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COVID-19: How theatre can re-invent itself, by Eboh

Veteran theatre director, producer and current president of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Mr. Israel Eboh, in this interview with TONY OKUYEME, bares his mind on developments in the Arts and culture sector in Nigeria against the backdrop of the Covid -19 pandemic

What are your thoughts about Covid-19 pandemic and how it has redefined theatre performances?

Covid-19 has changed everything, it has brought a new normal to the world, and the entertainment industry, particularly live theatre, is no exception. Theatre like we know is one of the few areas of few practices where you must bring together a large crowd to be able to do a performance.

Unlike football, for example, which despite the fact that it attracts a lot of spectators, can be enjoyed, and is often times enjoyed by more people viewing on television, live theatre is best experienced by being present at the performance. And so with Covid-19 and the challenges it has brought, the protocols, particularly as it relates to social distancing, the sector has suffered greatly. But that does not mean that as practitioners we should then fold our hands and continue to mourn about what is happening.

The challenge is for us to seek new models; theatre has always reinvented itself, and it only becomes turgid when it fails to reinvent itself. So, the question is how can theatre reinvent itself in this situation? Of course the new normal will be digitalising or presentation, but people will be fast and quick to tell you that in digitalising live theatre you have taking away the elements which makes it live theatre, and that is the proximity and the interaction between the audience and the performance.

So, the question is, if we are not going to turn our live performances into another form of film or television recording, if we are still going to sustain the elements of spontaneity, elements of interaction, elements of seeing the action unfold immediately, the elements of seeing the actors play the role without a cut, without a join, then we also need to ask ourselves: how do we merge, bring technology and this unique side of live performance together? The truth is, today, there is no way you can put up a production in any form and expect to break even when you cannot attract the crowd or the attendance that because of social distancing. And yet we must continue to perform; we must continue to run out as a business; so we have to seek out new models.

That is why as an association, NANTAP, for example, has started work and putting together a live performance streaming platform. Only recently, NANTAP signed an MoU with Mr. Godwin Noah to create this platform. The uniqueness of this platform is that it will be streaming live performances. So even though you may be watching online, on your laptop, through your television, yo will be expedience it live, real time as it happens. This is not going to be streaming of pre-recorded productions, although, these will be relayed later on after they had happened, for those who may have missed the show.

But for those who always look forward to seeing performances, theatre happen real time, it provides them that opportunity. We are not saying this gives them all the feelings of being in the theatre, but at least it gives you a sense of seeing this happen as it happens; it gives you the sense of enjoying it, you will be able to sit with your family where you are watching at home and still create your own theatre ambience at home. It also provides the producers of such works the opportunity of collaborating with other producers across the world, across Nigeria. And how does that happen?

It follows that if a show is happening at the National Theatre or MUSON Centre or Terra Kulture, where you cannot accommodate more than a specific number of people because of the protocols or in place for gathering, you can however get someone else in Ikeja, Igando, Epe, Badagry, Abuja, wherever, for them to partner you, and also have this same show simultaneously in all these other places where you’re bringing another set of 50 or 100 people into the hall, depending the size of the hall, and they will see the show by you beaming it on a large screen.

The only difference is that they would not be seeing actors live, they cannot feel them, they cannot interact with them at the end of the show, but they are watching it real time. It is akin to watching a live football match on television. You feel the emotions, you feel the highs and lows of the characters of the performance real time. That is one of the ways to go. We also must begin to look at other avenues such as driving-in theatre. It is already being experimented with in several countries; and in Abuja, about three weeks ago, they experimented with it. We also need to come up with ‘Theatre on Weels’ that we can move from venue to venue and perform to the selected small audiences. In other words, I can put up a production and move out rounds three or four locations in one day, and perform. So, we need more creative, more ingenious; we need look at the challenging times abs come up ways around it. I always believe that wherever there is a problem there is a solution. All that is needed to find the solution is the will to confront the problem, and the solution will come.

Recently, the International Centre for Creative and Performing Arts (ICCPA) in collaboration with NANTAP organised an online discourse on the theme, ‘Post Lockdown: Bridging the gap between the Class and the Stage’. What is your opinion about this important issue and how can this be achieved?

It is true that only recently, NANTAP collaborated with the International Centre for Creative and Performing Arts (ICCPA) to organise a discourse on Bridging the gap between the Class and the Stage. We felt this was necessary because there is the need to create a better synergy between the training of theatre artistes, performing artistes and the practice. We have discovered that most times our graduates are not prepared for the marketplace, they are not prepared for professional practice.

