Williams: I can’t say if theatre exists, the vibration is still low-key
Popularity called Uncle Lari in the entertainment industry, CHIEF LARI WILLIAMS, is a legend, whose contribution to theatre development, practice and management would remain indelible. The multi-talented essayist, dramatist, teacher and arts commentator, who would, in April, celebrate 50 years on stage, spoke to OMIKO AWA on the challenges of theatre practice and training in Nigeria, and the way out.
This is your 50th year on stage. Do you intend to celebrate it?
I have started the groundwork. I have prepared my playhouse, the Lari Williams Playhouse, to commence work on the production of Herod. It is a play I called my swan song. It is expression used in theatre parlance for a retirement kind of play, but I am not yet retiring. Herod is a big, biblical play.
Apart from this, we are preparing to do a cabaret. It is a French word for a variety show, the kind of play one would perform almost anywhere – small restaurants or big halls. I use it mainly because I produce my poems and poetry, as well as my short plays, which last about 30 to 35 minutes. I have also done a 10-track musical album, which I have just put together. On the celebration day, I shall launch three books on poetry, drama and speech. I wrote the speech book because most of our young actors and actresses go on stage without knowing how to speak out their words. They are not aware of their listeners, those who have spent their money to buy tickets for the show, to watch them. They may end up not hearing you or hear you and not understanding what you are saying, which I think is a disaster. So, the speech book, Stage Coach: Speech for a Performer, is to help actors improve their speech. I have lectured in three universities; I have combined the notes I used in these universities with the one I used while in theatre school to write the book.
I have written a column called Stage and Screen for Vanguard newspaper for 30 years by this April. I created it and intend to put some of the articles together in a book form and launch it alongside the three books. This will show some of the works I have done in the past 50 years. I also have performance for the radio, TV and on stage. I cannot retrieve my performances in Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). I hold the record of appearances in NTA in Village Headmaster, Audu Family, Mirror in the Sun, Ripples and others. They are so many that I cannot recall. I have also done nearly about 20 home videos.
People seem not to know my musical side. I keep stressing the fact that I attended CMS Grammar School and, in my time, you cannot go through forms one to three without doing music and if one insists not to do it, he would lose 100 per cent marks. Music was like any other subject that you must offer. So, I read music and, I can read and write it. I do not think I can forget it. Some of my classmates were Art Alade, Wole Bucknor and others. I have put in 50 years and a little more. I just want us to remind ourselves that we are not getting any younger. While I am still strong and can move, I have written plays that have been read, and I want them performed. The preparation for that is just to tell my young friends that I will need them for this celebration.
What do you make of Nigerian theatre of years back and now?
I do not know if theatre exists, because the vibration is still low-keyed. I studied theatre in its fullest and best. I went to Stratford. Actors, including Spencer, attended the school. I went to Mount View Theatre School on British scholarship. I have never sold salt, cement or sugar; I have done nothing but theatre. Nigerian theatre has dropped to its ebb. One, we do not have sponsors; it is difficult to get one. Secondly, the training is not appropriate. I have lectured in three universities in Nigeria and I discovered that the training they give is not for acting. What the schools give is orientation on theatre and the arts generally. I have written many articles on this and talked about it on radio and TV. We are not training actors. Why won’t theatre die? There are no actors; speech is poor; the production is nowhere to be found; reading and breath control or anything that would aid acting on stage are not there any more. That’s why I would say theatre is dying.
Look at National Theatre. I knew the facility since I was invited from England to represent the London Zone for FESTAC ‘77 and since then the people I have seen heading the theatre are not really theatre-oriented people. Asiwaju, the first general manager was a history graduate; Akogun was a soldier. Then people shouted, saying, ‘bring in professionals and university lecturers from theatre schools.’ Then came Ahmed Yerima and Femi Osofisan. The truth is that these lecturers are learned in their own way; they have been writing plays and teaching drama, but this does not mean they are capable of running a theatre.
Running a theatre has its own way. You have to know the psychology of the people around. You have to know when theatre should be opened and when it should be closed; or who are the likely customers to watch your plays, what plays do you want to put across, have you given them any orientation? Hubert Ogunde was one person who practically did it. He developed it right from the scratch. The following he had was like they were trained to follow him. We have not given our people the theatre culture to bring back that period.
