What impact can theatre criticism make on politics? What are the values of the politics in the theatre? How can the theatre of politics be engaged dialectically? How does documentation policy affect the theatre critic? Is theory an accessible tool for the theatre critic?

The above mindboggling and many more questions were addressed by the recently concluded Conference of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) in Nigeria, with the theme: “Theatre, Criticism and Politics – Where Are the Limits?” The attempt to locate these limits created a meeting point for theatre critics in the media and the academia the world over to cross fertilize ideas and share experiences on the trends and development of the practice of theatre criticism.

The IATC 2017 conference, which attracted international audience, was unique in many ways. Apart from the international participation, many other things that made Nigeria IATC conference historic and momentous were that, IATC-Nigeria collaborated with the British Council Nigeria in the 2017 edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival.

It is of interest that, it was the first time since IATC started 60 years ago that its conference was taking place in any African country. So, it goes down in history that Nigeria was the first African country to host theatre critics in the whole world. This is in addition to other feats Nigeria achieved that the only African Member of the Executive Committee of the IATC is Nigeria’s Professor Emmanuel Samu Dandaura. Furthermore, Nigeria’s distinguished Professor Femi Osofisan was the first African to win the prestigious IATC Thalia Award 2016etc.

In its preparedness to make the conference vibrant, IATC-Nigeria, through the Office of its President, Prof. Emmanuel Dandaura, called for paper contributions from theatre critics, with the explanation that:

The special International Theatre Critics Conference will deliberate on the theme: Theatre, Criticism and Politics – Where Are the Limits? In the last two and a half centuries, the relationship between politics, theatre, and theatre criticism has been fluid. There were periods in which all were going in the same direction – for good or ill. In some historical periods, theatre was courageous, provocative, and challenging. Criticism, however, strongly controlled by mainstream political power (as with much of the media), could not support it. In some constructs, media demanded that theatre be more politically daring. IATC conference, therefore, will interrogate how global theatre and theatre criticism respond to current political events. Is there a new political theatre? Is there a growing trend toward the political or do individual cases arise on their own? How do critics react? Are we free to openly support theatre that dissents from accepted political and cultural norms? How do we recognize a politically brave theatre in societies different from our own? If we recognize it, how do we communicate it to our readers?

The need to address the above questions arose because, according to IATC, the world is currently witnessing crises, which have local manifestations all around the world: right-wing movements, Brexit, the EU crisis, neoliberal slavery, the migration crisis, consequences of the so-called “Arab spring,” successive failures of incumbent presidents to maintain power in Africa, social injustice, and global terrorism.

IATC Members believe that theatre criticism can address these problems because politics, theatre, and theatre criticism have long been interwoven and interdependent. When theatre criticism appeared as a genre in Western media, in the 18th century, it fought the same battle as the (bourgeois) theatre itself. Theatre and criticism were important social platforms in the battle against conservative, aristocratic, and clerical states even as they advocated a new and progressive bourgeois society. With this confidence, IATC, UNESCO’s statute ‘B’ global partner in theatre criticism, in the Nigeria’s 5-day conference from 1-5 March, 2017, had a lively debate on the growth of the theatre through theatre criticism.

The Honourable Minister for Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, represented by the Acting General Manager, National Theatre, Nkanta George Ufot, harped on the importance of theatre practice, theatre criticism and the society. The event, which took place at the VIP Hall, National Theatre, Iganmu-Lagos, saw many speakers, both from Nigeria and abroad, harped on the objectives of the strategic partnership between IATC and British Council, as organizers of the Lagos Theatre Festival to include, opening avenues for more international tours for the average Nigerian Theatre practitioner; increased media visibility for works of Nigerian creative artistes; facilitating cross-fertilization of ideas and galvanize discourse around home grown theatre performances and other emerging forms of expressions in Nigerian theatre. 

