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Jos Repertory Theatre: mentoring generations of creative artistes, one festival at a time

Participants in a group photo after the Arts Management workshop at the 2019 Jos Festival of Theatre

Patrick-Jude Oteh, the Artistic Director of the Jos Repertory Theatre, is taking a three-day workshop with a dozen arts graduates, teachers and practitioners as part of activities scheduled for the 12th Jos Festival of Theatre (7-11 May, 2019). More or less a masterclass, the workshop’s primary focus is to show the participants — some of whom have travelled all the way from Lagos, Abuja and Nsukka  — how they can creatively fund their respective theatrical productions if they are not already doing so or if someday they decide to walk that path.

Minutes into the workshop, it becomes clear that Oteh, who has two masters degrees (Theatre Arts/ International Law & Diplomacy) and a doctorate in Theatre Arts is not going to teach reeling out a  rigid outline of half-hearted instructions; instead, he is reaching deep within himself and drawing from his own experience of running the JRT for 20 off years in a city and country that’s anything but supportive of the arts.

That he has kept his repertory theatre (founded in 1997) this long is a testament to both his wit as well as his grit, an almost Nigerian resolve to never say die. Running the organisation has obviously been a mixbag of ups and downs. At the beginning of the workshop, he introduces the class to two international arts organisations, one heavily funded and the other not so well so.  The former, Oteh says, lavishes its money on pampering its personnel while the latter was quite thrifty with its spendings, to the last cent.

After narrating how both organisations channelled their resources, Oteh — who lectured at a time at the University of Jos — poses the big question: “Which of the two do you think survived,” Oteh asked. A few responses later, he delivers a bombshell: “They both folded up,” he said, though adding that both were later on revived by a more creative management team. The participants are stunned to silence. As Oteh later explains, both organisations simply spent money on day-to-day expense and didn’t invest in anything new and income-yielding (theatrical productions, especially) even though they are renowned arts institutions.  

Actor, lecturer and director: Patrick-Jude Oteh (Ph.D)

“As Art Managers, productions are your lifelines,” he tells the class at the Alliance Francaise, where the festival and workshops are holding this year. “Sponsorship is key but it is what happens when they stop sponsoring you that is the problem. Let’s be careful when we see physical cash, especially when it’s just a signature away.”

His point on (mis) management clearly made, Oteh then goes into a long lecture on how arts institutions can raise funds through building a reliable database of family, friends and clientele; applying for grants and writing proposals that grants-giving institutions will happily honour; tapping into crowdfunding options, one of the more recent ways to raise money for various causes and projects; and negotiating royalties for the plays they choose to perform.   

“Bottomline is that you have to decide on what works and doesn’t work for you,” says the Summer International Fellow if the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. “But whatever you decide, you have to think about how to pay your artistes and staff.”

Over the years, the Jos Repertory Theatre has received grants, commissions and funding support from the likes of the Ford Foundation, British Council, the Spanish Embassy, Embassy of the Czech Republic and the US Mission in Nigeria which picked a large slice of the tab for the 2019 festival.

Workshop participants included journalists, lecturers and students from Lagos, Abuja, Anambra and elsewhere in the country

Oteh makes a point to the aspiring Arts Managers about courting embassies and similar international institutions. “In every embassy, there is a high likelihood that they will always celebrate Independence Days, birthdays of the country’s presidents, other relevant national holidays,” he says on Day Two of the workshop. “You should be thinking ‘how do I plug into such opportunities to network with the cultural attaches, if there is one’”.

On the sidelines of the festival, he runs the media through his experiences with funding institutions and how both the theatre company and the annual festival have evolved and fared over the last two decades.

“The funding environment is shrinking. It’s getting rougher and tougher to access grants. This is why: it’s no longer as easy as it used to be; there are some organisations that used to fund us that have now left funding the arts entirely. They no longer fund the arts but would rather fund things that they can measure, things that they can see. Unlike the arts, how do you measure your impact? How do you measure that someone has benefitted? So the funding terrain is shrinking and it’s getting tougher to raise funds for things like this [festival of theatre].