If given the opportunity to run the theatre, what would you do differently?
You choose the kind of plays to show. You let a play to run for sometime and let people have the chance of seeing it and to bring in others to do the same. For example, Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, has been running in the theatre for over 50 years. If you want to see it today, you have to book ahead. Here, we have not told ourselves that these are things we have to enjoy in the evenings. So if given the opportunity, I would like to make people feel the need to go and relax in the theatre. How you should dress up and go to the theatre, how you should go there not because you want to drink, but to go and hear interesting stories, watch interesting plays.
It is important to tell a good story. There is what is called ‘entertainment value.’ You get that entertainment value to be part of what you are putting down. Let it be in the depth of the play, and you let it reflect in the costume. In plays, you entertain the eyes, the mind and the intellect. Do not abuse the people who have come to watch you. Do not just get on the stage to make noise. You should speak well and your grammar must be right. Some of the plays we have are not even well written. What we have now is a kind of jamboree. All these need to be corrected.
Who should we blame for all this? How did we get here?
The entirety of it is that anybody that has money or someone to sponsor him or her just brings people together in the name of a producer and begins to present drama. In the first place, drama starts from the desk of the writer. He writes, thinks about the story and put it together in words. After this, the play will be read. Reading is a different thing; it is different from performance. When you call people to read, you hear mistakes and correct them. It will help you to know if the play is good or not and, as well as the depth of the story. This will help you to know if a play has entertainment value or not. But today, people turn out plays overnight.
Sometimes, the actor going to do the play himself is not aware of his grammar. So, he reads something different from the book and he speaks something else on stage. A lot of our actors, including those on T.V, improvise. They do not say what the playwright says; they believe the more you talk, the better actor you are.
Part of the blame goes to people who do not know what the profession is, who do not know what acting is and do not respect the acting profession. A professional actor has to know his onions, has to know his grammar, has to read and understand the subtext of a play. Daniel Danfree said, ‘actors prepare.’ How many of our actors are prepared.
I was the first president of Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN). I suggested we organise training for people coming into acting, but this suggestion fell on deaf ears and nobody cares if anybody coming to register ever completes his or her school certificate, not to talk of studying theatre arts. As far as I am concerned, studying theatre arts has nothing to do with acting. Acting is what you learn as a profession. What Nigerian schools do is to give students orientation in dance, music and others. I went to School of Acting and from 8:30am, you will be in tracksuit doing physical exercises - either rope climbing, acrobatics, fight arrangements, dance, general keep fits, horse riding and others. It is only in the afternoon we start paper work.
Are you calling for a restructuring of theatre arts curriculum in Nigerian universities?
Exactly! I have mentioned this many times that we should restructure. In fact, acting has nothing to do with the university. Acting should have its separate training ground; that is what I am advocating. We should start acting schools and not the street type some people are running, but government-oriented schools.
Some people want theatre managers to be checked so as to limit the type of plays to put on stage. Are you in support of this call?
Yes; let theatre managers be trained. If they do not have that training before, let them be sent for training. Some heads of departments of theatre do not know anything about theatre. Let me tell you something. I am not insulting my friends because most of them are professors of drama. But how many plays have they stood on stage to direct? How many plays have they performed on stage? A lot of them have got to that level because they wrote plays while teaching. They had the leisure of seating in the classroom and writing plays for their students, but that does not do it.
Have you put up any performances before?
Before the numerous radio and TV plays I have featured, I started with my own group called the Calabash Artist in 1971. I was trying to be an African after staying abroad for some time. I produced my full-length play, which had Olu Jacob, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, Benita Enwonwu, Ben Fadogba and others. I have worked with artists, trained myself and engaged people to perform.
Are you saying there is a great difference between being a playwright and a performer?
