Despite having to contend with a general election and other unique logistical issues, Lagos Theatre Festival is thriving and now boasts a fringe sibling of its own, as Nick Awde writes
The Lagos Theatre Festival is bigger and better than ever this year. In fact, it’s the biggest open-air theatre event in West Africa, but it almost didn’t happen. As festival producer Ibukun Fasunhan wryly observes: “We have had a little bit of an issue this year – the national elections. We were supposed to have run at the beginning of March, but then the elections were postponed and we have had to change the dates twice already.”
April is now the new March. Luckily, the original programme was diverted before it went to the printers, and, despite drop-outs, the festival has managed to keep 38 companies with 120-odd shows still on the roster.
Venues-wise, things turned out to be less auspicious: “We have mostly had to squeeze our shows into the spaces at the festival hub, Freedom Park – the old colonial prison now converted into a public space.”
Fasunhan is remarkably pragmatic. “It’s easier organising festivals in places like the UK because you have money to pay people, you have arts grants and different sponsors. In Nigeria, we usually don’t have this, and it can also be very disturbing sometimes because we need to think about the safety of the audience and the participants – and especially around election time things can become very volatile.”
He started at the festival as stage manager for a production of Make We Maka by Molly Taylor and Mimi Poskitt of the UK’s Look Left Look Right, next becoming associate producer before taking over last year as festival producer, along with artistic director Shola Oyebade (aka Mr Mahogany), from festival creators and wife-husband team Brenda and Kenneth Uphopho.
Artistic director: Sola Oyebade
Location: Lagos, Nigeria
Dates (2019): April 8-14 (usually February/March, but postponed due to Nigerian elections)
Employees: Seven seasonal (festival director, festival coordinator, festival producer, production manager, box office manager, associate producer, front of house manager); 25 volunteers
Indoors: Freedom Park – Kongi Harvest Gallery, Esther’s Revenge, Museum; Muson Centre; Terra Kulture; British Council; Artisan Victoria Island; Ajayi Crowther Grammar School
Open-air: Freedom Park – Grill Station, Behind Igroove Radio, Amphi Theatre, Main Stage, Fountain Area, The Ramp, Food Court
Participating companies (2019): 38
Shows (2019): 121
Countries represented (2019): Nigeria, UK, USA
Budget (2019): 20 million naira (£42,000)
Audience figures (2018): 5,413
Funders/sponsors (2019): Major sponsor is British Council; venue partners are Freedom Park, Muson Centre, and Terra Kulture.
Key contact: Bukky Sanu, festival coordinator, email@example.com
The festival began in 2013 under the remit of the British Council. Since then, other international organisations such as the Goethe-Institut and the Institut Français have added their support, a crucial presence in a country where arts funding is so problematic. After five years at the helm, the Uphophos moved on to create Lagos Fringe, the first edition of which launched in November 2018.
The British Council’s vision was to create an alternative platform for theatre in a vibrant city where the few spaces available tend to be big and expensive. “Nigerian theatre hasn’t had what you would consider a commercial sector,” explains Brenda. “It is highly subsided by sponsors or individuals able to pay for their own productions. Theatre certainly hasn’t been commercial in terms of getting a return on investment or making a living.”
The Uphophos had successfully applied for the job to kickstart the Theatre Festival and launched the first event in 2014 with six companies and 15 shows plus workshops.
“We initiated a writers’ competition because we had identified this as one of the challenges that we were facing,” says Brenda. “There simply wasn’t a lot of new work to do. We’re still focused on the older playwrights, the more established playwrights, the great Nigerian playwrights and, personally, I thought it was a little bit staid to keep on recycling the same old plays.”
The following year, they took a break – 2015 was another turbulent year for March elections – and went on an exchange visit to the Brighton Fringe. “That was a phenomenal experience – it made a huge difference to how we worked the following year and our perspective in terms of growth.
“By the time 2016 came around, we had grown to almost 40 companies. We started a fringe strand in addition to the curated side and ended up having 103 events over a period of six days, almost 1,000% growth. We went from zero to hero.”
