Arts & Entertainments

Handing over National Theatre to Banks, a tragedy for arts, culture sector –Oteh

Notable theatre director, founder and artistic director of the acclaimed Jos Repertory Theatre (JRT), Dr. Patrick-Jude Oteh, in this interview with TONY OKUYEME, explains why the practice of theatre has to be re-defined and how Covid-19 pandemic has affected JRT. He also talks about the handing over of the National Arts Theatre to the Banker’s Committee, piracy and other issues

One of the sectors widely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is the Entertainment Industry, especially following the restrictions on large public gatherings which has made live theatre performances virtually impossible. What are your thoughts about this pandemic and how it has redefined theatre performances?
Definitely, the practice of theatre has to be re-defined. I stated last week at a discourse that you cannot watch a play alone and neither can you laugh alone! But I think that this disruption is only momentary. All of these panic and anxiety will go away once a vaccine or a cure is found for Covid-19. You can imagine a situation where our scientists are still discovering ways and means of the spread of the virus. This is only a temporary disruption. It might last a year or two but once a cure is found or better ways of managing it are established, we will go back to normal. For now, we have to be calm and join the race to stay safe and alive and while doing this, we will keep finding new ways of earning a living.

How has it affected JRT programmes and projects?
Definitely. Recall that at the end of the 14th Jos Festival of Theatre 2020, we had rolled out plans to celebrate ourselves on the 20th anniversary of our existence. We have since put a stop to all these plans that would have culminated in a momentous performance in Abuja from November 19th–21st. But we are still hopeful that some things will still happen before the year runs out. We have only gone halfway into the year and six months is a lot of time.

What is your take on developments in the arts and culture sector?
This is always a depressing topic. Yes, there is a lot of push, shove and pull from individuals but the overall response from government is still gloomy. The latest being the handing over of the National Theatre to the Banker’s Committee led by the Central Bank of Nigeria. I think this is another tragedy for our sector because someone somewhere still has this belief that the arts and culture sector should be a profit making venture that should yield revenue. Until this mind-set is corrected, we will continue to go around in circles in driving our arts and culture sector. The selling point is that by the time they finish with their plans, that place will employ 10,000 people. Has anyone bothered to ask why the place did not employ that number of people before now? But it has been a happy sector that shows the vibrancy of the Nigerian once his creativity is let loose.

For quite some time now, stakeholders have expressed concern on the need for federal government to expedite action on the implementation of the National Cultural Policy. What is your opinion about this?
I have no opinion on this. The National Cultural Policy has been in the works for God knows how long. One day, a forward looking visionary government will get it off the shelves and make it to work. But for now, we are very busy with Covid-19.

Piracy remains a major obstacle to development in the sector. What do you think can be done to check it?
Piracy has always been a great obstacle to all creativity making the pirates to reap bountifully where they did not sow. I sincerely wish that pirates once caught, can face up to a lifetime in jail as well as forfeiting all the proceeds of the illegality.

What are your thoughts about the imperative of cottage theatres to the sector?
Cottage Theatres are key to creating vibrant communities that will be filled with grace and beauty. They are to the Arts what small industries are. Can you imagine the amount of artistes that can be employed? Imagine the touring opportunities. We will be working all year round! Imagine the diversity of forms. From the visual to the Theatre. It will bring a whole new dimension to our craft. It will also lead to festivization albeit on small scales but the possibilities are endless.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, what is your advice for theatre practitioners and filmmakers in Nigeria?
Be calm. This too will pass. The panic right now for most of us is that Covid-19 caught most of us napping. With no regular jobs, nor any surplus in the bank or some form of savings. Covid-19 caught most of us in the red. There is nothing we can do now except to be calm and watch the tide recede. Even minus Covid-19, our sector has a lot of challenges principally economic challenges because of the nature of the industry. So we are in familiar territory. Only difference being that we are not performing. If we had a functioning National Endowment for the Arts, we would not have felt the pains the way we are now. But there are some people who argue that a NEA is a frivolity but I hope that Covid 19 has convinced them otherwise.

Where do you see live theatre in the next decade?
We do not plan that long anymore. We pray to survive 2020 first before talking of the next decade. You know at the beginning of 2020, we had hopes, we had dreams and we dared to dream of the lofty beginnings of a new decade. While I am hopeful that the dreams have not been misplaced, we have only deferred our dreams. Certainly we must begin to think of other ways of surviving. We only need to look carefully. There is never a dead end.

What is JRT’s plan for post-Covid-19?
We want to survive first before thinking of a post Covid-19 era. We are not alone. So many industries and professions have run into stormy waters. But it will pass. We have been fortunate in JRT. We are still working in other areas and it has been a busy period post the 14th Jos Festival of Theatre 2020. We are still trying to fundraise and we have seen a little success in this. But for now, we are already looking at 2021 and the possibilities therein.

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