The theatre may no longer be an all-comers affair, with the setting up of local film academies

The movie business in Nigeria is truly coming to stay. In the beginning theatre was serious business, requiring long training and proficiency, especially in the Yoruba drama culture. Then came the home video business and the mushrooming of movie studios and movies, such that the quality of the acts have become so watery.Now some practitioners want to see a change and are putting their money where their heart is. Nollywood is reinventing itself. Just ask starry-eyed Halimat Lawal where the make-belief business is headed and get to hear her gush. “Things can’t look better than they are now,” she says with a broad smile, that sunny afternoon at the YinkaAyefele Multipurpose Hall, Ibadan.

Lawal just graduated from the J-15 School of Performing Arts, Ibadan. It is a vocational school set up by Femi Adebayo, scion of one of the country’s leading home movie actor and dramatist, Adebayo Salami, also known as Oga Bello, popular for his roles in Yoruba movies. For Lawal, that was the day she took the very first firm step into her dreams of becoming a player in the movie industry.She wasn’t the only one in an expansive mood that day.  

“I want to be the best makeup artiste in Nollywood,” enthuses Halimat Bello, also graduating that day. She was ecstatic: “You can’t imagine how happy I am today,” as she swung to the arresting percussions of Ara n’ bee, a hit Nigerian pop music from the artiste Brymo.

Both young ladies hail from Ilorin, Kwara state. In the last two years, both girls and some 28 others have been subjected to the rigours of learning theater arts. Lessons in dance, singing, drama, voice training, script writing, movie techniques and so many other aspects of the discipline were drilled into them. It has not been easy, particularly for students like Bello. She had to do the program with just the support from her mother alone. In fact, some of the students had to sweat it all alone, making themselves available for lessons twice a week or sometimes on daily basis if there was a major production for J-15 Networks, the parent company of the school which is into movie production.

The event was all pomp and ceremony, even though low key. What with the roll call of invited guests from the entertainment industry that graced event, J-15 may well fall into the category of one of the country’s top theater training academies. Apart from officials of the school who themselves are artistes, there was KazeemAfolayan, owner of Epsalom Movies, a film marketing giant based in Lagos. There were also in attendanceYinkaAyefele, MON, a prominent juju musician; Lasun Ray Eyiwunmi, son of the late theater icon, Ray Eyiwumi; andDimejiLawal, member of the silver-winning Flying Eagles at the FIFA Under 21 tournament in 1988.  

Yoruba theatre production has shown interesting trends in its bid to move with the challenges of the times. Originally conceived from the Ere Alarinjo travelling theater troupes prevalent in the pre-colonial times as contended by some experts, Yoruba Stage Theater has almost disappeared completely, living the practice to families. To ensure its survival from the onslaught of modernity, chiefly western education, heads of theater groups have maintained large families as a means of ensuring a steady supply of artistes for theater productions.

But with the advent of home movies and celluloid cinemas, this practice couldn’t be sustained. The challenge these days has been grooming new artistes to replace old ones. This has not been easy in the absence of theater or movie schools and particularly the lack of encouragement for pupils to see the potentials in theater and the movie industry.   

That colorful afternoon at the Yinka Ayefele Hall was more fulfilling for no other person than Adebayo, proprietor of the school and CEO of J-15 Networks. For him, the occasion offered an opportunity to spread the message of the theatre to parents and broach the dilemma faced by the industry in getting protégés to take over from where the veterans left off. “I consider you an essential pillar in the growth of our industry,” he said, taking the platform to address the invitees, particularly the parents in the audience. “I had a first and second degree in law. But my wig and gown are somewhere under my bed at home where I left them two years after I was called to the Bar,” he poured out his story to the parents who have come to witness the graduation ceremony. Femi said that for two years, he could hardly make a headway in his chosen profession, a reason why he beat a retreat into movie like his dad. “Ever since, things have not been the same as you all can see,” he added. He pointed out that unless parents give unfettered support to their wards who want a career in movie and theater, the future of the industry may not be that bright. “This is because about 80 percent of all my graduating students have had to fend for themselves in the aspect of paying their fees and making it from their various homes,” Femi added.

Halimot Bello connected wellwith this account given her own peculiar circumstance. From her early days in primary school at Gaa Imam Primary School, IGS in Ilorin, she had always loved theater. After her secondary school, she moved to Ibadan where she enrolled in the J-15 school. Now it is all over. In the words of Tope Adebayo, “she can now step up in her dreams because graduates of our school still remain part of the J-15 family and larger network created by our daddy, ‘Oga Bello.’”