interviewBy Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Adesewo Fayaman Bay is the stage name of Mathew Adebayo Adesewo, a veteran of the theatre with experience spanning over 30 years. A dancer, actor, singer and theatre director, he was a member of the Ogunde travelling troupe of the early 1980s and a founding member and resident artiste of the popular Kakaaki Performers of Mr. Ben Tomoloju. He is currently the Director of Productions of Arojah Royal Theatre.
Despite lack of support for the arts in Nigeria, Arojah Theatre keeps churning out productions. What is the secret?
Our survival is based purely on sheer passion. The love for the arts. It is sad that the arts are generally neglected in Nigeria. And theatre is the worst hit. However, as theatre practitioners, we cannot fold our hands and watch. We are trained to act and act we must. That is the secret. On the other hand, we felt that it will be unbecoming of us to call ourselves theatre practitioners and not be able to put up productions on regular basis for residents of Abuja. That was the driving force in the first place for the formation of Arojah Royal Theatre and our aim is to ensure that live theatre in Nigeria, and Abuja especially, does not become extinct.
How then do you cope?
It has not been very easy. Sourcing funds for production is difficult. Our productions are largely self-financed, at least to the tune of 50% by the producer. What has worked for us is the fact that we have a crop of truly professional resident artistes, who are passionate about keeping the theatre alive in Abuja. So the bulk of what the producer needs to bother about is the cost of productions in terms of sets, props, costumes, publicity and other major facilities. With these settled, we set to work and we have always have such understanding that makes us work together as family.
If artistes are working for free, how then do they make a living?
No! No! No! Our artistes are not working for free. In fact, we pay them their dues. What I mean is that, our artistes don't put money first. For each of our productions, especially when we have the necessary funding, we enter into contracts with our artistes and pay them when due. And if it happens to be one of those productions we have to rumble through, we also make them understand what is obtainable and enter into an agreement with them in such a way that everyone is happy at the end of the day.
What then would you say is the most important challenge facing the theatre in Abuja?
Funding is the most important challenge facing theatre in Nigeria. The arts generally are starved of funds. Secondly, is the fact that we don't have purpose-built theatre in Nigeria. What do you make of a situation where a theatre company like ours has to pay in the region of N350,000 to N500,000 for halls that are not purposely built for theatre before we can stage a play. That is the situation in Abuja. The cheapest performing hall available in Abuja is the community hall of Cyprian Ekwensi Centre for Arts and Culture which goes for below N100,000. And truth be said, even with your money, getting the hall is a tall order as priority is given to conferences and wedding activities and not for theatrical productions. It's a huge challenge and I think government must come to the aid of theatre in Nigeria. Imagine that we have a mini theatre in every local government in Nigeria. Once this is done and government ensures that they provide annual grant for arts organisations in Nigeria, theatre will thrive and theatre practitioners will earn a living and live fulfilled lives.
From your experience this theatre season, are you implying that theatre cannot be commercially viable?
Of course, theatre can be commercially viable. That exactly is what we hope for as practitioners but it will not come easy. For theatre to be commercially viable, the enabling environment must first be created and this requires partnership between practitioners, government and corporate organisations. At the moment, the level of support from the organised private sector for theatre is not encouraging. And this is not unconnected with the fact that there is no reward mechanism in place to encourage corporate organisations to fund the art in Nigeria.
What reward mechanism are we talking about?
Tax rebate. Government doesn't have to do everything but should create the right atmosphere for things to get done. If the right policy is put in place and corporate organisations know that they will get tax rebate for funding the arts, they will be encouraged to do so.
How will you describe your 2012 theatre season then?
It is the busiest theatre season I have been part of in recent time. And I mean in the last 20 years. We are determined to keep theatre alive in Nigeria, nay Abuja. Our initial plan was to put up a monthly theatre production but that plan was later put aside owing to funding constraint, but inspite of that 2012 was very busy for us. The year started with our production of Mufu Onifade's 'Love is Blind' in February. That production was not very successful but we were not deterred. In June, we put up a weeklong theatre festival, the Festival of Barclays Ayakoroma's Plays which featured three plays - Castles in the Air, Beyond the Camp and Dance on His Grave. This was followed by our production, in October, of Professor Zulu Sofola's 'Wedlock of the Gods' to wrap up the year.
In between, Arojah Royal Theatre holds a monthly play reading party, an interactive session which brought together playwrights, theatre producers and directors, theatre enthusiasts, arts and culture administrators to an interactive session aimed at advancing the course of theatre in Nigeria.
It was a difficult but successful theatre season in all ramifications because we are able to prove that though it takes a lot of pain, live theatre can be sustained and one day, can become commercially viable.
What should theatre lovers in Abuja look forward to in 2013?
The best. Like I said earlier, we are not deterred by the challenges. We shall be looking at fostering very good partnership for our 2013 theatre season which shall kick off in the last week of January. The season will open with our a production of Seyi Adigun's 'Call for Me My Osheni' in Abuja and on February 3rd as Abuja's entries for the Festival of Nigerian Plays (FESTINA 2013). March/April, will see us stage Adinoyi Onukaba Ojo's 'Sssooommmaaallliiiyyyaa' while Ahmed Yerima's 'Tuti' is slated for July. Most importantly, we plan to stage the second edition of our Festival of Plays in October/November. That is the Festival of Ken Saro Wiwa's Plays which will feature the production of the four plays in the collection 'Four Farsical Plays'.
While we work on these new plays, we intend to bring back on stage some of the plays in our repertory - Castle in the Air, Wizard of the Law and The Killing Swamp among others for the benefit of those who might have missed them then.
In between, depending on availability of funds, we intend to undertake some special productions like our Women's Day Play Series, our Education Support Project, our Day of the African Child production, an adaptation of Eze Goes to School' and the Independence Play Production among others.
For us, it's going to be another busy year and we can only hope for the best.