Thursday, 28 February 2013

My experiment with solo and ecological theatre – Mbajiorgu

Greg Mbajiorgu

Twenty one years ago when Greg Mbajiorgu staged his solo drama, Prime Minister’s Son, little did he know that his modest adventure into that theatrical path inaugurated in the Nigeria by late Funsho Alabi and Tunji Sotimirini would eventually stand him out as an important playwright to watch.
Today, Mbajorgu, Senior lecturer in the School of Film and Dramatic Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka remains the only standing Nigerian playwright that has consistently staged and published a reference text in the dramatic genre of solo dramaturgy. Besides his interest in solo drama and performance, Mbajiorgu, who also writes poetry has again, trailed another important path by directing his creative imagination to the writing and staging of an ecological drama.

His recent Eco-centred dramatic text, Wake Up Everyone at the just concluded Nigerian Universities Research and Development Fair( NURESDEF) held in Minna, Niger State won 1st prize in the Arts and Humanities Research and Innovation category. In this interview, the Anambra State born and University of Nigeria trained scholar shares his views about the future  one man theatre and the evolving eco centred literature in the face of threatening environmental change.
Twenty-one years ago, you wrote and staged a play titled The Prime Minister’s Son in the context of performance. Why did you embark on a solo project?
There are two sides to this question Mac. As a fresh graduate then, I saw the NYSC programme as a platform to define my career and future. My father, as a university bursar was not happy with my choice of theatre arts as a field of study. He feared that a career in Theatre Arts could ruin my chances of success in life. He insisted that I must enroll for an MA degree in Mass Communication after my national youth service corp. I did not want to continue with any other course outside Theatre, so the NYSC year was the only chance I had to prove him wrong.
In the earliest stage of NYSC service year, (the orientation period to be precise), I tried organizing other corps members to form a professional theatre company but I didn’t succeed. I also had obstacles trying to organize the NYSC Theatre club then. But I had a great zeal to start something with the dream that it would snowfall into a professional outfit. Since I did not want that vision to vanish, I took after Funsho Alabi by charting a solo course.
What are the circumstances that shaped the dramatic plot of the play?
The circumstances of my family background and the circumstances we find ourselves in here in Nigeria. I come from a middle class family, but back in my home town, I have a lot of relations who can not put enough food on their table. I was not a stranger to poverty. In this country, poverty stares one on the face all the time. We are a rich country with a frightening population of poor citizens.

The illustration on my book cover says it all; the prime minister’s son dressed in tattered clothes, looking very miserable. You can see also that the theme of rejection is very strong in the play. We are a nation rejected by our leaders. That’s what I tried to emphasize in my first attempt to make my own theatre.
Incidentally, that very attempt was a solo performance.What is your fascination with this dramatic approach?
As stated clearly in one of my journal articles, the advantages of the solo play are numerous;
a.    It trains and transforms the actor from his dependency syndrome to a new orientation in self reliance.
b.    It empowers the actor by emancipating him and raising his professional status.
c.    It enables the actor/actress to express his or her self maximally and it inculcates a multidimensional mode of functioning in the theatre.
d.    It helps actors to master the techniques of vocal characterization.
e.    It is the best kind of exercise for the actor’s physio-vocal stamina and helps us in perfecting stage breathing techniques.
f.    Solo plays are also adaptable to every kind of make-shift performance environment or venue.
g.    Solo acting liberates the actors from the domineering power of playwrights, directors and producers.
In addition to all these, solo production affords the practitioner the most practical ways of minimizing cast, costume, stage props, rehearsal expenses, transportation costs, hotel bills, medical expenses and cost of feeding. In other words, it reduces the production budget to the barest minimum.
What are the challenges of solo theatre with regards to your triple role as playwright, actor and director in this instance?
No doubt, to carry the whole theatre on one’s shoulder is risky and it is even more strenuous and tedious for the actor to be his own playwright and director at the same time. In my own case, I had no choice. No body was there to carry some of the loads off my head. I got some technical advice, though, from Prof. Kalu Uka and Dr. James Eneh Henshaw which guided my journey on that solitary part. But, you see I had to do it all alone just to ensure that my father did not find any grounds to force me out of a profession that ‘am very passionate about. Even now, I am working on two solo plays simultaneously. This time I will stay just as the playwright and find others to play the acting and directing roles.
As a one-man theatre artist, what techniques do you employ to ensure that you satisfy your audiences’ expectation?
You can not be a soloist if you lack the ability to transform your audience at will. It is only at such points of transformation that the audience changes from its passive state to an active state and once your audience is active, they become creative. My ability to see my audience as a cast in the show helps me a great deal, not just in fostering audience involvement, but also, in getting them actively engrossed in the unfolding story line. As you well know, drama is kaleidoscopic in nature.
According to John Carney; “the audiences for solo plays are more creative and imaginative than the ones we find in conventional theatre. A good solo actor must take his audience along with him. Without the audience on your side, it may be difficult to achieve dramatic conflict in a solo act. Through my emotionally deep and intense story line, I easily electrify my audience and command them along through the purgation of their emotion.
To achieve this adequately, a solo actor must employ the following techniques: a.    audience control mechanism, b. audience-ease attitude. The audience is the surface on which my initial mono dramatic scenario was improvised.
How much of Richard Schechner’s theory of performance is infused in the writing and stage interpretation of the “the prime minister’s son?
I am influenced by Schechner in terms of challenging conventional definitions of theatre, in terms of contesting the boundaries that separates the audience and the actor. Also, I share Schechner’s revolutionary ideals and his quest for novelty or neologism. Again, Richard Schechner’s psycho therapeutic methodology has equally helped me heal my deep rooted pain and anger against intellectual idiocy and sycophancy that rules our world today.
Is minimalism not a handicap in executing a solo performance?
Solecism is an approach to dramaturgy. Minimalism is not a constricting factor. As elucidated by John Carney, “…in solo performance, it is often the less
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