Revamping Live Theatre Culture: The Role of Public Relations

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Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: July 5, 2019

Edmund Chukwuma Onwuliri
Faculty of Arts, University of Abuja
FCT, Nigeria

Journal Full Text PDF: Revamping Live Theatre Culture: The Role of Public Relations.

This paper examined the process of injecting life back into the live theatre culture in Nigeria. Over the last three decades, live theatre performance has continued to post a steady decline. Despite the proliferation of the study of theatre arts in many Nigerian universities, there seems not to be a corresponding rise in the practice of the art of live theatre. Currently, live comedy and contemporary music seem to have overshadowed the theatre by their rapid growth and full acceptance in Nigeria. In other to revive the live theatre culture, the R.A.C.E. Public Relations Model has been applied to mobilise all stakeholders towards re-inventing the live theatre in Nigeria. The discussion shows that through the instrumentality of Public Relations, the culture of live theatre in Nigeria can be restored and made vibrant like it used to be before the turn of the 21st century

Keyword: Live Theatre, Public Relations & Nigeria.

1. Introduction
The art and practice of live theatre in Nigeria have experienced a downturn in the last 30 years. Live theatre culture in contemporary Nigeria is the offshoot of the traditional Yoruba theatre exemplified in the Alarinjo theatre movement. At the twilight phase of the Alarinjo theatre, Hubert Ogunde, who had his ‘’theatrical footings’’ in the Alarinjo theatre culture became like the conveyor belt that fused the old theatre form and the new emerging theatre genre with European influences such as church cantatas and operas (Ogundeji, 2016). Ogunde went ahead to inject life and professionalism into the theatre culture he was pioneering by forming his travelling theatre group in 1945. Thus, the culture of indigenous live contemporary theatre performances began to take concrete shape and form in Nigeria.
However, live stage theatrical performance debuted in Nigeria as far back as 1904 with the production King Elejugbo at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos by Bethel African Church and St. Jude’s Church, Ebute-Metta under the Egbe Ife Dramatic Club (Boscolo 2009). The play was the ‘’first full-act’’ drama presentation in the history of modern Yoruba theatre. Before the likes of Ogunde, Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo popularised live theatre in Nigeria, stage productions of such plays like Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole (The Forest of a Thousand Demons), an adaptation of D.O. Fagunwa’s literary piece had been put on stage in 1938 (freelartdesigns wordpress com). It is pertinent to note that apart from Lagos, other cities in Nigeria did not enjoy the patronage if not ‘’privilege’’ of live theatre culture. Adedeji submits that the culture of live theatre through the efforts of Ogunde and others enjoyed a period of vibrancy from the 1940s till the 1980s. Records reveal a sustained decline in the practice and patronage of live theatre in Nigeria within the last three decades.

2. Key Concepts
We shall concern ourselves with the following critical issues in this discussion:

2.1 Reconstructing
The use of the term “reconstructing” means finding a way of reviving, re-engineering, or bringing back to life that which has suffered damage or has been disorganised. For about 30 years, the art and practice of live theatre have suffered visible and disturbing decline for which scholars, artists and lovers of the theatre must show reasonable concern. Some research efforts have been focused on this trend, and various reasons have been adduced for the decline.

2.2 Audience Participation
Audience participation refers to the patronage received by the theatre practitioner for his art by those who consume his art. The consumers of the art of live theatre are members of the public that pay to attend theatre performances.

3. Live Theatre
Live theatre refers to the stage performance of any theatre form which may include drama, dance, and music and so on, before an audience. Montassier (1980) defines live theatre as ‘’what happens at the precise moment when you perform, that moment at which the world of the actors and the world of the audience meet”. Peter Brook, a famous English theatre and film director equally view live theatre as a situation where ‘’performance brings together two worlds of the stage and audience in an exquisite union as it produces an experience of vital immediacy between the performers and the audience”. He sees live theatre as a performance of “here and now”.

4. Public Relations
Deals with a strategic communication process that could bring about a mutually beneficial relationship between an individual or a body corporate and their various publics or customers. It merely relates to the way, and manner organisations communicate with their publics.

