By Anote Ajeluorou
THE perceived inability of government to run businesses effectively gave birth to the notion of privitising all national assets during the reign of President Olusegun Obasanjo. And consequently, the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) was set up with the mandate of midwiving the sale of these assets. Although, there were mixed feelings trailing this decision, yet the government went ahead and sold off as many as the BPE could sell.
Whether those assets sold off have come off better is an argument still raging in certain quarters. The attempt, however, to sell off the nation’s cultural showpiece, the National Theatre, sparked off protests from the culture community.
Culture, they argued, must not be treated strictly as a business because of its other uses like education and value-orentation. But the National Theatre has continued to slide especially in attraction to cultural producers and enthusiasts. Rather than retaining its prime position as the foremost cultural events centre in cosmopolitan Lagos, it has taken its seat firmly at the background. Its telling motto, ‘the venue makes the event’ has thus become a hollow slogan. Serious events promoters hardly think about the National Theatre as appropriate venue.
Save for organisers of children’s events, who prefer the open lawn, the theatre is a shadow of its former self. Although the General Manager, Mr. Yusuf Kabir, signed some MoUs with some cultural players, especially for Nollywood films to be premiered at the theatre, Silverbird, Ozone and other small venues in town continue to host movie premiers while the National Theatre is steeped in darkness most evenings, even weekends when the place should be a beehive of shows.
The Guardian went to town to speak to cultural events organisers on why the National Theatre fell into its present state of coma. Many have cited bureaucratic bottleneck, infrastructural decay, lack of vision on the part of management, government’s poor perception of culture and what role to assign the ediffice and among other reasons why many shun the place.
Poet and essayist, who has turned his hand on poetic drama, Odia Odeimun, used to find a home in the theatre in days goneby. But this is no longer so. His three dance drama, Itoya, A Dance for Africa, Nigeria the Beautiful and A Feast of Return have all been staged at MUSON Centre and other venues. And he is not keen to return to the theatre. Although the best theatre space in all of Africa, he said the theatre has lost its ambience and communality as a cultural showpiece.
His argument, “First, let’s put it this way; the National Theatre may look like an overdone white elephant. But it’s still the best theatre space in Africa; there’s no one space like it that is as good. It has more facilities for artists and cultural enthusiasts than what you’ll find anywhere else. It has space, which is the most up-market space you can find for a cultural happening anywhere in Africa.
“As a piece of estate, there is nowhere in Lagos that is as good as that space if there was a good manager of cities, not just of culture. What would be built around the National Theatre will be such that all the railway lines will meet there. You all come out of the under-ground and you’re into the cultural space. And when you finish what you’re doing you go back under-ground and go wherever you came from.
“There’s so much you can do with that space at the National Theatre that at the end of the day what is happening there right now is enough to make you sick. It’s as if gold is being turned into bronze very deliberately. It’s true there has been attempts to make the place better. But you know it’s not being managed; it’s not so much the fault of the people they bring in to manage it. It’s the fact that from conception, the administration of the place is aimed at defeating the arts rather than promoting, preserving or generally sustaining what artists do.
“It is passion that runs a cultural estate, and you do need to have a lot of it in an organisation for it to take off. When what energises an environment is just administration, it doesn’t work. You just don’t administer a space. You can build a much better theatre than a National Theatre in the country today, but that won’t turn it into a cultural space. The passion of the organisers is what makes it a cultural space. I can assure you between having a National Theatre or a National Troupe and having a museum all that you need is a sense of space architecture, people who know how to govern space so that space can help you govern the things you do.
“The environment of the National Theatre is not being governed, so that what you have at the National Theatre is not proactively a sustenance of the arts. Proactively ought to mean this: as I look at the environment, just to look, it excites me. A National Theatre as an edifice invites you; but as you actually moves closer, you’re being distanced from what happens there.
“When you look at the mushy background around the theatre, that space by now ought to have been taken on by good money, and turned into a place of beauty. It was possible it was planned into it, but never actualised. The Federal Government does not put the kind of money into the place that will make it work. So, the people who are given the job to do begin to behave like the under-developed funding is meted to them like a punishment. The amount of money you put into that place does not attract good money. If you want to build a proper theatre that will attract good money you put good money into it first.
