Monday, 1 February 2016

It’s sad that many students have left the love of theatre behind - Ola Williams


Teacher, actor, director, playwright and the Chairman of the Ogun State chapter of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Yinka Ola-Williams, in this interview with ADA DIKE, shares his views on the importance of teaching students theatre in schools.

Yinka Ola-Williams has worked in theatre for over 20 years. According to him, theatre is lucrative, but it has not been given its rightful place in Ogun State. “Performance theatre is not sustainable, if you don’t have a sponsor you won’t be able to put up a show. That is the standard.
Funding is practically dying, but the truth is that those brand managers and corporate affairs managers are still spending money in TV shows and reality show,” says the prominent actor. 

He adds: For me, I don’t see hope in theatre except there is a major intervention and that intervention can come through individuals, government and private establishments.”
He has been to over 800 schools in Nigeria, running children’s programmes. Those days at the National Theatre, Lagos, he was the Director of the Ancient Theatre Company, where we focused on children theatre. “In primary school, we have educational theatre programme known as the ‘theatre on top’, so we moved from school to school in Lagos. That made me to know how Lagos and where schools are. At the secondary schools, we picked recommended text whether at the junior or senior secondary school level. That is, foreign and non foreign texts. That is why we stage plays like the Merchant of Venice so that when the students go to the theatre to watch, they are learning the mode of going to the theatre. Secondly, watching the play life helps them to understand the text better,” Ola-Williams revealed.
A peep into his educational background revealed that, through a grant from the Ford Foundation, he was trained in Drama at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and Business Creativity at the Felix Meritis European Centre for Arts, Culture and Science, Netherlands.
Ola-Williams is a teacher, actor, director and playwright. He once worked at the National Theatre in Lagos, and also worked as the Business Development Manager at Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library.
At the National Theatre, he was in charge of the section where the focus was on children’s theatre. He worked with children in primary schools and ran an educational development programme that took theatre on tour from one school to another. “While that lasted, secondary school students also benefitted in the sense that the project each year dramatized a recommended text for the junior and senior secondary school levels. Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice were produced for students who would learn and their understanding of the texts would be aided. It was very lucrative. It is sad that many students have left the love of theatre behind, because they are not encouraged after school. I partly blame the brands which spend huge budgets on television reality shows rather than invest in a venue for theatre productions.
In your view, did the children grow up and liked going to theatre? He was asked. “I don’t think so because it was not sustained. Moreover, their level of artistic engagement in the tertiary institution counts, coupled with the location of the theatres.”
Sir, there is a belief that NANTAP practitioners themselves have a role to play, though the government has a role play, which is to create an enabling environment. This takes us to cultural policy in which every government provides some amount of money for community theatres. Are you sure that improper packaging is not the reason why theatre producers are not getting audience and sponsors? What can be done about the issues raised above? He was asked.
“Anyway, African theatre is about spectacle. Nowadays, there can be one man show (dancer) and all these are being done to cut cost and make it affordable. For me, there is no agenda. Theatre has many advantages. It is a therapy for children, especially, special children with autism and so on. This is the message I preach in Abeokuta. It is about sustaining it. After 20 years, I don’t want to do shows anymore because I am looking at something that is sustainable.”
On why he didn’t you replicate children’s theatre in Abeokuta, he said: “That was what I did when I was in Obasanjo Presidential Library because my appointment said I will not be paid after six months, that I have to sustain myself. After the whole lot we did in Ogun State, we were not getting enough patronage. So I went back to children’s theatre. We sometimes made N1.7 million through marketing, asking children to come even from Lekki, Lagos and Ibadan in Oyo State. Since I left the Presidential Library, it is painful that everything just died down.
He speaks on new project by saying he has many projects including two works. “The first one is a mini book titled, ‘Commentary on the Four Lepers: A New Perspective on Science and Spirit’, and a video with song called ‘The Happening’ in which I performed. These two works are connected with each other.
“The genesis of how these projects came about is, in 2008, there was an artiste called Agboola Shadare. She is a guitarist and attends House on the Rock Church. She released an album so I bought it and listened to it. A part of the track that struck me was where Pastor Paul Adefarasin told a story in a poetic way about the four lepers. I have been a Bible student, so I understand that story and for like three years, I was always on the road, so I played the tape over and over.
 Naturally, I memorized the lines in the poem so even if the compact disc was not playing, because the poem comes with a lot of encouragement, the poem gave me an assurance and hope that tomorrow will be a better day. So that was my attachment at that time. Then, in 2010, I was invited by a film production company in Dublin to shoot a documentary. So there was a place we needed to do audio recording in the studio. When the sound guy was getting ready, I was reciting the poem, prayerfully. Somehow, the technicians were not Christians but were attracted to the poem through the way I was reciting it. They recorded it with a ‘Red 4k’ digital film camera. So they shot the video. We shot the video in Dublin and kept it because it is not like the hip hop music but spoken words using sound and poetry. Moreover, I am not a musician and don’t want to be a musician. Then recently, I began to look at that story and found it inside my file, listened to it and got inspiration to write the book from it. I went back to that story of the four lepers which is a very strong story about how God brought deliverance to a country through four lepers who were downcast. I analyzed the story, the characterization.  It was while I was in The Netherlands that the idea of recording it came to me and I did not waste time in getting Dumnac Goulet who did the music and Galahad who directed it.
 “The Four Lepers mirrors the Biblical story of four lepers, but it also explores other subjects such as:  God, Jesus, temporary world and what man and science got to do with spirit. It has a new perspective between science and spirit. I am beginning to see that there is no difference between science and spirit. Science is a manifestation of a spiritual existence. Science says if it cannot be tested, verifiable or proven, then it is not scientific. I am now beginning to disagree with that theory. For example, telephone conversation.  Hundred years ago, if you say someone was in London and talking to someone in Africa, that sounds like witchcraft or mystical.  But today, we see that it is a technology. I have also discovered that the human mind is stronger than medicine.
“The book is a story of four lepers but interpreting it gives me ideas to ask questions. There was famine in Samaria so the four lepers were hungry and contemplated what to do to survive. The famine was severe to the extent that dove’s dung was sold as food. But a prophet said ‘by this time tomorrow, a measure of flour would be sold for a shekel and the value of oil would drop’. That was a strong intervention in human’s lives that a strong famine can be wiped away mysteriously.  Meanwhile, the lepers were rejected and had choices, that is, if they go into their village they would die, if they go to the enemy’s camp they would be killed. If they stay in one spot they would die of hunger. In literature, we are told that when a character is faced with two or more unpleasant situations, it is called dilemma. In the play the lepers faced three challenges, so I called it ‘trilemma’.”
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