5. Situation Analysis
As earlier stated, professional live theatre practice witnessed a boom in Nigeria between the 1940s through the 1980s. Apart from the founding fathers of live theatre culture in Nigeria, the emergence of academic practice in the arts assisted in entrenching and diversifying the theatre culture in the country. The likes of Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Ola Rotimi and indeed the establishment of what became known as the ‘’Ibadan drama School’’ redefined the art and practice of live theatre. The peak moment for the live theatre culture in Nigeria came in 1977 when the country hosted the rest of the world at FESTAC 77. One year before FESTAC, the then military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo had constructed a world-class facility for the event- the National Theatre, Iganmu Lagos. The city of Lagos continued to enjoy the status of the entertainment and art capital of Nigeria.
By the mid-1980s about ten universities in the country had full-fledged theatre arts departments where theatre scholars and practitioners were being produced. The commencement of the Nigerian Universities Theatre Arts Festival (NUTAF) in 1981, the brain-child of the Nigerian Universities Theatre Arts Students Association (NUTASA) brought together students from all theatres arts and dramatic arts departments of Nigerian universities each year. Plays, especially the ones written and or directed by the students, were presented at such festivals (Ayakoroma, 2012). The NUTASA initiative heralded a new generation of post-Osofisan playwrights, as well as other vibrant professionally groomed theatre practitioners.
However, the ‘’artistic revolution” going on in Nigerian University campuses did not seem to have had a significant effect on the larger society as live theatre performances continued to experience a downward slide concerning patronage. The efforts of committed professional theatre practitioners in the late 1980s and even in the early 1990s did not provide the needed impetus to sustain public interest and patronage of live theatre in Nigeria. The exploits and experiments of PEC Repertory Theatre by JP Clark at J.K. Randel Hall, Onikan, Lagos in 1982, which was eventually taken over by Chuk Mike in the early 1990s readily, comes to mind. If live theatre stood a chance of a comeback, the emergence of Nollywood in 1992 seemed to have dealt it the final crushing blow.
There have been diverse views as to what led to the dearth of patronage of live theatre in Nigeria. Late Professor Sonni Oti, used to say, that the introduction of home video technology in Nigeria in the early 1980s marked the beginning in the struggle for the survival of live theatre in Nigeria. He was of the view that home video technology had brought to the comfort of the living room, the very art that people trooped out to the theatres and cinemas to enjoy. Another major contributory factor may not be unconnected with the economic downturn of the 1980s occasioned by the austerity measures of the Shehu Shagari regime, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the Ibrahim Babangida military government. SAP enthroned many harsh economic situations such as low capacity utilisation in industries, currency devaluation, job losses within the private and public sectors. Probably for the first time, the unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 7.0% in Nigeria (NDE Annual Report 2013). Naturally, patronage of live theatre performances suffered as people were forced to prioritise their needs and of course, their spending. Nigeria has not fully recovered from the resultant effects of the economic misfortunes of the 80s. Currently, the country is grappling with a recession.
Another reason that has been generally canvassed for the low patronage of live theatre performance is the state of insecurity in the land. Violent criminal conducts such as armed robbery, kidnapping and rape, especially at night had assumed an alarming proportion, thereby rendering nightlife in major cities across the country highly unsafe. Ogundeji captures the situation thus: “But, with technological development came the fear of the known and the unknown; “I know it is not safe outside”, “I better leave the hall before the curtain call to avoid molestation by hoodlums”; “Who is the next person seated by me?”. “Is my car safe at the car park?” “Is this performance going to end well or with a bomb blast, (courtesy of “Boko Haram”)?”. All these and many more are the risks taken to attend a production in a Nigerian theatre today…” (2016).

6. The State of Live Theatre in Nigeria
In light of the above, live theatre in Nigeria appears to have surrendered to a new genre of entertainment. These days, it is common to see sell-out crowds at music and comedy shows. This trend in itself appears to put a big question mark on the authenticity of some of the reasons earlier established as to why live theatre no longer thrives in the country. With the emergence of stand-up comedy (supported by contemporary music) as an entertainment genre, most comedy shows hardly lack the desired audience. To this end, the assumption that insecurity and poor financial status of potential audience negatively affect live theatre may have to be re-examined. A regular comedy show in Nigeria attracts gate fees ranging from N5,000.00 to as much as N500,000.00 and tickets at such shows are usually sold out. A close look at stand-up comedians reveals that most of the successful ones cut their teeth in the live theatre tradition. Probably, the only places where live theatre productions still thrive in Nigeria now are on University campuses for apparent reasons.