They come out not really understanding the dynamics of the market. And that, for us, is one of the reasons why a lot of our theatre arts, performing arts, creative arts trained graduates seek other forms of employment. If we must address this imbalance, then there is a need for practitioners, that is practice, town, if you miss it, town and gown to come together to chat a common course of how training will complement practice, and practice will also complement trainings. And that was why we organised this, particularly at this time where we must being to address the challenges facing us in new ways. We felt that there is a need to redesign the curriculum to take into consideration the new challenges. We’ve just talked about the new normal which will most probably drive live for a while, which most probably would be through the digital means.

It follows that our graduates must be prepared for the new markets, they must be prepared for the normal. We also must understand what is happening within our schools, and also see how as professionals we can begin to intervene, either through residencies of professionals, of different aspects of practice, sharing, going to schools and being in residence for a period of time to share their experiences, and to encourage our graduates. So, this what the discourse was meant to look at, come up with solutions, proffer ideas and see how there can be greater synergy.

For us here in Nigeria, we would say it was easy because we already have a lot of our teachers and lecturers who are also members, who practice from time to time. So, they also understand the big challenge that are out there. Of course we know that in most of our schools they do not have enough teaching equipments, training equipments due to the fact that the economic side is affecting our education. We also know that most schools do not even have theatres. A lot them whose first encounter with digital equipments, first encounter with real formal theatre is in the market.

So, how then do w prepare to fit in, to hit the ground running, and not begin to gun to other fields. These and many other areas of finding creative collaboration of creating better synergy, of creating better interaction among the teachers and practitioners, among the students and those in the field, where some of the things that we looked at.

And while we continue to follow up even after this discussion we are believing that this is the beginning of something good which would further move the training of theatre from just a theoretical to a combination of the practical, in the real practical sense,not in the sense of ‘of we have done practical presentation, but in unbearably what the market entails, what the demands of professional practice and the competitiveness in the market and the marketing strategies that you need to market your arts. We hope this would chat the course, and w would continue this discussion until we are able to achieve our goal.

What is your take on development’s in the arts and culture sector, including the National Troupe of Nigeria and (the issue of merge?

The Nigerian arts and culture sector is still grappling, still truing to find its bearing.

Governments have identified the sector, particularly the creative sector which is also part of our arts and culture as another avenue for boosting the nation’s GDP. Unfortunately, the relevant strictures that can help develop that sector have not been put in place. When I talk about structures, I will be more concerned with the legal framework and those things which can boost practice and production across the country. It is unfortunate that we are talking about developing a sector and yet we do not have a cultural policy.

The cultural policy is an absolute if we are going to grow the sector. The cultural policy should be the road map which explains and outlines measures to be taking, plans put in place to grow the industry, to develop the industry, to woo investors, both foreign and local, to integrate our practices, our arts with our culture as a medium for promoting it. Unfortunately, this is not in place. And so, the question is, how do you develop a sector without a matter plan? That is why I say we are grappling and groping as it were, trying to find what works.

You do not develop any sector, you do not develop any aspects of your identity by groping and grappling. You must have a clearcut plan, a clear cut direction. And that is why what the cultural policy, the right laws, the right legal frameworks were up place. How do we develop a sector where there is no endowment fund for the art? How do you develop a sector like the arts and culture when you do not have any incentives on place for who may invest, those who may want to build things? Can a Disney World come to Nigeria to set up shop? Of course not. Can any Nigerian invest invest in billing a film or a cultural village and believe that they will make their money? Of course not, because the structures are not there, the legal frameworks are not in place, the incentives are not there. And these, for us, are the things that government must look at.

Globally, she you have a vibrant culture and arts industry or sector that Contribute to both the social and cultural as well as the economic development of the country, it is because the frameworks are in place, the structures are in place, that attract investors, attract practitioners, and so you create a hub as it were. We have continually read in the papers, heard of the Central Bank creative industry finance initiative, but we are yet to see its impact. We are yet to even see it take off. So, the question is, are these things just noise and no action? What really are the plans, the framework for the distribution of this fund? How does it impact the sector? How much of it is allocated to infrastructural development? Or do we believe that the moment we continue to create content and content only will have developed an industry? No. We must create the framework, there must be a foundation upon which everything will stand. Do we have festivals in place that people can work towards and day they are visiting Nigeria because of this festival? Or visiting Nigeria because this cultural activity happens yearly, so it is on my calendar? We need to build an industry, we cannot continue to talk it brings to the table because most of what it brings to the table right now are from individual efforts, and that is why we cannot feel the impact because it is not planned, or is not regulated, it is not structured. We must structure that sector.

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