Sunday 27 March 2016

I love to move from ideas to action –Steve Abah

Oga Steve Abah is a Professor of Theatre for Development at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he has been teaching since 1979. Abah, a leader in applying theatre as a tool for development, has taken the practice to communities across Nigeria. He is also the brain behind the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance (NPTA). He speaks with Daily Trust on his passion for theatre.

Oga Abah

At the time you studied Theatre Arts, it wasn’t a fashionable course to a lot of people. What was the motivation to study it?

They used to refer to us as children of Jaguar and Baba Sala.
It wasn’t quite popular at the time. In 1975 when I went to Ahmadu Bello University, my interest was in Sociology. In Year One, I attended Sociology classes. But along the line I didn’t enjoy the classes. With my first series of lecture in Sociology I got introduced to some of the so-called great thinkers like Auguste Comte and people who talked about the society like Van Gennep, author of ‘The Primitive Minds.’ These were European thinkers who theorised about African societies.

It occurred to me that these were people who are just pigeonholing African societies, talking from the view of colonial anthropology and not seeing anything positive about the African society, culture. For me, the idea was that we had theorised about society and our own culture, as per ‘this is what you should read and take a certain take-for-granted position,’ and I just couldn’t deal with that. I was interested in the experimentation. Where is the questioning and learning in education? It just didn’t interest me.

It was at that time Drama was starting in the university. The fact that it was a creative enterprise and something that would push one to move from ideas to action thrilled me. I moved into the Drama programme and I haven’t regretted my choice. But because we were the first set of Drama students in the university, we were the butt of jokes. This was the time that comedians like Baba Sala and Jaguar were very popular. They used to refer to us as children of Jaguar and Baba Sala. But the class of ‘75 was like a family and we stuck together and enjoyed what we were doing.

Twenty eight of us graduated from Drama in 1978. It was hilarious but because we were the first set, and also the fact that performance wasn’t very popular in the environment, we were like outcasts.

Over time within ABU and the department of English and Drama, the Drama programme became like the image-maker of the department, and we just stood out, whether people liked us or not.

What made you stand out and break the perception of Drama students being considered as outcasts?
The re-orientation of the Drama department in the university was remarkably unique. The person who set up the Drama programme, Michael Etherton, came to ABU from Zambia, where he had been teaching at the University of Zambia. There, they had been practising Chikwakwa theatre, which was a grassroots theatre. The idea was that drama within an academic environment needed to break through the wall of the ivory tower, the citadel; to talk about issues around us and to have a relationship between the academic and the wider society.

So the Drama unit in ABU started with that orientation of drama and society as a nexus, and not simply a theoretical study. That was when we started what we call the ‘Samaru Improvisation’ in 1975. By 1976, the first series of performance of the project started; that is what transformed into what we now call the ‘Samaru Project.’  The ‘Samaru Improvisation’ involved students going into Samaru to research issues there. It is about the community that people are interested in, to determine whether there are problems. The positive aspects and the first performance of the project organisation focused on the history of Samaru and also looked at the relationship between the community and the university.
In theatre for development, students do not perform for the communities but the community members will perform their own drama

Would it be wrong to say you started the practice of theatre for development in Nigeria? And why did you feel strongly about pursuing this?

Well, I was part of the movement that started the movement that started it. It started from being a Drama programme in ABU. At the time the programme started, it was called popular theatre. What we were interested in was changing the nomenclature to thinking about what this theatre does.
In that interrogation it became clear that this theatre was interested in development and not just entertainment. That brought about the transformation of the name from popular theatre to theatre for development, and I was in the forefront of that. So you are right to say that.
As for its origin, it was quite solidly by the Drama programme in ABU. Although, the motivation and passion for letting that happen was that when the ‘Samaru Project’ was going on a project, it also emerged in our curriculum, which was for 200 level students and then the community theatre project for 300 level students. This took students away from the university and Samaru to communities further afield where for one to two weeks, the students stayed there and  would interact with a community member, extensively learning the rhythm of their lifestyles and engaging with them in their chores to understand their life systems. We researched from within to know the process to put the drama performance pieces together with the communities.
In theatre for development, students do not perform for the communities but the community members will perform their own drama, and that is the difference between the Samaru Project and the students who research, bring back information and put pieces of play together, and go back to perform in Samaru.  The community theatre, the students, will live and work within the community, and come up with theatre pieces jointly. Students may perform in it but majority of the performers are the community members themselves. These are community people who are engaged in a thorough discussion of their own community issues  - researching it, analysing it and localising it using theatre as a tool.

Do you remember what your first performance on stage was?

I was nervous and jittery. Apart from the Samaru Improvisation, the one I can remember clearly is a performance in front of the then Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.  We had the real show at the Drama Village. We did a play called the ‘Invincible Bond’ by Nuwa Sentongo.  It was a weird play; when I think back to it, it was like an absurdist play exploring the issues of death. That was one of the first performances I did in the Drama Village. By then I was a lot more comfortable performing.  But with every performance it is a different thing all together. However, you have to get a grip on it and the niche of the audience, especially at that time, because you couldn’t afford to fail.

You were a student and later became a colleague of Michael Etherton. What was your experience working with him?

He started ABU’s drama unit on a platform of its being participatory and avoiding the business of hierarchy. At the time in ABU calling a lecturer by first name was abhorrent and the culture would not allow the calling of one’s lecturer’s by first name. It was in this light the prefix, ‘oga’ came about. In the department lecturers are referred to as Oga Jenks, Oga Steve and so on. His theory was that if we must succeed at what we do, we must consider ourselves - including students - as colleagues and friends. This liberal attitude informed the nature of relationship in the department which has also been helpful for learning purposes.
I like the idea that one can move from theory, knowing there is a limit to theory and, therefore, you look for where theory speaks to practice, then you discover gaps areas.

You are known for stage. Did you at any time have any screen work?

I haven’t done anything on screen, maybe on television when I was doing my NYSC in 1978-1979. I served in the old Imo State and my primary place of deployment was the Nigeria Television Authority, Aba. I remember we did a play on television. That is the closest I have had with screen. Other than that, acting, as it were, was not my area of interest; I was more interested in the critical world, the academic theorisation.
Interestingly, those academic theorisations allowed me to see gaps in theory and, therefore, move from pure theory to what is the application of theory to issues of development. That’s why in my further studies, my specialisation was Theatre Arts as a tool for development, and behavioural change for communication. I like the idea that one can move from theory, knowing there is a limit to theory and, therefore, you look for where theory speaks to practice, then you discover gaps areas. That has been my project in the academic environment. It’s not just to teach theory but to interrogate it and see where it fails.

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