Tekena Gasper Mark*
Abstract: Studies that explore the arts of directing and puppetry are limited in Nigerian theatre. This article examines the directorial indices of a puppetry performance, Final Draft, directed by Ekeh Nneka Grace, on September 24, 2018, at the University of Port Harcourt Arts Theatre. It is observed that the deployment of the codes of directing in the production vivified the message of the play, and the use of human and puppet actors pushed the boundaries of the story for the benefit of the audience. This study recommends that directors should take advantage of the art of puppetry in their theatrical experimentations in Nigerian theatre.
Keywords: puppetry, theatre, directing, production, Nigeria.
The art of directing in Nigerian theatre has witnessed innovations and changes in present times, owing to the rise of a new breed of directors who conceive the theatre as a means for artistic and theatrical experimentation. These directors pay less attention to the playwright’s ideas as expressed in the text; rather, they experiment with space, actors and other production elements to create theatrical brilliance on stage.
This phenomenon might have inspired Fredrick Durrenmatt (1976) to declare that “the present day theatre presents two aspects: on the one hand, a museum but on the other, a field for experiment” (qtd. in Johnson, Play Production Processes 121). The use of puppetry provides an opportunity for directors in Nigerian theatre to test their artistic prowess using both human and material resources. This article examines the arts of directing and puppetry in contemporary Nigerian theatre practice, using the production of Final Draft, directed by Ekeh Nneka Grace, on September 24, 2018, at the University of Port Harcourt Arts Theatre as a case study.
Puppetry: An Overview
According to Idogho (2017), “a puppet is an inanimate object or cool figure animated or manipulated by a puppeteer, manually or mechanically” (164). The art of puppetry cannot be divorced from theatre. Puppets come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours, races and ethnicities. Some puppets have mouths and legs that move, while others may not. Puppets can be in the form of human beings, animals, insects, ready-made, art craft, homemade, hand-held, wrapped around fingers, pulled over hands or controlled by strings. Puppetry is, by nature, a flexible and inventive medium: puppet companies may work with different combinations of puppet forms and incorporate real objects into their performances. They might, for example, incorporate performing objects such as torn paper for snow, or a sign board with words as narrative devices within a production (Bell 2000).
Puppetry in Nigeria
Puppet theatre is one of the most popular theatre traditions in Africa. In Nigeria, traditionally, puppet shows are a common occurrence in the cultural activities of the people, especially in festivals and other traditional ceremonies. Ceremonies such as burial and marriage feature puppet shows to entertain the guests.
An example is the dogo-dogo puppetry of the Kanuri people in Bornu State, which, according to Ellison (1981), takes the form of rag dolls, meant to slip on to the hand like a glove, with fingers inserted into the hands of the dolls.
When preparing for a performance, the manipulator (dogodogoma) plants in the ground a stout stick forked at the top. In front of this, he places his bag of hyena skin, containing the puppets. He then sits down behind the stick and covers both stick and bag with his gown. His head and the forked sticks provide support for the tent thus formed, while he manipulates the puppets through the opening of the gown from the head. A company of drummers and singers stand behind the performer and beat their drums, singing songs, while the puppets are being changed in the tent (Ellison 1981).
The Kwagh-hir puppet theatre of the Tiv people in Niger and Benue States of Nigeria is a composite art which takes almost a whole night to perform in an open air, circular space. Enem (1981) observes that the Tivs are traditionally farmers, and their versatility and resourcefulness as a people is expressed in their dramatic arts of music, dance and storytelling performances, which are drawn from the shared experiences and historical contacts of this people with other cultures. The audience assembles as early as 7 p.m. for an entertainment they may have attended many times before, yet they do not lose interest and are eager to participate.
Other examples of puppet theatre in Nigeria are the Ekong (Ekon) and Ofiong puppet theatre of the Ibibios, Aninikpo puppet theatre of the Ogonis and the Gelede masquerade of the Yorubas and Benin people.
In the cities, it is common to find puppeteers moving on the streets with their puppets, stopping occasionally at strategic points to perform, encircled by a crowd who pay a little token as a show of appreciation.
In Nigeria, professional puppeteers abound in the rural areas and cities. They may not have professional degrees and may have learnt the art from their masters. But the story is different today, as opportunities abound, especially in academia, for people to train professionally as puppeteers. Modern Nigerian puppetry can be used in developmental projects like HIV/AIDS education. In the universities, students put on puppet shows as part of their course assessments. Students also major in Puppetry as an area of specialization.
It is important to note that, while traditional puppet performances are an outdoor affair, where, in most cases, the spectators watch the puppeteer as he manipulates the puppets, most modern puppet shows as found in Nigerian universities are set indoors. The audience may be seated away from the puppeteer, who manipulates the puppets away from their prying eyes.
The spectators only see the puppets in action: the puppeteer is hidden from their view, often supported by a live chorus or band that provides songs and drumming to augment the stage action. In all cases, the puppeteer does the speaking or supplies the dialogue, which may be a shrill whistle or a deep baritone, depending on the dramatic context.
