they wore and so on.

“The arts had a revolution when some theatre graduates took over newspaper reviews. They created columns for arts and theatre and started what could be called an advanced art of review, particularly the theatre, based on the criteria that they studied theatre in the university. We, then, had a form of fortification of art and a proliferation of the Arts Desk around the newspapers,” he said.

He asked: “Are we still writing arts in the name of show business, or have we moved beyond that to engage the populace in some kind of seminal discussion, which does not necessarily have to be academic. How do we mediate between scholarships in the manner of our communication? The critic is a mediator, and how can the journalist mediate a theatre criticism in the newsroom?”

Patrick Obi, a discussant, identified poor documentations, as one of the serious problems journalists face, as newspaper writing is generally regarded as history in a hurry. According to him, “when theatre critic criticises, how does he document what he has done? Some academics would not refer to newspaper reviews when researching because they see them as mere journalism.

Comparing the work of a playwright to that of a journalist, he said for years, the works of a playwright is evergreen because of proper documentation, adding: “Today, reading Shakespeare is never out of time, because for the playwright, his books are there for life? But for the journalist, over time, all his materials may not be there, again, because of careless documentation. Journalists should have a way of documenting their stories. Prince Momoh once told me that, if you cover a beat for 10 years, your are already an authority in that beat. ITC can assist if the facilities are available.”

The publisher of the Luxury Reporter, an online magazine, Funke Osai Brown, suggested that digital documentation was a better way of safekeeping documents. According to her, “poor mentorship is seen when the mentor feels the student could over take him, I mean, the candle loses nothing by lightening another.”

For Chinelo Chikelu, an Arts reporter with Leadership Newspaper and panelist, poor mentorship is a major challenge, saying, “as a young person who was practically writing theatre for the first time, I had to do a lot of research on my own about theatre. When I reached out to some people for mentorship, I didn’t really get the support.”

The General Manager, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Radio One, Funke Treasure Durodola, said the issue of competence in the electronic medium is a major concern. “Essentially, radio stations don’t usually attach utmost importance to theatre criticism, except there is an art inclined person in charge. What we have in good amount is book reviews. We don’t really have people who can really review a play; language is very important in reviews, more so, in radio, because we use simple English and the critic must use words that convey meaning,” she said. Durodola noted that finding the right personal to do radio reviews is a challenge.

On a different note, dramatist Ropo Ewenla, observed that the Nigerian theatre criticism had long been dead, saying theatre practitioners are only gathering for its funeral. “Nobody is training anybody to be a critic; there is a difference between a reporter and a critic. To be a critic, you must be well informed, more knowledgeable than those whom you want to criticise,” he added.

Jerry Adesewo, a theatre producer, still on mentorship said it was a two-way thing, as the younger ones have to be desirous of learning. “I have experienced incidents where journalists sit to watch a play for an hour and at the end, they walked up to me to ask, what is the play about? In fact, I have had to write the review of my own production for some, and ethically, it is wrong,” he said.

Jahman Anikulapo, former editor of The Guardian on Sunday, said there are more theatre reviews online than ever before. “The nature of newsroom and the ownership is an issue; I can tell you, there are battles after every edition. Newspaper pages are for sell, there are more interesting issues than art reviews to the owners. Another thing is the arrogance of newsroom managers.

“When people talk about the absence of theatre criticism in the print media, one must look at the environment of performance, as criticism can only thrive in an environment where there is creativity. Are you expecting the artist to be above the environment?” he asked.

Anikulapo, who studied theatre criticism, said he could not express himself in the newsroom because the gatekeepers were always there to trash arts copies. “Someone once told me to stop writing the rubbish that people will never read. Even the public that we are writing for, how much of the newspaper do they consume? Sometimes when you write the review, you still have to inform them of the publication,” he said.

Akin Taiwo Aboderin of The Tribune Newspaper, said due to some limitations, theatre critic is done differently, as compared to other countries where the reviewer goes all out to review, adding, “here, there are reservations because one’s life could be in danger for simply reviewing a book.

“The quality of production also determines how well a book will be reviewed. I don’t believe that theatre criticism is dead in Nigeria; that would be cynical to say. But we must be careful on how we review, so that, we don’t send the producer out of the market,” he noted.

Earlier on, acting Secretary General, International Association of Theatre Critics, Octavian Saiu, who is also a professor of Theatre Studies and Comparative Literature in Romania and different universities across the globe, disclosed that there is no legitimate political perspective in theatre.

He noted that Samuel Beckett is the godfather of political theatre in contemporarily Europe and, perhaps, across the globe. Speaking further on political theatre, he said: “before politics comes value, before political messages come cultural values, before anything involving the relationship between politics and arts, come the relationship between arts and the human nature. The lesson we can all learn from Beckett today, is that of channeling the energy of political discourse in a way that is culturally convincing and powerful, without a static values, without cultural meanings, without profound social intellectual critic, political messages will be lost; they will become mere propaganda.”

Saiu revealed that he is planning to facilitate an international project, which will give some Nigerian young critics and artists opportunity to present their work in Romania, adding that this would be an essential part of young critics’ professional development.

To him, the Nigerian theatre is vibrant, diverse and exciting. “I have been privileged to monitor critics’ seminar organised by IATC, here, and the level of intellectual engagement and passion was amazing.

“Young critics want to learn and express their views. They have a lot to say; they are just waiting for the chance to make their voices heard. I think Nigerian theatre, dance and cultural scene are exciting and if there is anything, it needs the international exposure and cultural collaboration between what’s happening here and what is happening in other parts of the world,” he said.

Prof. Ahmed Yerima, a playwright and dramatist, disclosed that as an actor, he didn’t have to play the stock character or the stock performer some traditions had established for actors, because there was the freedom for the actor to interpret roles, as did the director.

Also, IATC, Vice Chair, Prof. Julie Umukoro of University of Port Harcourt, said for literature to play its role, it must be a medium of change. “Theatre must be viable and every play must have the inherent meaning of trying to better the society.”



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