Cast of Hear Word

Emem Ema

In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus (a god of fertility and wine), by the name of Thespis, introduced a new element, engaging in a dialogue with the chorus, whichhas now been seen as the birth of theatre. He became, in effect, the first actor; with actors in the west, ever since, proud to call themselves Thespians.

Greek theatre begun with the tragedies and comedies in 5th Century BC and the audience will sit around the actor in what is now known as ‘theatre style’ sitting arrangement. In the first Greek theatres the stage is a full circle, in keeping with the circular dance – the choros – from which the theatrical performance has evolved. This stage is called the orchestra (orchester, a dancer), because it is the place where the chorus/choir sing and dance.

Before the advent of Nollywood, theatre and television were a huge contributor to entertainment in Nigeria. I dare say, theatre is here to stay especially with the new crop of producers and directors emanating and making sense in the chaos. Many of the actors that have emerged in Nigeria have a solid background and experience from theatre, Olu Jacobs, Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, KeppyEkpeyongBassey and more! I remember Theatre Fifteen (T15) from the University of Lagos that went on to produce exceptional talent as directors and actors like Kayode Peters, GbengaAdeyinka,Bunmi Davies, DenreleEdun, Wale Gates, Teju Babyface, Koffi, Kunle Bello and more!

When asked about sectors to look out for in the Nigerian creative industry in 2016, Director of Arts for the British Council Nigeria OjomaOchaihad this to say; “I think theatre will also get a big boost from the Lagos Theatre Festival planned for February 2016. With over 100 shows in a range of venues, I think it might be a moment to get regional and international attention for the burgeoning theatre scene in Nigeria.” The British Council and its partners delivered on this promise, hosting over a hundred and nineshows in the space of one week in some of the most unconventional places for theatre in the city of Lagos with five thousand, six hundred (5,600) people in attendance. On areas of improvement in the sector Ojoma had this to say, “Theatre for example would benefit from more diversity I think in the type of work we are putting on stage – I often feel that the output tends to verge on the constantly dramatic and we can work on this. I also feel that not enough new writing is being produced for stage. – again an area to look at.”

Nigerian theatre has seen very aggressive push from Producers who have refused to be cowered by the challenges of the industry in Nigeria and have gone on to have massive success (ongoing still) with their productions examples are what WoleOguntokun is doing with Renegade theatre and taking Nigerian theatre international to the Edinburgh theatre festival, Ifeoma Fafunwa with her Hear Word production and of course a member of our 16 People to look out for in 2016 Bolanle Austen Peters, with sold-out productions like Saro and Wakaa which has set the pace for musicals in Nigeria and will be making its west end debut in July of this year.
Let us take a look at some of the most successful Broadway shows till date and also see the figures they have generated since they opened and closed.

Features of successful theatre productions:
1. They have a home: For a production to make commercial sense, it has to run for a while. Their audience needs to know where to find and watch the show. The Lion King an audience has been running for almost twenty years and has travelled widely! You will find it on Broadway, in Vegas and at the West end as well. It now has franchises in different languages and has even been back home to Africa! There has to be a venue or venues to accommodate the production.

In Nigeria, this is a huge challenge, as producers have to pay exorbitant prices for proper venues to stage their shows, let alone have the financial capability to fund a production for more than a couple of days, if they have sponsors or the financial wherewithal. I remember a very popular Nigerian-subject Broadway production that was hosted in Nigeria for a couple of days. The production is rumoured to have run into millions of dollars, majority of the cost was due to moving the original cast, accommodation, logistics and cost of venue.

We need to encourage the emergence of more Terra Kultures, MusonCentres and National Theatre type venues in Nigeria. Perhaps we have multipurpose venues that can accommodate these productions and can be commercially viable.

2. Compelling, Relatable and Engaging Story: I enjoy great dialogue, it keeps me attentive, the interpretation of a story or situation and how the actors interpret their characters also plays a huge role in keeping seats full.Why is Hamilton Broadway’s current darling?It is a musical about one of America’s founding founders, inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow. I became a huge Nigerian theatre fan in 2006 when KIND put up the Vagina Monologues (IfeomaFafunwa’s adaptation of same is Hear Word starring Joke Silva, TaiwoAjai-Lycet, Bimbo Akintola, Zara Ejoor and more). It was engaging, it was deep, it was funny, and the stories were relatable as they dealt with certain issues in the Nigerian culture and the performers delivered! Some of ONE Management’s early clients were discovered and signed based on performances from theatre.

3. Bankable Producer, Director and Cast: Who is in a play or show matters. Remember the controversial production Equus starring Harry Porter actor Daniel Radcliffe? Or the influx of several ‘academy award winning actors and Grammy award winning artistes’ included in several productions.LupitaN’yongo in Eclipsed, a production byThe Walking Dead’s DanaiGurira’s, set amidst the Liberian Civil War. How about Will Smith and Jay-Z’s investment in Fela on Broadway led their fanbase and curious ones to go watch the play, it also helped that Fela is a huge music icon.

4. Marketing: To get those seats filled, you have to know how to get their attention and tell them why they need to see your production. Nothing beats marketing the right way!

5. Great reviews from those who matter…the Audience! One of the reasons I had to go watch Saro was the reviews I got from people who had seen the play and gushed a lot about it, I know some people who went to see it multiple times in the duration it ran.
Pricing also plays a huge role (pun intended) in theatre, in the west, theatre tickets are pricey and are seen as a of the affluent, in Nigeria it is the direct opposite, the average theatre tickets cost lower than an average music concert ticket. The average Broadway show ticket recently crossed the $100 mark.

Longtime TV and theatre producerKayode Peters, a pioneer in new Nigerian theatre alongside WoleOguntokun and Bunmi Davies, who at the beginning staged monthly theatre shows but had to reduce or stop completely due to paucity of funds and lack of sponsorship. “Most of our productions were self-funded and we were barely breaking even so some of us had to diversify and find other ways of doing what we love.” Peters has had the opportunity to take his purely Nigerian productions to Greece, Germany and Holland. “The west want to hear our story, we want to tell our stories first to our audience, but there isn’t an enabling environment for theatre to thrive. You either have deep pockets or heavy corporate sponsorship to sustain one production, and get to break even point” Peters says.

Theatre will thrive in Nigeria once we can stimulate a theatre going culture and show the viability of this sector. Using figures from the Lagos Theatre Festival held earlier this year, 109 shows with 5600 people in attendance x N1,000 = N5,600,000 a week (best case scenario) average case scenario at 70% paying audience, is N3,360,000 a week as gross revenue, providing employment for 150 people, from one production alone. If replicated in several locations/venues in different parts of Nigeria each month imagine the kind of revenue that will be generated; this is just from one aspect of the industry, I will touch more on the commercial viability of Nigerian theatre in the near future.
I am with Kayode Peters, OjomaOchai and more on the emergence of the renaissance of Nigerian theatre; we will get there soon with the right push.

– Emem is the CEO of ONE Management, a Nigeria-based media strategy and support company.