Meanwhile, in the opening session of conference with the President of National Academy of Letters (NAL), Professor Olu Obafemi, as the chairman, recorded the presence of intercontinental theatre critics in Nigeria with more than 70 national and international theatre critics at the Banquet Hall of National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. They included the Global President of IATC and Swedish renowned journalist and critic, Margareta Sorenson; 2016 IATC Thalia Laureate, Professor Femi Osofisan; foremost Nigerian Theatre Critic Professor Ebun Clark; former Artistic Director of Abuja Carnival and National Theatre, and award winning playwright, Professor Ahmed Yerima; President of the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), Professor Sunday Ododo; accomplished playwright and Executive Secretary, National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Associate Professor Barclays Foubiri Ayakoroma, represented by  the Director, NICO Training School, Lagos, Mrs. Brigitte Yerima; the IATC Director of Conferences and Artistic Director of  Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF), Associate Professor Ivan Medenica; Adjunct Secretary, IATC, Dr. Octavian Saiu; former Deputy Editor The Guardian Newspapers,  Mr. Ben Tomoloju;  former Editor, The Guardian on Sunday, Jahman Anikulapo; and Bernice Chan K Wai (Hong Kong), among others. 

In his opening remarks, Prof. Olu Obafemi expressed his gratitude for the coming together of world theatre critics in Nigeria, stating that theatre critics should try at all times to bring theatre aesthetics together when they write on theatre performances.

He said that, theatre critics should not only write on the literary aspect of the theatre but the performances, further commending Prof. Emmanuel Dandaura, describing him as a theatre critic that has done Nigeria and Africa pride, through Nigeria’s membership of IATC.

On his part, Prof. Femi Osofisan commended the efforts of theatre critics in Nigeria, urging them to keep the flag flying, just as he dedicated his 2016 IATC Thalia award to Nigeria, saying that the award was not just an honour to him, but the entire Nigeria and Africa in general. 

He also commended Prof. Dandaura and Margareta Sorenson, whose tenures as IATC-Nigeria President and the global President of IATC, respectively, have made the 2016 IATC Thalia Laureate.

Sorenson commended Nigerians for their efforts in IATC, especially the hosting of the 2017 conference, calling on African to really engage in critical discourse by writing on the theatre performances.

Prof. Dandaura, on his part, extolled Sorenson as the first IATC global President to bring the association’s conference to Africa and Nigeria in particular; and he used the opportunity to call on African theatre critics to engage theatre practitioners critically as that will bring robust development to African theatre criticism.

Several goodwill messages were presented by some participants to extol the conference. Renowned playwright and winner of 2014 NLNG Prize for Literature, Professor Sam Ukala, felicitated with the IATC-Nigeria for hosting the conference, describing it as a landmark event because it was the first time both seasoned and budding theatre critics the world over would gather in Africa and it is in Nigeria they gathered.

Speaking on the theme of the conference, Ukala noted that politics and political events are swift and drama and theatre are mostly built on them after they had occurred; and similarly, theatre criticism follow drama and theatre.

He raised a pertinent question to address the place of the writer and theatre criticism in a country’s politics: Is it not possible for the theatre to create politics of the future – desirable or undesirable, depending on the character of politics of today as a guide on what attitudes to cultivate or avoid if man wants politics to be beneficial to the generality of the people?

Prof. Ukala referred to the criticism of politics by dramatists like Hubert Ogunde with his play, Yoruba Ronu and what theatre critics wrote about the play, urging journalists to be vibrant in their criticism of theatre performances.

Also, a fellow of SONTA, Prof. Dauda Enna, recalled when the Nigerian section of IATC was admitted in Warsaw, Poland, in 2012, saying he was present and it was a remarkable event and since then, the president, IATC-Nigeria, Prof. Emmanuel Dandura, has worked tirelessly to keep the section afloat.

According to the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mr. Denja Abdullahi, the conference was timely as it will provide the critical indices with which writers and critics can use to reassess the place of the theatre in a world that is fast evolving with so many technological devices competing for attention.

In the presentation of the conference papers, the question as to where the limits of theatre, criticism and politics are, received thought provoking answers. Margareta Sorenson, the global President of IATC, chaired a brainstorming session, where Prof. Obafemi asserted that there must be serious engagement of the polity by the theatre critic. His paper, entitled, “The Theatre of Politics and Politics of the Theatre: A Dialectics of Engagement”, urged the theatre critics to use all genres of the theatre to engage the polity, because the theatre has striking messages that can address the political problems of any society. 