“Also, let me tell you that people who want to privatise the National Theatre are not interested in the arts; they want to use the space for some other things. I’m talking about using the space for the arts and making good money out of it. Most people who want to privatise the theatre are not only against the arts, they are against the national spirit. There are things you need to do with that space, which are art-oriented and which are also money-making such that when people sit down at home they just begin to think of how to go to the National Theatre, not to do anything, not to watch a play, but just to be around the festive environment. We have not been able to create that space because, as I said, the place should attract you.
“But as you move closer and closer to the National Theatre, it pushes you away. It does not enfold you; it does not accommodate you. I mean, you look at abegi (the space opposite that is converted to a drinking joint) it tells you that more and more people would have been coming if you built that sense of community into the way the whole theatre itself is run. There’s nothing you want to do about culture that the National Theatre has no space for. The question is, why do people not go there?
“Now, when you don’t put money into a National Theatre, the people who work there are not energised; they have no reason to be very passionate. Unfortunately, people who manage the arts in Nigeria do not see artists across the country as a community; they see them in divided caucuses. So, that it’s about loot-seeking groups: how do you get a share of this or get a share of that , and because of that they are not able to erect that structure of enterprise which involves everybody.
“Some people imagine that the divisive logic of loot-seeking is the order of the day; they are unable to go out seeking for what will accommodate the whole community.
“A National Theatre is not a commercial enterprise; it is a means for defending the soul of a country. Those who do not see the need to put money into the defence of a National Theatre are unserious as politicians, administrators and so-called patriots. A true patriot will defend the culture of his country; the defence of the culture of your country means that you will give education to your people, you will make sure that the stories they tell have a means of survival beyond the here and now, which means you have the means of preserving their stories.”
ANOTHER professional and play director, who regrets the state of the theatre is Nick Monu. For him, “The National Theatre is a wonderful piece of architecture of its day. It is large and the potential is amazing. However, we must not forget the building’s history or its initial intention as a venue for the 2nd World Black and African Festival of 1977 more commonly known as FESTAC. Only after the event was it thought of as a theatre complex.
“So, there are already some problems built into the structure, no pun intended. When designing a space, form should follow
function; in the case of the National Theatre, this was not the case. So, we have a space not ideally designed for theatre. The Cinema Halls used for theatre — Cinema Hall 1 and 2 — betray their intended use in their name, they were designed as Cinema Halls. The main bowl is so large, at over 4000 seats, it must challenge some of the largest international theatres in the world in terms of size, making it difficult to fill and difficult to maintain.
“These problems can be overcome, but, in the case of the cinema halls, it would require investment to turn them into viable theatres whilst not loosing their use for cinema and the large space needs a complete overhaul and thereafter should be used mainly for musical events, dance and concerts as it is far too large for spoken theatre.
“The next challenge this beautiful edifice faces is the fact that it is a Federal Government building. That is not a problem of itself; the problem only arises when the government appoints anyone to work in the space other than the Artistic Director and the Managing Director. To run any company, a CEO needs to pick his or her own staff to ensure smooth running of a company. The National Theatre is full of appointees that have not been appointed by the person in charge making it difficult, if not impossible to run it efficiently.
“In the artistic company which is mainly a company of dancers and musicians drawn from every state in the federation vis-a-vis the Ogunde Model might have worked many years ago, but does not have the flexibility needed for a modern, more complex and intellectually more advanced country that is modern Nigeria. The company should be capable of putting on the best of Nigerian and world classical works as well as advancing the field of African modern dance and looking to create a form of Africa-influenced opera and music of both the ancient Nigerian
tradition as well as those influenced by our over 200-year relationship with Europe.
“This requires significant long term investment. These artistes should be permanent members of an ensemble housed on the considerable grounds on which the Theatre stands. The theatre is, quite simply said, overly bureaucratic with so many office staff that budgets better spent on art goes to keeping people in office jobs. In this modern computer-based era, these staff could be streamlined to only the essential. The area around the theatre and the general upkeep of the space require a more modern cost-effective overhaul. Storage space and technical equipment as well as the various departments needed in running the artistic side of the theatre need to be revisited and rethought.
The space requires a huge amount of investment from the government and a complete reassessment of how the space is run and used.
