These are not the best of times. These are not the best of times for the entertainment industry. These are not the best of times for the arts. But has it ever been the best of times for our profession?
I have been in a laughing mood since the advent of COVID-19. Those of us in the entertainment industry have been running haphazardly because we feel that our profession is endangered. A lot of us have the impression that we are in a deeper crisis than other professions principally because we are in an occupation that thrives on human interaction. Take the theatre, for example. People need to laugh together. They need to feel human companionship for them to be regarded as an ‘engaging audience.’ Can you imagine one person, seating, and laughing alone?
Unfortunately, our profession has always been endangered. This did not start with COVID-19. We are in a profession highly sought after in light of the re-basing of our economy and the sector formed a very crucial section with Nigeria becoming the largest economy in Africa. I am still at a loss how this has translated into a better life for our citizens.
A couple of years ago, a vibrant arts organisation based in Nigeria went on a fundraising campaign. They did quite well. Surprisingly, in light of the circumstances, they raised a lot of money. Unfortunately, a few months after this successful campaign, the organisation started to struggle with fate – they were financially incapacitated. In other words, they were destabilised and, ultimately, they folded. What could have gone wrong? It was not voodoo. And it was not native medicine. What happened is the nature of our profession, and that is why I have the contention that COVID-19 merely compounded our lives. But in the arts, this is nothing new.
The arts, especially the theatre, have in-built economic problems. The major difficulty is the fact that we cannot increase productivity. Other industries can increase productivity through the use of new systems such as computers. This is how they cover the cost of inflation but we cannot do the same in the arts. In 40 years, if I wanted to produce Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, I would still require the same number of performers that were written into the script. The actors cannot be paid 1973 wages. So, while our costs go up, we cannot reduce the number of actors and actresses.
Our real income in the theatre is also bounded and limited by ticket sales. If we were to perform Soyinka’s play, we would not increase the number of seats in any space or theatre that we use. Other industries can expand their markets. We cannot increase ticket sales. The arts will always have a severe gap between earnings and expenses and while expenses will continue to rise, earnings will always be bounded. Hence, our profession is hounded by difficulties. This is not the making of COVID-19. This problem has always been there.
In this age of technology, there are other forms of cheaper entertainment that are available at the touch of a button, hence, in our profession, we cannot increase ticket prices arbitrarily because this has become a sensitive part of our audience relations. This has led to complaints by some practitioners that ‘our audiences are leaving’. It is not because the performances are no longer interesting. It is simply an issue of economics and the struggle between limited resources and other more ‘important’ facets of life. Nevertheless, the audiences are there, if our performances are reasonably priced.
My view on what is possible in post-COVID-19 era is how we can stay afloat in the midst of these challenges and troubles in a sophisticated profession. Many of us practising in Nigeria do not have the luxury of our own spaces where we can earn additional income through complementary services such as food and merchandise. We all have to rely on a few donors and continue to search for additional income to enable us balance our books. This is becoming more intense. COVID-19 made the struggle more ferocious and in the next few months, we will witness a lot of arts organisations de-marketing themselves, thinking that this will bring the much-needed relief to their practice. It is only a struggle for scarce and limited resources.
Most of us are going to engage in cutting our expenses in the coming months and for much of 2021. Some of us are going to be mounting smaller productions. Some of us will cut staff and we will try to cut corners attempting to cut costs. But this will not save most of us. Our audiences identify with us because of the importance of the work that we do. If we do cheaper work in attempts to cut costs, our sophisticated audiences will notice, and this will turn them away from supporting our organisations.
Most of us, unfortunately, are poor financial managers. Most of us have not had the benefit of having a surplus for our organisations. We might argue that, in the life of an arts organisation, a surplus is not possible. But we are wrong. Most of us can afford to save about 5 per cent or 10 per cent from every production. We think we will save when the timing is perfect. COVID-19 just simply complicated that thinking because the arts can never have a perfect time.
We must re-examine our audiences. There are some that can help us out of this intense period. Can they help us to pay part of our bills? Unfortunately, COVID-19 has exposed everyone’s underbelly and the normally generous patrons that we frequently run to no longer have the financial muscle to bail us out. What this portends is that we must break our operations into smaller bits.
Right now, the government cannot be an option. In the best of times, government has always disappointed the arts in the area of funding. If we had the vision to set up an endowment fund, this would have been extremely useful now but it is not too late. In the midst of billions flowing around, the arts will be in the last cadre of professions to be considered. So, this is not the time to seek government funding. What to do? Set up our own endowment fund through private individuals. In the middle of COVID-19, we still have some generous deep pockets that can assist with this aspect of our practice.
Ideally, COVID-19 is a period of depression, anguish and defeat more so in our profession. However, we have also given humanity hope out of our challenges. Now is the right time to take our dose of hope in the fact that these times will pass and we will go back to our ‘normal’ lives. I believe this fervently.
•Dr. Oteh is artistic director, Jos Repertory Theatre, Jos, Nigeria