Nigeria: Z-Mirage -Why we make artistes out of children

‘Why we make artistes out of children’

Alhaji Teju Kareem is the proprietor of Z-Mirage, a world-class set, stage and lighting design outfit that has set an enviable standard in the theatre industry in Nigeria.  A graduate of Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Kareem has been involved in the Wole Soyinka Project and the International Cultural Exchange Programme designed primarily to empower kid artistes in the past four years.  In this interview with Edozie Udeze, he bares his mind on the state of stage, designs, costumes, props and other salient elements that give beauty to the stage.  He also dwells on the reason why they make school children to be involved in the arts early enough and lots more

You have been doing this Wole Soyinka Project since the past four years. What has the experience been like?

Yes, I am the producer of the Project W S and the co-producer of the International-Cultural Exchange Programme. All of these two are the events on the bowel of our open door series. Open door series is meant to be a forum where artistic endeavours are explored. It is a place where artistes also can use the medium for the advancement of the art, setting agenda in a way to give back to the society.

We started it four years ago. And the inspiration was mooted just over a dinner when I was doing a residency at Southern Illinois University in the United States of America. That was on the invitation of Professor Segun Ojewuyi who before then had the intention of bringing to Nigeria some students under an international cultural exchange programme. It then also occurred to me that we could do drama. This was to help increase and raise the bar of theatrical performance. It could be better too if we could use this medium to do productions. It could be double-edged.

Our endeavour was meant not only to improve on the practice, but to also educate, set agenda, sow seed; seed to change our value system and then target the children. This is so because we have been formed in our ways – the children are yet to be formed; in their opinions, in their ways and their thinking.

And if what the children do nowadays as adults and if going by what our leaders are doing and you leave that unchallenged, by intellectual input, by systematic engagement of the youths; of the unformed youths, we stand the risk of carrying over the coming generation our value system that may not be good for them. From what has happened in the Rivers State House of Assembly in the last few days you could see the reason why we need to begin on time to show good conduct to the younger ones. That is one of the points we needed to make by starting the international cultural exchange, tying it somewhat to the Wole Soyinka Project.

As long as the system does not have a mechanism to purge itself – a sort of inbuilt mechanism to check the excesses of our leaders – we will continue to have this sort of mess. But theatre is one way to indoctrinate the children; teach them the right way to go and to choose a profession of their choice from the word go. Coincidentally, our icon, Professor Wole Soyinka, has taken his time to focus attention on the youths, believing that we can start now to inculcate value system in them to avoid the mess we are in today. He sees the youths as the hope for the future and if we continue to develop them, show them how to go, we will certainly develop a new generation of Nigerians for all of us.

From the series of performances by the children so far, do you think the project is catching on?

You are very correct and apt too. I’ll put it this way: We are beginning, and not the children, to now know the capacity and capability of the children. They are vibrant, they are energetic and ever willing to be taught. They are ready to learn their cultural values if you teach them well.

They have always been having it. We also had it when we were kids. The leaders had it when they were kids. But these talents were not brought to the fore, or helped to blossom. That sincerity, that Jesus-like purity that is associated with kids, we did not carry it over to our middle age or so, is what is killing us.

There was a truncation; there has always been a truncation of that purity of social development, political development, cultural development and so on which have been truncated by our so-called leaders and also truncated by you and I too. So, we must help the children by imbibing that Jesus-like purity where the love for one another is totally embedded in us, in whatever we’ve chosen to do.

We therefore need to do that to allow that child who has the goodness in his or her to develop along his political, social, moral or religious bent. It is we adults that are beginning to lend the kids that listening ear. Unless the kid speaks we do not know what he wants. Therefore we need to listen to them; we need to allow them speak to let us know what they want, what they want to be. And how do we do that? Give them the stage to perform, give them biros to write; give them books to read. Allow them to be who they are as we guide and guard them along the way.

Our leaders should listen to them to be able to form policies of what our future should be. Rather than us enforcing ideas on them, thinking that we know, we need to watch them do their own thing to be who they are. This is one of the things we set out to change so that we as parents can guide them aright.

And with this essay they are writing for Wole Soyinka’s 79th birthday, you’ll be shocked the kind of deep ideas they display.

And they are writing under camera and not being guided by any one. The way they put it crystal clear, no ambiguity or colouration. They say it the way it is for you to know. The theme is Memoirs for our future and it is so timely and thematic for the kids to explore and exploit.

So, we’ve discovered all these talents right from the beginning of the project till today. It is growing and we are happy that every year the kids are growing in their own ability to set the agenda. Let them be the prophets; enough of going to the mosques, enough of going to the churches. Let those who own tomorrow prophesy about the tomorrow which is their own tomorrow.

As the foremost set design expert in Nigeria, how do you assess the level of stage designs in the Nigerian theatre?

Over the years, credit goes to my forebears; the Agboolas, the Marinhos, the Nasirus, and some of them who are also in the television. But one thing is obvious, one thing I make bold to say is that our colleagues in the artistic spheres of the practice have excelled so much. However, all of us, not some of us in the technical aspect of the art and the technology of the art, including the stage, the light, the costume and so on, are still lagging seriously behind. Therefore, we have through this made art very dull, dry and uninteresting. In some cases, we have made it ugly. What is our job? Our job as a set designer, a sound designer, a costume designer and make up and props man, cameraman and so on, is to magnify the beauty in the art. The publisher, his job is to magnify the work of a writer by putting it on pages, by laying it and arranging it to be published.

The stage designer is meant to create an enabling environment for the stage. In other words, we flesh the bone of a writer; the writer is the bone maker. We give the flesh to the bone. We clothe it and give life to it. But we have not been doing that.

We have as much relegated the art to past time practice. How? If we have not been able to clothe the art and for the eyes to go for it, then the same eyes reject it, we have not done well. So, this is what we have been able to do in our own little way – by giving life to theatre through the activities of Z-Mirage.

Currently, on what level is the Nigerian theatre? Sick?

Yes, sick. Theatre has too many diverse interested parents. Soyinka is a typical example. So also are the Osofisans, Bode Sowandes, Niyi Osundares of this world. Also the Bayo Oduneyes, Dapo Adelugbas, Ahmed Yerimas, the Niyi Akannis of our time, the Israel Ebohs, the Fred Agbeyegbes, and the Ben Tomolojus. Even the Jahman Anikulapos; they have all been so distracted by the unconcerned grand parent who is the government. So, the forebears that I’ve mentioned, who are their parents?

So they have been so distracted; Soyinka by being a world citizen and by being activist and so on, some by being academics and being locked up there. Jahman, for his ability to be prolific and multi-talented and so on. All these have affected the serious practice of the art by those who know it all.

In addition, the government has not provided the necessary security and so on. So, what we have today is sick offspring in the theatre. Today, the theatre is being catered for by quack doctors, by those who do not originally belong to the theatre. We have quack doctors in the area of directing, in the area of stage management, in the area of stage lighting, in the area of stage design and so on.

This is what we need to correct now to give life back to the stage and make the best out of it. We need artistes who went through the proper tutelage to give us total and professional theatre. And that is what I’ve always believed in.

Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC and CEO of Portia Web Solutions. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websites. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.

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