By: Eriomala John
Nestled just in front of the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti Hall, and at one of the more busy intersections in the University of Ibadan – leading into Jaja Avenue – is the Wole Soyinka Theatre; a 400-seater structure that serves as a venue for events ranging from lectures to TEDx Talks, and most importantly – stage plays.
On any other weekend, you’re likely to see a banner or two displayed in front of this building, calling theatre lovers to come to see a play. However, have you ever wondered what the process itself entails and how these visual masterpieces are brought to life? No worries, in this article, we’ll take a brief look into the world of theatre in the University Of Ibadan, inspirations behind the plays, challenges faced, and possible improvements that could be made.
Before the Curtains
With creatives of all kinds, the first step in bringing a vision to life is usually the “Why” and this is no different for theatre practitioners; producers, and directors in particular. Regardless of the magnitude of the production, there has to be a trigger – an idea- that eventually morphs into what is seen on stage. In some cases, such as that of third-year Theatre Arts student, Waheed Olamilekan, it is an emotional experience that serves as the source of inspiration such as for his February 2023 play, Embers. According to him, “I used Embers as a carrier, a carrier of pain. I was going through a very hard time and a psychological imbalance, and I thought that the only thing that could relieve me of the pain and trauma was to let my art lift it. I needed a play that would also serve that purpose, so Embers was my best option”. It’s a process observable even in the movie industry with famed directors like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, etc known to draw from their emotions in writing movie scripts.
Directors also draw from previously existing works of literature or even fully produced plays. And while this might lead to an original production, in many instances, what results is a direct adaptation of these works, or a contemporary take with characters and dialogue adjusted to fit the time period. Classics like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel are examples of commonly repurposed works of literature.
In addition, some plays are produced for fulfillment of particular course requirements. Unlike private productions which are the brainchild of one or two people, these sorts of plays involve an entire class; with members serving in various capacities and the play itself getting graded. Typically, there is less complexity involved in productions of this nature. Moving on, what exactly is involved in transforming these ideas into reality?
The Journey from Script to Stage
Contrary to what many might think, the process of producing a stage play is not always linear. As Waheed put it, “To mention the process, it depends. Sometimes, the owner of the dream can be the director who finds a script interesting and decides to invest in it and produce it. The director can as well look for a producer who might key in on the dream and invest in it. So there is no one way to do it”. In some cases, the producer even doubles as the director and ultimately has to oversee the entire process from start to finish.
That said, usually, it begins with holding auditions immediately after finalizing the details of a script. During such calls, actors fit for the roles are selected in a process overseen by the director, or the stage manager. Behind the scenes, a team of capable hands including set designers, costume designers, light technicians, choreographers (for musicals), wardrobe assistants, etc. has to work together to ensure all aspects of the production are taken care of. At the same time, rehearsals are undertaken; actors go over their lines and actions in each scene, overseen by the director. The rehearsal process is often the most tasking part of the preparation for plays as multiple hours are spent to ensure each person’s performance is of the best quality. Rehearsals take place right up till it’s show time.
Beyond this, there’s also the aspect of promotion and publicity. UI is to a large extent a contemporary school and as a result publicity cuts across both traditional and modern media. Asides from putting up banners outside the Wole Soyinka Theatre, fliers are also pasted on several parts of campus and in often frequented spots eg. Cafeterias (notably Zik Cafeteria), Love Garden, etc. Producers have also been known to make use of social media in promoting their plays. i , for one encountered Waheed – or Orolabi as he likes to be called – via a promotional tweet of his for plays in UI. Individual WhatsApp status posts, paid promotion on popular ‘WhatsApp TVs’ and sending e-fliers to UI-centric groups also goes a long way in getting the message out. Afterall, there’s no play without an audience.
Act Three: Challenges and Solutions
Much like the third act in your average movie, stage production comes with its fair deal of challenges. For Anuoluwapo ‘Ann’ Fajemisin, the producer of Ann: The Musical which is set to show on the 7th of May, the major challenge faced has been in the production process. Speaking to this correspondent, she said, people can never imagine the amount of energy that is put into producing a stage play to make it the most entertaining thing they have ever watched and I’d use two words to explain the process- draining and enlightening”. However, as she pointed out, working with ‘good, talented, and hardworking’ people makes it a lot easier. She said, “The producers, director, and stage managers along with every other person in the production have been working hand in hand to ensure a not only entertaining but also one-of-a-kind experience”.
There’s also the issue of finance which to a large extent determines the quality of production. Everything from costumes to lighting and publicity requires a considerable amount of funding; often time, beyond the producer’s capacity. This is where sponsorship and partnerships come in. In Waheed’s case, he was able to partner with Asido Campus Network – which aligned with his vision of art as a healing mechanism – and podcaster, Wura Radio. Coincidentally, Asido, along with the Boxybrand, also partnered with Ann for her play and would be holding a mental health session before the play itself begins. These partnerships serve as important leverages for the producers.
Still on finance, producers have also resorted to issuing tickets for sale at relatively affordable prices as a measure of covering costs. For example, tickets for Sophocle’s Antigone (produced by Sunday Joy) which showed on the 16th of April cost 2,000 Naira, and Let Me Die Alone (produced by Opara Olajide) had tickets in different ranges (1,000, 5,000, and 10,000), while Japa! (produced by Tofunmi Oyebode) which is scheduled to hold on the 30th of April has two ticket ranges (2,000 for ‘Economy’ and 5,000 for ‘Business’). Considering the fact that refreshments would be available, most of these are reasonably good deals for the average student.
In the past, there used to be a problem of attendance. Selling out shows was a difficult affair for even the most publicized plays. Perhaps, this could be attributed to the quality of plays that used to be shown or the lack of appreciation for theatre, but what is certain now is that turnouts have improved. It’s no longer an uncommon sight to see e-fliers circulating bearing the stamp of ‘Sold Out’ just weeks after initial promotion. Although, it must be noted that this is not always the case.
Finally, there’s the perennial struggle to balance academic life with their passions as thespians. Overnight rehearsals, costume designing, and production, promotion, etc. can be quite the challenge when one considers the never-ending streams of assignments and tests thrown at students by the school. As such, more often than not, students are stuck with a choice between both options; school or the stage. Fortunately, some do find a way to balance it while others just push through regardless. To paraphrase Waheed, “There is no excuse. We have to put on a great show”.
At the moment, theatre is clearly thriving in the University of Ibadan. There appears to be demand matched by a steady supply of quality productions. That said, there’s still a lot to be done, and even more to be seen as far as this mini-industry is concerned.