A scene from Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”, which opened the 2019 Jos Festival of Theatre

“Here, I want to especially thanks the US Mission in Nigeria that has continued to ensure that this festival takes place year in, year out and somehow they give us the major funding and we source for the rest.”

The ‘rest’ this year has come from the likes of Grand Cereals Limited and the Jos Business School.

Still drawing from his management style with JRT, he describes how every inflow into the repertory’s coffers is spent, with a specified percentage going into sound investment decisions. “The problems we find with most artists is that we don’t know how to invest, or our sense of investment is very poor,” he says. “Jos Rep has a very good Accountant. She has been with us for nine years and it’s not because I like her face — it’s because she is is very good at her job. You need such an accountant.”

So what happens when funds dry up? The JRT has, without a doubt, come to such passes over the years. “In your struggling years, you’ll need a Nutcracker-type production,” he says with a straight face, then a chuckle. “When you’re looking for real money, that’s when you do your Nutcracker.”

A scene from Sefi Atta’s “Death Road”, which had its World Premiere at the 2019 Jos Festival of Theatre

And what exactly is ‘Nutcracker’? “It’s a production in the US that Americans look forward to seeing over the Christmas holidays. It’s a hit every time.”

Jos Repertory Theatre has its own Nutcracker, no less. “Anytime we were broke, Things Fall Apart was our nutcracker,” Oteh reveals. Things Fall Apart is the classic, bestselling novel (published in 1958) written by the late Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. Set in Nigeria’s south-eastern Igboland, it explores multiple themes, including colonisation, missionary incursion in a typical African community, Igbo philosophy and worldview and the disruptive clash of cultures that occurs as a consequence. “Also, anytime we did “The Lion and the Jewel,” (by Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka), we sold out.”        

In previous years, and going as far back as the third edition in 2007, the festival has hosted workshops addressing different aspects of the creative arts: acting, dance, basic film skills, visual arts and playwriting, to mention a few. And the beneficiaries have come from different parts of the country.

How many generations of trainees would he say the JRT has produced from inception? Oteh is not one to brag, but he makes it clear that there have been plenty of them.

A scene from Zulu Sofola’s classic play, Wedlock of the Gods — as directed by Patrick-Jude Oteh for the 2019 Jos Festival of Theatre

“The principal thing I know is that there is no generation after mine that was in Jos between 1997 to 2000 and up till date that will say they didn’t pass through the portals of JRT, even if it’s just one production,” he says during the media chat. “As a student, a trainee or an unemployed youth or young person. We have generations of people that now work across Nigeria but predominantly between the Lagos and Abuja axis. Among them, we have those who have gone through film school and built careers in the film industry.”

Osasogie Efe Guobadia is representative of that class of JRT alums, who is taking the second festival workshop (Makeup and Costuming for Film) in an adjoining room. Having been part of the Jos Rep family for some ten years as both actor and director, “she is fast carving a name for herself in the makeup and costumes department of the movie and stage industry,” the festival programme reads. She is the makeup artist for the recently premiered 4th Republic.

In another chat session, oteh says that the JRT model is not to hold down talent but set them free; when individuals have been with the organisation in any capacity for about five years, he believes they would have been groomed enough to either practice their craft independently and then go on to do their own thing. Three of the six plays at this year’s festival were directed by such individuals, two of them women (Kalbang Afsa-Walshak and Olajumoka Olatubosun).   

Participants at the workshop on Makeup and Special Effects at the 2019 Jos Festival of Theatre

“What we are looking at is building the human spirit,” Oteh says. “It is not just enough to say you are doing a play because you think people will like it; it is about how is this impacting people’s’ lives. We have seen that come rain come shine the festival is beginning to mean something to the people and for me as a theatre practitioner, that is now a kind of responsibility that you cannot throw away just like that.”

On the last day of the workshop, Oteh passes some helpful documents around to all the participants and wraps up on a motivational note: “Your practice is entirely left to you, whatever you want to do with it,” he says. “But it’s an exciting world out there and the possibilities are endless. Try everything, try anything but for God’s sake listen to your gut instincts.”

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