Dr. Octavian Saiu spoke on Brecht and the values of politics in the theatre, pointing out that Brecht provided a blueprint of what can address politics in the theatre and politics of any society. While Prof. Julie Umukoro’s paper dwelt on the Nigerian Playwright and the politics of criticism; and Dr. Ivan Medenica lectured on the Bourgeois theatre and its criticism from emancipation to decadence. 

Professional roundtable, which was chaired by Mr. Ben Tomoloju, focused on “Theatre Criticism and the Print Media”. Jahman Anikulapo, who spoke on “Theatre Criticism and Journalism in Nigeria”, highlighted what impedes theatre criticism, as the relationship of the newsroom, the ownership of the newspaper and the environment, where theatre criticism should to take place.

Nwagbo Pat Obi of National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) spoke on the “Print Media and Politics of Newspaper Documentation Policy”, where he observed that there is poor documentation of the newspaper, as a research material and a material to be cited by researchers for review of literature, calling on theatre critics to collate their stories being published in the newspaper. This, he explained, could accumulate to a volume worth publishing as a book. This can be documented in the library and by the individual theatre critic.

Funke Osai Brown, the publisher of The Luxury Reporter, an online magazine, reiterated the position of Nwagbo Obi, calling for digital documentation, as a modern way of documenting what the theatre critics write in the Print Media.

Chinelo Chikelu of Leadership Newspaper talked on poor mentorship as a major challenge of the theatre critics in Nigeria. Funke Durodola of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Radio One, said competence in the electronic media was a major concern, because most radio stations do not give prominence to theatre criticism. They rather focus more on book reviews.

However, Ropo Ewenla gave a hard knock on theatre criticism, saying that it has died long ago because of lack of training for the critic. But Jerry Adesewo of Arojah Royal Theatre, Abuja reasoned otherwise, saying that theatre criticism was still very much alive, arguing that so many arts writers were not interested in going into critical establishments, and as such many were not ready for such training or mentorship.

Akin Taiwo Aboderin of The Tribune Newspaper noted that the risks and hazards that go with critical establishments scare many theatre critics; but no matter the risks, he said, theatre criticism in the print media needs to be encouraged as it helps to build up the politics of any nation.

The second day of the plenary session took place at the VIP Lounge of National Theatre, Iganmu-Lagos, where former Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Management Services, University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni, was the chairman. The first session on “Theatre, Change and Free Creative Landscape”, had Prof. Ameh Dennis Akoh speak on “Theory as an Accessible Tool for Critics and Practitioners”, calling for the development of theories to be used in teaching theatre criticism in the print media.

Dr. Chukwuma Anyanwu’s paper, entitled, “From the Age of Innocence to Times of Disillusions”, dwelt on the trends and developments in theatre criticism with a recommendation that new theories were needed for the theatre critic to engage the criticism of theatre performances.

Salamatu Sule spoke on: “Theatre, Criticism and Politics: Where are the limits?”, describing the theatre, criticism and politics as a tripod with indispensable relationship, because theatre projects themes on politics and criticism evaluates performances on them. 

The next session on “Theatre, Politics and Anti-Corruption”, was chaired by Prof. Sunday Ododo. In it, Azeez Akinwumi Sesan spoke on movie of dramatic creative, with a focus on traumatic experiences; Omorodion Ochuwa dwelt on theatre terrorism and the society, using Esiaba Irobi’s Hangmen Also Die to address revolutionary violence; Margareta Sorenson spoke on criticism as a shadow theatre play; while Dr. Arnold Udoka’s paper discussed the challenges of dance criticism in post-colonial Nigeria.

There was a Dance Drum Invocation, performed by the National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN) for the closing ceremony. It was choreographed by Dr. Arnold Udoka

Nwagbo Pat Obi

NICO Training School, Abuja Study Centre/

Director, Publicity and Membership Services