7. The Way Forward
From the preceding, it is apparent that concerted efforts need to be made to bring the audience back to the theatre. It is also clear that the new genre that is commanding patronage (Comedy and Music) is doing something that is bringing and keeping the audience. Therefore, the practitioners of the live theatre tradition in Nigeria need to learn from them to get the audience back. Maybe, only Public Relations strategy can guarantee the re-invention of robust audience participation in live theatre in Nigeria.

8. Public Relations Strategy
By adopting the R.A.C.E. model, as a Public Relations strategy, it is expected to assist stakeholders in the live theatre business to revive, sustain and further public interest in the art and practice of live theatre in Nigeria. The strategy is also expected to assist practitioners in developing new, vibrant and sustainable ways of making live theatre a viable, desirable, and economically rewarding profession in Nigeria. What is and how would the R.A.C.E. model work?
R- Research
A- Action (Planning)
C- Communication (Implementation/ Action)
E- Evaluation
For the effectiveness of the model, it is important to pilot test the strategy using one theatre facility in a particular city, preferably Lagos. Subsequently, the model based on success may be replicated in other places. The research stage of the model will entail an in-depth study of the theatre environment in Nigeria with special emphasis on the selected location in Lagos. This development becomes necessary against the backdrop of the fact that a proper understanding of the problem facing the industry will determine the best approach that could be deployed towards solving the same.

9. Targeting the Audience
The organisers/practitioners of the ‘’reigning’’ live performance genre- comedy and music seem to have captured the appropriate group that consume their art. This group include but not limited to celebrities, young urban professionals, students of tertiary institutions and other high net worth individuals in society. For live theatre to bounce back, practitioners MUST recreate their art to identify and appeal to specific classes or groups in society. Just as young people find contemporary music and comedy very attractive, there must be a theatre form that will appeal to older people, children, and teenage audience. In other words, audience research will be carried out intending to obtaining critical data that will be applied in structuring appealing theatre content for the targeted group.

10. Stakeholders Buy-in
It is necessary at this stage to identify the stakeholders to have an effective campaign. The stakeholder’s buy-in is critical to the success of the project. Therefore, professional Bodies in the industry such as NANTAP, SONTA, Nigerian Guild of Actors, Theatre Scholars, Operators in the Hospitality Industry, corporate bodies and of course, government at all levels form the critical stakeholders. All the vital stakeholders will be engaged intending to articulating a blueprint for the implementation of the resurgence of live theatre.

11. Awareness Creation and Incentives
Massive awareness creation among the critical stakeholders will stimulate the desired impetus towards revamping the patronage of the Nigeria audience in the live theatre. Corporate entities will be persuaded to use the live theatre medium to gain reasonable brand mileage. Telecommunications giant Globacom, are brand sponsors of stand-up comedy and music shows in Nigeria. Indeed one of the music shows involves an elaborate seasonal music tour of selected cities in Nigeria with top music artistes yearly. The Muson Centre in Onikan, Lagos was built in the 1990s by the Musical Society of Nigeria which is an elitist group of lovers of classical, jazz and other genres of music that many refer to as ‘’mature’’ music as well as stage plays. The multi-million Naira edifice is now one of the venues for Comedy and Music shows as well as other social events with less of operas, classical, jazz music and drama performances. The class of people who own the Muson Centre will be targeted for the resurgence of live theatre performances in Lagos under the pilot phase of the R.A.C.E. strategy. Incentive packages for the audience will be an integral part of the procedure, which is believed will help boost public confidence to get back to the theatre. Incentives in the form of assurances of security at venues, user comfort facilities and other loyalty-based benefits for the audience will be considered.

12. Conclusion
For live theatre to bounce back in Nigeria, practitioners in that field like their counterparts in comedy and music should see live theatre as a business. To this end, every effort must be channelled into exploring all available avenues of harnessing the potentials therein. The possibilities are no doubt enormous, but pulling them out for maximum benefits will require the expertise of a public relations practitioner who will bring his/her wealth of experience to bear on the project.