“My first play I directed there upon returning home from abroad was Wole Soyinka’s Swamp Dwellers and to be honest, I have received no invitation to come to direct another production.
Terra Kulture is a privately-run enterprise. Bolanle Austin Peters makes it as easy for financially challenged artists as possible to put up their works. She is supportive and understanding to the needs of theatre and apart from picking the people she wants to feature in her space, she allows artistic freedom without getting involved in artsistic choices made. I treasure this, without it, art freedom is stifled. This is not always the case at the National Theatre.”
OPA William is easily the merchant of comedy; he revolutionised it as a major commercial business in its modern sense in the country. And the National Theatre was home to his famous Night of a Thousand Laughs in the late 1990s and early 2000 when comedy became serious business. But he has since shifted base to more accommodating venues. Of the theatre, he said, “Infrastructural failure and security are some of the challenges the theatre faces; they were why we left to find better venues.
“For the most part, the lighting do not work, the halls became horrible and hot because of poor air-conditioning. But I heard the new man is putting things in order now. Also, the image of the theatre needs to be polished. Image is everything.
“Sadly, that place is a national monument, a tourist and cultural centre; it should never have been left to rot like it did. For it to attract people back, they have to look at the structure again and overhaul it completely. They have to make it more attractive. If you pass the place at night, it’s completely in darkness like a ghost town. It should not be so”.
A senior staff of the theatre, who is also a professional culture producer, who spoke anonymously, expressed sorrow at what has happened to the theatre over the years. He noted, “As an industry player, I’d say nothing is happening at the theatre in terms of patronage. It’s an open place. Nothing is happening; there is a dearth of activities. The apathy is there on the part of management. The halls are okay now.
“Those of us, professionals, try to initiate programmes but whether they are done is another thing. It depends on the interest of the people at the head and what they want to do with the place. What I know is that it’s a big tragedy what is happening at the theatre. It’s like you build a very beautiful house and you lock it up. Sad!”
ATTEMPTS made to speak with the marketing team proved abortive. The PRO, Mr. Toyin Mohammed would not be drawn into the argument about whether the National Theatre is doing well as it should be. He insisted that the place was doing well with lots of children’s programmes taking place on the lawn.
Howver, the current General Manager, Mr. Kabir Yusuf, not long ago, enumerated efforts his team was making to make the theatre attractive to the public and draw traffic to the prime venue.
He said, “I have done renovation in parts of the theatre; I have overhauled the security and I’m now doing the publicity. I have adverts placed on NTA Channel 10. We have a trade by barter arrangement with them; they do their programmes here and do adverts for us. We have 30 minutes of theatre called ‘My Theatre’.
“The cooling system is one of the major problems here but it is now perfect. Our cost is relatively cheaper than any hall in Lagos. We have the advantage of parking space and security. We have the advantage of food and drinks available on the grounds of the theatre. Even the underground garage can take 1,600 vehicles. Our parking space can take 4000 vehicles. So, I don’t think there is a lack of parking space. Whenever there is a bigger crowd we used to get reinforcement from the police station nearby.
“So, since we have done 70 percent of the renovation we are doing, we will start doing prorammes because we have a full fledge unit headed by a principal officer, so we will start developing our own programmes including concerts, dramas that will bring people in.
“We have now put the structures in place, and we can now go and bring more programmes in. We wanted to fix the structure because once you come to the national theatre you want the water to run, the air conditioner to work; you want to go to the toilet and come out not holding your nose. We have renovated the waterworks and water is flowing. We treat the water. We get cleaners to clean the toilets. The air-conditioners in the halls are working. The electricity is constant and we can now run our own programmes”.
Nevertheless, transforming Yusuf’s dream of activities at the theatre into reality seems far-fetched at the moment as culture producers have shown a preference for MUSON Centre, Terra Kulture, Expo Hall of Eko Hotel and Suites, newly opened Freedom Park, and even The Life House. Instructively, both government and theatre management would need to rethink strategy to return the National Theatre to a house of culture that it was intended for.
Sadly, that place is a national monument, a tourist and cultural centre; it should never have been left to rot like it did. For it to attract people back, they have to look at the structure again and overhaul it completely. They have to make it more attractive. If you pass the place at night, it’s completely in darkness like a ghost town. It should not be so.