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How a new festival was nurtured in Lagos through cultural exchange

Julian Caddy (centre), with Lagos Fringe staff and workshop attendees
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In 2015, Julian Caddy was asked by the British Council to fly to Nigeria as a consultant to the fledgling Lagos Theatre Festival. On arrival, the Brighton Fringe director instantly realised that here within Africa’s biggest megacity was a unique theatre ecosystem in the making.

“I went out with a colleague to talk to arts industry professionals and students, and also got to know the festival’s producer/director Brenda and Kenneth Uphopho and their team. We lectured at Lagos State University and did workshops. Because it’s such a totally different world to be in, we learned very quickly that there are big obstacles there for theatre.

“Everything from the general infrastructure of the city to the way people go about their lives is something we don’t have to negotiate in the UK. The simple idea of doing events in the street and open spaces there isn’t easy for a festival for lots of reasons. Deals often have to be done at the very last minute with commercial partners while there isn’t anything like government or city support for the arts on a financial basis. So it’s a really risky business.”

Many of the obstacles come from security problems and that lack of developed urban infrastructure. The result is that a lot of the festival happens in enclosed, secure spaces. A feature of Lagos is its gated communities and secured arts venues: you go through security checks during which guards put mirrors under the cars to check you’re not carrying anything underneath.

There are obviously concerns in common, says Caddy. “Budgeting is a big thing, engaging with a wider community, engaging with other festivals and other organisations, linking up with similar festivals
and events.”

Caddy is now board member of Lagos Fringe, which has grown out of Lagos Theatre Festival, led by the Uphophos, who have helped boost the profile of both festivals with their own rapid strides elsewhere.

“Brenda has gone on to create the Women in the Arts movement while Kenneth is a highly experienced performer and director,” says Caddy. “What they’re doing is a lot of very topical issues-based theatre, which is reflective of the times. So we’re getting a lot of conversations via these festivals about the use of theatre for political/social commentary in a country where there are so many challenges.”

But in the end everything has to be adapted. A fringe festival in particular is not a one-size-fits-all model – it always needs to respect the individuality and uniqueness of the place it occupies.

In Lagos, that’s things like shows starting on time, for example. The traffic problem means that people simply can’t get to places on time, so events often start a couple of hours late. “But no one’s jumping up and down about it, that’s just the way it happens in Lagos,” Caddy adds.

“It’s also about British artists going to Lagos with work. It’s about cultural exchange and learning from each other. And in an environment where for a generation or more there hasn’t really been an arts scene for live performance in Nigeria, you’ll find, as I have, that the people creating this sort of theatre here are trailblazers.”

Lagos Theatre Festival and Fringe – Nigerian festivals thriving against volatile political backdrop

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