The Performance of Final Draft
In the production of Final Draft, the puppets were made by the director, Ekeh Nneka Grace, a student of the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Port Harcourt, and the production was her Final Year Project. The puppets, in terms of category, fall under the class of modern Nigerian puppetry, which is common in academia. The production was performed for staff and students of the University of Port Harcourt and aimed at educating the university community on the importance of education for everyone in society. The students who participated in the production were between the ages of 15 and 20 years.
Directing: A Conceptual Overview
Directing involves the ability of a director to creatively and interpretatively unify the efforts of the different theatre collaborators in a production, to create a unified aesthetic experience on stage before an audience in a particular place and time. Wills (1976) conceives directing as “the process of transforming a director’s personal vision into a public performance” (3). Bell-Gam (2007) describes directing as “the auditory or visual interpretation of a playscript by the artistic director” (71).
Synopsis of Final Draft
Final Draft showcases a zonal competition, featuring a debate between two primary schools—Williams Academy and The Gold Montessori School—on the importance of education for girls. The Gold Montessori School supports girls’ education, while Williams Academy does not. The debate is overseen by a Moderator, a Judge and a Time Keeper. At the end, nobody wins, as the two schools score equal points when the results are announced.
Directing and Puppetry in the Production of Final Draft
This analysis focuses on the use of human and puppet actors within the five codes of directing, as identified by Alexander Dean and Lawrence Carra in their book Fundamentals of Play Directing (2009), in the production of Final Draft. These codes are Composition, Picturization, Movement, Rhythm and Pantomimic Dramatization.
Bell-Gam (2007) defines Composition as “the rational arrangement of actors or objects on stage through the use of emphasis, stability, balance and sequence to achieve beauty” (84). Emphasis is the direction of attention to important stage figure(s) or object(s).
In Scene One, the stage composition shows human actors playing students from The Gold Montessori School. They perform an opening dance while the audience watches. After the dance, an announcer informs the audience that two schools will be debating the topic “Boy Child Education is better than Girl Child Education.”
The next scene is the debate between students of Williams Academy and The Gold Montessori School on the topic. All the actors on stage are puppets. The stage is a thrust theatre by orientation and the composition shows a demarcation between the supervisors of the debate and the debaters. Upstage centre, seated, is a female Moderator. To her right is the Time Keeper. To her left is the Judge. Upstage left are two male debaters, representing Williams Academy. Upstage right are two female debaters, representing The Gold Montessori School.
In the figure below, the stage is balanced, as there is equal distribution of figures on the stage space. The composition is firm and stable, while the element of sequence unites all stage figures through space. Equal emphasis is placed on all stage figures.
Picturization as a principle of directing is concerned with showing, through composition, the emotional relationship among different characters and objects on stage. In the following figure, the composition conveys to the audience the setting of a debate and underscores the relationship between the debaters, the Moderator, the Judge and the Time Keeper as overseers of the debate.
At the end of the debate, in Scene Three, actors playing students of Williams Academy perform another round of dance, while the puppet debaters await the announcement of their results. After the dance, the Judge announces that The Gold Montessori School has scored 10 points. The students of The Gold Montessori School are elated at this news. The stage composition reveals the picture of the debaters representing Williams Academy in low spirits with their heads bowed, as they wait to hear their result. The Judge announces that they too have scored 10 points. The two puppets representing Williams Academy raise their heads in excitement.
The debate ends with no winner, as the Judge stresses that education is good for all, irrespective of gender.
Movement, the third principle of directing, refers to the displacement of the bodies of the actors from one stage area to another. It also embraces non-locomotor movements, like bending, turning of the head, and so on. In Scene One, movement is captured in the dance executed by students of The Gold Montessori School. In Scene Two, movements are restricted to the gestures and other bodily movements of the puppet actors (the debaters, the Moderator, the Judge, and the Time Keeper).
Rhythm, as the fourth principle of directing, deals with giving life to the hidden pulse of a play. Bell-Gam (describes it as “the response to accented beats of a play” (84). It expresses the vitality and tempo of a play and helps to establish mood, dramatic genre, situation and characterization. Rhythm can also be appreciated in the songs and music used in a play. In Scene Four, the puppet students of both schools join in singing the song “Education is the key, Education is my pride.” This song is used by the director to underscore the play’s theme, the importance of education for all.
Pantomimic dramatization is concerned with the use of gesture, mime and actions by the human and puppet actors to the exclusion of words in the play.
The action analysis above shows the use of puppetry and the codes of directing by the director to educate the audience on the importance of education for everyone in society.
This study has looked at the art of directing and the use of puppetry in contemporary Nigerian theatre. It examined how the art of puppetry was used as a productive resource in the creative interpretation of the play Final Draft.
It observed how the deployment of Alexander Dean and Lawrence Carra’s five codes of directing in the production vivified the message of the play, and the use of human and puppet actors also pushed the boundaries of the story for the benefit of the audience. The study recommends that directors should take advantage of the art of puppetry in their theatrical experimentations in Nigerian theatre.
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Enem, Edith. “The kwagh-hir Theatre.” Drama and theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, edited by Y. Ogunbiyi, Nigerian Magazine, 1981, pp. 249-51.
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*Tekena Gasper Mark is a lecturer at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with over five years of experience as a researcher and lecturer. He teaches Play Directing, Playwriting and Dramatic Theory and Criticism. As a director and playwright, he has written and directed a number of plays, and published articles in academic journals.