By Anote Ajeluorou
Like Elder Fred Agbeyegbe and Mr. Uche Nwokedi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Wole Oguntokun is another trained lawyer who fell in love with the theatre, but unlike the other two, he effectively abandoned his wig. And for over a decade now, he has made a mark in Nigeria’s struggling theatre scene. But rather than bemoan the lack of tools, the stock in trade of a bad workman, like purpose-built theatres, since managers of the country’s cultural edifice, the National Theatre, have failed to put the edifice to good theatric use, Oguntokun has taken the bold initiative to build one at Lekki.
He calls it The Theatre Republic and it opens in December. The motivation to deepen Nigeria’s cultural landscape, he said among others things, informed the new theatre space due to open in two months.
“The Theatre Republic will be open to the public by December this year,” he announced excitedly. “It will be a Christmas present to the city of Lagos. At present, there is no single venue in Nigeria with daily programming dedicated solely to the performing arts.
“It is our desire to create a self-sustaining performing arts organisation that will encourage copycat establishments around the country, which in turn, would help artistes realise their own artistic visions and thus create the ability in them to effect positive change in their individual communities.
“The Theatre Republic hopes to become part of a strong lobby that continually sensitises government to the importance of the sustenance of culture for the good of the country as well as the development of strategic policies in this regard, and to the essence of arts education among young people. A country without culture has no democracy! I repeat, ‘A country without culture has no democracy.’
“The venue will serve as a beacon to emerging performing art organisations to help them reach a position where they have options of international collaborators and producing models.
“It will also help raise the performing arts industry in Nigeria to levels where Nigerian companies can grow networks, have access to international platforms and command the respect that multilateral access to the world can give them.
“One of our objectives is to see ‘an introduction to the performing arts’ as a core subject in secondary/high schools in the country. In that way it will encourage students to be enlightened performing artistes or appreciative audience members in the future.
“We hope to see the Nigerian ‘product’ exported to a world that accepts and welcomes it, producing levels of cooperation never seen before.”
Although some have proposed that theatres be built in every local government area in the country, the award-winning theatre producer/director agrees, but adds a caveat. As he put it, “I believe there should be many performance spaces around the country. Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, have thousands of theatres ranging in size between them. These spaces do not all have to be in the hands of the government, but they must exist and must be available”.
Last year, Oguntokun put on stage the musical theatre adaptation of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana to critical acclaim at MUSON Music Festival 2014. But he will be missing out this year, as Nwokedi takes over with Jesus Christ Superstar. However, Oguntokun said Jagua Nana would be back on stage next quarter. He added, “We intend to put up Jagua Nana in the first quarter of next year. It has a large cast as well as musicians and most be approached ‘carefully’”.
Resilience would seem to be second nature to everything Nigerian, with theatre being no exception. Oguntokun argued that in spite of impediments, theatre has continued to make strides and has remained dogged.
“The peculiarities and challenges in the practice of the profession in Nigeria have produced a rare breed of practitioners,” he said. “Unlike in Europe, North America and most parts of the world, the production model in operation in Nigeria defies any hard and fast definition and will not be found in any manual.
“The obstacles facing the presenter/producer from Nigeria are many and they range from unfriendly government agencies to non-supportive state policies.
The ability to self-fund in the face of lack, run a theatre organisation or Performing Arts Festival on next to nothing, and to present work continuously in an environment lacking enabling structures necessary for the proliferation of the arts, is what sets the Nigerian ‘experiment’ apart from the rest of the world”.
Retrieving the glory days of the National Theatre, Lagos, is every theatre practitioners’ expectation. But can this be achieved with the kind of non-artistic leadership in place? Oguntokun thinks not, advising, “The government must speak to theatre practitioners and not just businessmen. The grand ideas of building luxury hotels and all around the theatre might serve some purposes, but there has to be an understanding that the world and audiences are changing. The millenials generation audiences under 30 years of age now have as much disposable income as any other group. If the National Theatre will climb to the position it once held, the government stranglehold on its management must be relaxed and the programming must be an attractive and sustainable one.
But how did he come into theatre practice at the abandonment of law? Does he see the stage as some sort of extension of the law court? Oguntokun’s response is startlingly telling, “The stage is what it is; a place of beauty; a place where magic happens. It cannot be replicated in any other arena. It's where I'm the happiest, where I feel complete the most”.