When they handed over in March 2018, it was to expand on the experience gained from five years of growing theatre.
Brenda continues: “Our idea was to create an alternative festival where, if you didn’t get to perform in March, you get to perform in November. And since this was the fringe, it had to be totally open-access and cut across everything: music, street theatre, circus, busking, drama and comedy.”
Kenneth adds: “The model for the Lagos Theatre Festival itself was a response to the lack of infrastructure here in Nigeria, so it was based on what was lacking and to help develop others to make work. It began to expand as a result of the UK connection, where we brought British interaction with the local talent here.
“When we came back from the last World Fringe Network we wanted international artists to access Lagos as a creative hub. We also wanted the new fringe to match the ‘shine’ that South Africa has in terms of a very viable arts community. We invited Australia’s Salamanca Arts Centre and Situate Arts Festival, and Brighton Fringe came to do a workshop so that we could create our own content. We have an exchange with South Africa’s Vrystaat Arts Festival/PACE to work with our festival team.”
‘Performers know that with the little they have, they can still get their play produced with us’ – Lagos Theatre Festival producer Ibukun Fasunhan
That ethos also continues strongly at the theatre festival, says Fasunhan. “This year’s theme is ‘Imagine the Unimaginable’, which was born out of the idea of companies getting creative with anything they want to and thinking outside the box, especially for the curated companies.
“We support these companies with a certain amount of money while for the fringe companies we share the gate. Of course, we help with publicity and the technical side.”
Both theatre festival and fringe are set up to encourage stagings in open-air or non-conventional venues when there is no other alternative. This means that shows at the festivals sell out far more often than shows in the city’s regular venues. Performers and companies, especially the younger ones, are warming up to the idea of applying for the festival and getting inspired by it, says Fasunhan, “because they know that with the little they have, they still can get their play produced with us”.
There are always fresh challenges. “The truth is we’ve outgrown Freedom Park,” says Brenda. “That is one of the biggest hurdles we’ve faced, because it is on the island and the majority of Lagos is on the mainland. Navigating from any other venues outside the park that are not in the vicinity has proved to be very difficult, so we’ve just been rolling with it.”
Lagos is a natural cultural hub, the melting pot of Nigeria where everyone comes together. It’s no idle statement when you realise that there are 500 languages and 700 ethnic groups contained within a single country.
“That’s why it’s difficult to mete out our identity in terms of these individual groups,” says Kenneth, noting that using the official national language of English provides a window to the globe. “We’re saying: ‘We’re here, this is what we do, this is who we represent’, right? But we also know that we have something that can match what you have out there in the rest of the world.”
Theatre was the reason Brenda and Kenneth met in Lagos before they went on to found the multidisciplinary Performing Arts Workshops and Studios. Brenda also started the Women in the Arts network and festival, and last year became an Obama Leader in recognition of her work as an advocate for women who have suffered sexual abuse and violence.
Kenneth is an International Society for the Performing Arts Global Fellow for 2019: “All this also helps people know there’s a fringe in Lagos, and we know that over the next few years a lot of people are going to make the effort to come.”
“Whatever we do is theatre for social change and for entertainment: we train actors and directors, and now we’re festival managers,” says Brenda. “That has been the evolution of what we’ve been doing in Lagos.”
So, it’s a great example of what happens when you come to the great melting pot of Lagos?
“Yes,” laughs Kenneth. “And your dreams will come true.”
Artistic director: Kenneth Uphopho
Producing company: PAWStudios (founded 2010)
Location: Lagos, Nigeria
Dates (2019): November 19-24
Employees: Four full-time; 13 seasonal; 25 volunteers
Venues (2019): 8 indoors; 13 open-air
Participating companies (2018): 23 Shows (2018): 75
Audience figures (2018): 3,850
Countries represented (2018): Nigeria, Ghana, UK, Australia, South Africa, Germany
Turnover (2018): 24 million naira (£50,000)
Ticket sales (2018): 4.3 million naira (£8,970)
Funders/sponsors (2019): Access Bank, Lagos Internal Revenue Service, PAWStudios
Key contact: Brenda Uphopho, festival producer, +234-8096360700