The business of theatre in Lagos

Mo Awomolo had the pleasure of interviewing one of the producers of Fela on broadway, Stephen Hendel in Lagos

1. What was different about staging Fela on broadway in Lagos relative to  NYC and in London. 

The set was adjusted to fit a wider stage. The set had to use IMAX cameras so people on the side could see. Otherwise the physical production was the same.

2. Compare your experience in Lagos relative to NYC and London, as a producer from a technical angle, audience reaction and infrastructure issues.

The audience really knew the material: Fela, Fela's songs. The audience sang along with the cast. The audience reaction to Fela's songs, to the story and to the lines was very inspiring for the cast. The cast gave amazing performances as a result.

3. What were your key challenges in Lagos?

The show was the 1st broadway production in Lagos. It was difficult to bring the set and all the necessary equipment to Lagos and recreate the Broadway environment. This meant the show had to be  adapted and set in order to work in a wider and bigger space. A lot of local people had to be trained for hair, change  of clothes etc. We were fortunate that we found a wealth of local talent in Lagos and managed to find professional people who were enthusiastic to make a contribution. 

4. What were the most exciting highlights?

When the cast sang 'Trouble Sleep' the audience sang back. The cast felt the love from the audience. This meant to the cast that the audience loved them and loved their show. There was a total exchange between the audience and the cast and the cast gave back their best performances. It was exciting to see the audiences'response. It was wonderful to see how the audience settled into the show after the song Trouble Sleep.

5. What obstacles did you face and how did you deal with the constricting issues?

The show is a highly technical with lots of cutting edge NYC technology which was moved to Lagos. Thanks to a good partnership with "Broken Shackles, our esteemed local producer"", a perfect local guide, who helped to meet all the challenges. Difficult issues were worked out one by one.

6. How did you deal with security?

Broken shackles helped to retain advanced security.

7. Did you get to see the city of Lagos outside the hotel and the show?

The concert at the new African 'Shrine' was before the show started. The Shrine performance was very very exciting and very well received. The producers visited the original Shrine and spent time with Fela's family members at their homes.

8. What were your observations of Lagos State? What surprised you about Lagos?

Lagos has a high sence of taste, a sense of buzzing excitement, a sense of vibrant activity.  Lagos pulsates with energy and reminds you of  Manhattan in NYC. There are tons of theatre artists, photographers, writers, entrepreneurs and people who appreciate  culture. It was suprising to see how crowded Lagos is with 17m people. Seeing large crowds strikes home differently.  Issues in terms of power. It was a surprise  to have periodic blackouts in the hotel and to see alot of generators. It is unsurprising as you expect challenges in a city that has grown like crazy, filled with all these energetic people.

9. How was your experience of meeting the real Fela band and what was their response?

The family could not have been nicer and more supportive. The cast felt very welcome, were well embraced and were made to feel like part of the family. Everyone on the crew were moved by the warmth from Fela's family.

10. Was the project financially rewarding? If not, in what ways have you been rewarded to keep you motivated to go on?

The show was very costly. There were unanticipated costs. The act of being in Lagos, performing in front of the Lagos audience, the connection with the  people to hear it was like the play was written for Lagos.The show got an overwhelming response. The level of  gratification is beyond words to be involved in a show that cuts across continents, brings about unity and brotherhood. We have a line in the show that resonated with truth during our performances in Lagos.

"Africa to America, America to  Africa...We have a lot to learn from each other". What happened in the Lagos shows was this concept took an entirely  different meaning. Art brought America and Nigeria together through the Fela performances. Fela's music and his legacy  are universal and we all shared a cultural experience that brought us together. When we began Fela in New York, we had  the hope that the work would express our commonality and core human values. The Lagos performances made that hope come true.

11. Are you encouraged to take the show to other African countries?

 The producers are encouraged and would love to come back and show the play at the national theatre and run the play for longer.Fela is a 21st century universal subject.

There is a strong case for a world class theatre in Lagos. There is an initiative on ground to develop an auditorium for future performances. Meanwhile, the National theatre building is a facility that could perhaps be brought back into service.

Mo Awomolo

Alain Charles Publishing, University House, 11-13 Lower Grosvenor Place, London, SW1W 0EX, UK
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