Playwrights go deeper; they choose their words and their ideas. They choose the words to present and the depth of it, and in doing this, they take time to come up with a play. For example, I wrote Drum Call For Herod, which I dedicated to a late friend of mine, Bishop Hayford Anayo Iloputaife, who was assassinated. He called me to write a play for his 10th anniversary, which I also wanted to use to celebrate my birthday. I was at the middle of this play, about six months to the time, when I heard he had been assassinated and I put it away. I was to put it off eventually. I went back to it, worked at it, made my research, read the bible in areas, where it connects to the play. I went to a few pastor friends and asked some questions. I would write, put it down and go back to it again; all was to give it depth. I studied in England; you would find out that most playwrights in England would go and sit by the producers of their play, especially in the first production. They make sure that they interpret the plays as the playwrights want them and if there is any adjustment to make, they do so, because depth is important. We do not have this here. Just write anything and it goes. Church drama has taken over; just tell the story of who is a good or bad man and we call that drama. Drama should have depth.
Performance is to study plays. An actor prepares. What does he prepare for? He prepares himself for performance, ready to read, understand, interpret and reproduce. He prepares to be away from himself, to create the character that is written on paper, to reconcile the character on paper and the new character he has created. You do not just take a script, memorise the lines and then recite. That is why I am not putting down people, but I can tell you we do not have actors around, most of them just wait. The producer himself is at fault; they give actors a play two days to the day of performance and the actor goes and crams the lines and come out to recite them. He has not created a character; he is not telling the writer’s story. He is telling the story of what is on paper.
With 50 years on stage, you should have been championing Nollywood. Why is this not happening?
I am not and did not run away from it. I was the first president of Actors Guild of Nigeria. A guy called Ifeanyi Dike used to come and take me from my Satellite home to the meeting venue, until the executive began to hold meetings at my house and we eventually had an election. I was the chairman of the committee that set up National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (ANTAP), later followed by the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN). I was overwhelmingly chosen the president of AGN, but before I knew it, other forms of politics crept up. Since my tenure ended, there had only been one tribe president –– Igbo.
So, we have the statement that it has turned to Igbowood. When they started Nollywood, I wrote to say, ‘why Nollywood?’ Why must it appear like Hollywood? We could have called it something else; so, I suggested we call it ‘Camwood.’ Camwood is what our local people used for make-up in those days. It has meaning. I had been to Hollywood; I went there to see some friends. One of them, a lady called Barbar Moore, gave me a swimming pool party. At that time, our brother, the late Ambrose Campbell, invited me and I went to see him. I saw Hollywood and I know the history. In 1920 or at around that time, they built studios around a place where there are trees called Hollywood, which is their own kind of iroko trees.
Incidentally, owners of these trees decided to find a place to live so that they can be near their properties and in finding a better word for the place, they called it Hollywood City - the first entertainment city in the world. Now that is Hollywood. We must not forget that the British have something like that before then; they called Pinewood. If you go there, you will see it. Pinewood is like Christmas trees. Pinewood is where their studios are built; these words have meanings to the people. I wrote an article where I asked for the meaning of Nollywood. Is it a location or allocation? And somebody went ahead to say Lari Williams is against Nollywood. What meaning does that have? Why should I be against Nollywood? We are talking of naming the place properly; it belongs to all of us. If a man and a woman have a child and they choose to call him Charlie, the man has the right to challenge the wife not to call the son by that name. Because I challenged the name Nollywood, which is meaningless, does not mean that I am against it. That is why there is constant fight in the industry. The people cannot sit down and work things out. How many of these people that are fighting have produced any film that can be acknowledged as something good?
Here, when you criticise, people see you as an enemy. As the first president of NANTAP and also chairman of the committee that established Nollywood, don’t you think I should be part of the Board of Trustees (BoT)?
How far is the training for the in-coming young ones?
It has been a struggle because as you train them, they want to be paid. One cannot blame them because they have to pay for transport from where they are coming from. Again, they are not telling their people they are coming to school. They are coming because they believe being around me, they will automatically learn to act well. I will impact on them what I have learnt. After that, they want to be paid, but the best I could do was to put them together, find a play for them to perform. But the problem is how do I get sponsors?
What is the way forward?
Education. I run Lari Williams Theatre of Edutainment. We need to take time and do things properly. The way out is training and retraining.