By Anote Ajeluorou
One of Nigeria’s most vibrant theatre companies, Jos Repertory Theatre, with Dr. Patrick-Jude Oteh as its Artistic Director, is currently in Prague, capital of Czech Republic for the Creative Africa Festival. Audience, one of that country’s beloved plays, written by Vaclav Havel, is being performed by a two-man piece at a library dedicated to the playwright. Oteh shares his experiences of touring Czech Republic cities with AnoteArtHub, and lessons for Nigeria’s theatre space
What is the origin of Creative Africa Festival?
THE festival is currently in its 18th year, and it was started by an organization called KOMBA z.s. in Prague, Czech Republic, and it is currently being led by Lucie Nemeckova.
How did your troupe become part of the festival? What’s your troupe strength? What works are you performing?
We first heard about the organization and the festival in 2012 after our first performance of Vaclav Havel’s Audience at the Jos International Festival of Theatre organised by Jos Repertoire Theatre (JRT). At this initial stage, there were challenges with our interpretation which was a directorial challenge. The connection got more serious after we performed the play at Transcorp, Abuja, after the outing in Jos. Then in 2014, Lucie got in touch again about their desire to collaborate with the Vaclav Havel Library and Charter 77 to bring the play to Prague.
Discussions have been on-going over the years until 2018, when we all resolved that the play must come to Prague. Before this decision the play had two other performances in Abuja. We all started to scout for funds and the Czech Embassy, Abuja, was very helpful in this regard. They got us two tickets, Charter 77 got us one, and JRT sourced for money for some of the local expenses, then while we were looking for dates, Covid-19, with all its disruptions, came. We returned the tickets, and started planning post-Covid. But this came with its own challenges, as traveling costs had doubled along with the complications of international travel. VAE controls added some funds to compliment the local side of our trip, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs also chipped in some funds and the Embassy in Abuja and JRT completed the contributions.
The troupe’s strength is three – two actors and a director doubling as stage manager. We are still performing Vaclav Havel’s iconic play, Audience.
Which other African countries and performance troupes are also taking part?
There are actors and playwrights from Martinique.
What does this performance trip and exposure mean for Jos Repertoire Theatre?
It is a continuation of the widening of our company’s horizon and experiences. We last toured before Covid-19, but that was more of a working, exploratory trip. But this particular trip is instructive and hands-on. There have been tours where one is engaged as a director for a troupe based outside the country but Creative Africa Festival has been magnanimous in agreeing for us to come with our actors. Aside the two actors, who have been in the play since 2013, other company members are fully involved at the administrative end. We are trying to get a lot of our actors to be exposed to the rigors and challenges of international tours.
What are the performances you’ve had and which other ones are yet to hold?
We have performed at the Vaclav Havel’s Library, Prague. We are moving to Brno and we will end up at Plzen. We had a full house at the Vaclav Havel’s Library and some people were standing and we were greeted with a full 5-minute standing ovation at the end of the play. The post-performance discussions lasted for over two hours and we had to leave because the Library had to close. The Nigerian Ambassador to Czech Republic was fully on ground and he was a very proud Ambassador that night. We also had the Moroccan and Algerian Ambassadors and, of course, our hosts from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a full complement of the Sub-Saharan department.
Now, it seems comparatively easier for a Nigerian troupe to perform in Europe than do so in Nigeria. Don’t you think so?
Aside the costs. Especially post Covid-19 when the world is gradually opening up again, a lot of theatres and peoples are looking for content and new experiences to try to get back into the business of living and sharing universal stories. A lot of us last saw ourselves in Zoom performances. I think and believe that part of the difficulty in Nigeria has to do with our overall response to the financial aspects of dealing with Covid-19 aftermath. The economy and the exchange rate is not helping matters. Venue rates have escalated, and the general living condition is a sad narrative.
In what ways are your offerings putting a spotlight on Nigeria’s socio-political condition?
We are not politicians. We are artistes telling a story written in 1975. Fortunately, the story is a universal one. As long as we are human beings, there will always be those of us who will be on the side of repression and oppression. They might be individuals and they might be state functionaries. We have been involved in very difficult discussions on this tour about the situation in Nigeria, but the surprise has been that if you have a different narrative, you are dealing with intellectuals and people genuinely interested in the well-being of Nigeria and who know so much about your home country. A play of this nature must, as a matter of course, put a spotlight on Nigeria and on-going challenges and issues. It forces us to re-examine our misfortunes, fortunes and aspirations as a people. Our own existence as artistes will certainly be called to question if we do not confront these issues.
What has been the reception so far, and how long is the festival?
The reception to Audience and our interpretation has been awesome and humbling. The festival will end on the morning of May 25 after eight momentous days.
What lessons does the festival have for Nigeria’s theatre practice and how practicable and applicable are those lessons?
We are always looking for big spaces to do theatre. This does not have to be so. The new lesson is, I can schedule performances in my living room! Any little space will do. We don’t have to look for spaces that will seat 1,000 people. If we can get this number of people to watch, it would be good and great for our financial health, but we cannot continue to wait for these numbers. We were at another festival earlier and it was outdoors, with people coming and going.
However, each theatre organization must continue to look at the individuals who give to sustain theatre. It was quite humbling that during our run through at the Library, one of their patrons came in, watched rehearsals a bit and left. He was very surprised and impressed that we came all the way from Nigeria and that we have even heard of the works of Vaclav Havel. The Library benefits because it means that they are actually perpetuating the works of Vaclav Havel and our performance is a justification of the fact that his works have gone outside Czech borders. Such a patron will continue to support the Library, and by extension, the arts.
When will Jos Repertoire Theatre tour Nigerian cities apart from Abuja?
We perform all over and anywhere the opportunity presents itself. The sad reality is that these days, we have to seriously measure where to go and how to get there. Before now we travelled all over – anywhere we could get work, but it is not so anymore and times have changed tremendously. We are really living in dangerous times and we are still considering the continuation of our Zoom performances where you can sit in the comfort of your home and watch a performance. At least, until the security situation improves.