As the Thespian Family Theatre and Productions clocks 15, its founder, Mrs. Ayo Jaiyesinmi, speaks on her experience on stage, AKEEM LASISI writes
the story of Ayo Jaiyesinmi’s exploits in theatre in Nigeria is novel. Although she hails from the business community, she is in the forefront of those who have saved the stage from recession into which the sector slumped some 25 years ago.
Her joker is the Thespian Family Theatre and Productions, on the platform of which she stages plays in contexts that make theatre attractive to the audience. With the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos, having hosted many of her plays, she has been helping to bridge the gap between society and works of the likes of Profs. Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Ola Rotimi.
While she has also, over the years, staged her own plays too – including Itan and The Five Maids at Fadaka – she makes her training and experience in human resources and entrepreneurship impact on the theatre business, so that where ‘traditional’ stage wizards fail to convince corporate organisations to embrace the sector, she enjoys support from banking, and other industries. When the story of Thespian Theatre will, thus be told, the way it has helped to bridge the gap between the arts and the business community is likely to be emphasised.
“It has been a great journey for us,” Jaiyesinmi says in an interview with our correspondent. “We have done over 300 shows, both theatrical and otherwise. While we have done eight of my plays – including Itan, Fadaka, Mad King of Ijudia and The Crustal Slipper – we have also staged works of many of our giant playwrights. The Thespian Theatre platform has given many people an opportunity to either reconnect with or discover the greatness in our writers. Through our performances, we have been able to showcase the industry, expertise and greatness of playwrights like the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Zulu Sofola and others.”
Interestingly, the Thespian Theatre’s spree started out as a youth-developing organisation, mobilising, educating and inspiring youths to go the right direction. The need to engage the young ones in a productive way and the urge for Jaiyesinmi to express her passion as a playwright and arts promoter, however, later spurred her on to begin theatre productions.
She says, “To change our society, we all need to understand the dynamics involved. You need to have a good understanding of what we are, where we are, why we are where we are, where we should be and how best to get there. I am scared that many people do not appreciate this fact. The world has gone too far than for us not to master our environment and our steps. I found out that theatre provides an opportunity to earn an enduring liberation. It is when we fail to master the dynamics that we grope in the dark.
“Look at the example of Lakunle in The Lion and the Jewel. His story shows that you cannot change what you don’t know. Why does he fall flat on his face? It is because he does not appreciate the complexity of the change he believes he represents. At times, you may have a good agenda for the people, but those you are doing it for may not see them the way you do, or you may fail to first establish the need for the change in their minds.
“If you link the Lakunle saga to Odewale’s position in The Gods are not to Blame, you will discover that, as Odekunle tells his people later after calamity has befallen his kingdom and household, you need not blame the gods. Our reasoning capacity and the extent to which we are ready to change our mindsets and habit may just be the areas we should work on.”
One opportunity that the Thespian Theatre has also availed Jaiyesinmi in the past 15 years is providing employment to youths and other professionals. According to her, she works a lot with undergraduates, especially from the University of Lagos, apart from professional actors, directors, lighting managers etc. engaged in different productions.
In terms of naira and kobo, Jaiyesinmi says it has been a business of passion more than anything else. She, however, professes that the adventures have also brought financial rewards. She thanks the likes of First Bank and Sterling Bank for the support they give the outfit.
One of the challenges Jaiyesinmi has faced is finding the right performance spaces. She, however, got a kind of consolation in The MUSON Centre. According to her, the pattern of the relationship that Thespian Theatre and MUSON has maintained is even changing as they recently struck a deal in which they will be doing joint productions.
Side by side with that is the fact that Thespian Theatre has also secured its own art space called Thespian Kona. Located in Lekki, Lagos, it will provide a compact arena where the group will stage plays regularly. The facility will also boast space for readings and other related programmes, as well as a restaurant.
Beyond infrastructural issues, one area that Jaiyesinmi has found challenging is in how some people relate too loosely with copyright matters. According to her, there is the need for people to respect ownership of intellectual property.
“You do a play, and before you know it, somebody has taken lines, songs etc. from your play,” she adds.
She feels fulfilled and believes that the coast is clearer for more exploits. Already, Thespian Theatre has started rehearsals on Adesewa, a musical written by her, which is due for the stage at the MUSON Centre this December. To Jaiyesinmi, diversifying into theatre has been an ample blessing.
“I won’t give myself a 100 per cent, but I am very delighted with what we have been able to achieve. The platform has helped us to pass vital messages through our productions. Along the line, we have gone into TV production, with our magazine programme, Art Arena sponsored by First Bank.
“We have been able to create jobs. In the past 15 years, we have worked with over 15,000 people because most of our plays have large casts. Alongside other professionals, we worked with directors that include Ben Tomoloju, Tunji Sotimirin, Bisi George, Lookman Sanusi, Toyin Osinaike, Floyd Igbo and Isreal Ebo. Working with the different directors has added to our richness and broadened our perspectives.”
Last year, Thespian Theatre honoured theatre greats such as Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Odia Ofeimun, Femi Osofisan. Bayo Oduneye, Tomoloju and Jahman Anikulapo.