COVID-19 and the Drive-in Theatre in Nigeria

Ngozi Udengwu* and Godwin Onuche**

Abstract

The purpose of this article is to examine the relationship between the emerging drive-in theatre mode in Nigeria, engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the live theatre that has been in decline even before the pandemic. The paper is driven by the question ”is drive-in mode going to restore live theatre’s waning popularity”? Other questions include: “What is drive-in theatre and how does it relate to the age-old outdoor live theatre practice in Nigeria? What strategies were open to the theatre business during the pandemic era in Nigeria? Will drive-in theatre survive the post-pandemic era? The paper offers a comparative view of the two modes of theatre productions to highlight a paradigm shift in the theatre spectatorship from the traditional outdoor theatre practice to the drive-in mode that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic era and determines the fate of drive-in live theatre mode beyond the pandemic era. The paper draws on an empirical study of drive-in theatre productions of Mosaic Theatre Productions led by Agozie Ugwu. The paper argues that drive-in theatre is not a new theatre mode, but it is a resurgence of an ancient theatre practice now leveraging the auto and new media technologies to stall the spread of the deadly Corona Virus.

Keywords: theatre audience, drive-in theatre, COVID-19 pandemic, live performance

Introduction

In the year 2020, the world went on a lockdown to stall the spread of a highly contagious and deadly virus that quickly claimed millions of lives worldwide, throwing the whole world into a panic. The Corona Virus had no cure or vaccine at that time; therefore, the only way to check its fast spread was to shut down human movement and interaction, thereby putting a halt to social life. People stayed in their homes for a long period of time. Businesses suffered unprecedented losses. It became worse for theatre ventures because of the communal nature of live theatre performances which makes the mandatory physical distancing and mask-wearing imperatively difficult. The world faced instant large-scale starvation and extinction. To survive the pandemic, businesses needed to evolve new strategies.

What ways were open to the theatre business during the pandemic era in Nigeria? Theatre revived its ancient mode of presentation,  the outdoor, open-air mode, now called drive-in theatre because of the role of cars in it. What is drive-in theatre and how does it relate to the age-old outdoor theatre practice in Nigeria? Will drive-in theatre survive the post-pandemic era? 

This paper intends to discover the origin and development as well as the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. It will also explain the difference between drive-in theatre and drive-in cinema, and it will determine the future of drive-in theatre beyond the pandemic. In doing this, the qualitative research method was applied.

When the indoor theatre business closed all over the world in 2020 because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the good old outdoor theatre experience, now in drive-in mode, was revived in Nigeria, to keep up the business of theatregoing. With the outdoor mode, the COVID-19 guidelines, which made physical distancing mandatory, are complied with. Reinventing the outdoor theatre tradition ensures that theatre practitioners remain in business and the audience can see their favorite entertainment piece despite the COVID-19 restrictions. This paper examines the drive-in, which began in the cinema but was later adapted to live theatre in Nigeria during the pandemic.

Accounts of drive-in theatres often focus on movies. Little is said about live performances, especially stage plays. This is surprising, on one hand, and understandable, on the other. As the name implies, the audience comes to the show in their cars, where they sit and watch the show on the large screen in front of rows of cars, while listening to the sound through their car radio (Cohen). This is basically what drive-in theatre means.

However, the term drive-in theatre has problems with meaning and application. When discussions of drive-in theatre almost always focus on cinema, as mentioned above, it gives the impression that it is exclusive to cinema. However, when the theatre is understood in a generic sense of all forms of performances, live or screen, it means then that drive-in theatre also refers to live stage drama, opera, orchestra, dance, musical and so on, when they are done outdoors with the audience sitting in their cars in the field, rather than in a conventional theatre auditorium.

There is a need to separate drive-in cinema and drive-in live stage theatre for clarity and to focus attention on the history and peculiarity of the two modes of presentation. The difference between live theatre and cinema is the immediacy of the live performance environment where both performers and audience share the same time and space.

The Dwindling Status of Live Theatre in Nigeria

Live theatre in Nigeria has been in the decline since the early 1990s. While lamenting this unfortunate fate of the once very popular and vibrant entertainment form, scholars blame it on several factors including the advent of cinema, as well as insecurity (Ogundeji), lack of funding (Alakam), lack of theatre venues (Adebowale; Ayakoroma). Be that as it may, the live theatre which was popular from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, with such household names as Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola and a host of others, has virtually disappeared leaving few theatre companies struggling in competition with the cinema, cable TV, home video, YouTube and other digital entertainment platforms. Attempts are being made to lure the audience back to the live performances despite the odds against it.

Audience Engineering

The audience is the heart of a live theatre performance, for there can be no live theatre without a live audience. In screen shows such as television and cinema, the actors do not feel the dwindling presence of the audience. In live performances, they do. The audience is an integral part of the live performance because this is a meeting place for actors and audiences. Their relationship can be said to be immediate and physical. The audience can interact with the actors, shake hands, exchange pleasantries and exchange phone numbers. The live theatre group can receive an instant invitation to performances from some patrons in the audience.

The audience is the live wire of live theatre. Therefore, it is impossible to do live theatre whenever and wherever there is a restriction of movement and physical interaction between people. This was the situation engendered by the COVID-19 lockdown and its attendant mask-wearing and physical distancing imperatives. While movie audiences could make do with watching pre-recorded performances on satellite television, YouTube, and other digital platforms, live theatre was completely impossible under the circumstance. How the live theatre business survived during the lockdown in Nigeria and, at the same time, observed the social distancing law imposed by the government, forms the focus of this investigation. It also evaluates how the drive-in mode, which began in the cinema, works in live theatre mode and determines whether this performance style will aid the revival of the dwindling fortune of live theatre performances in the country.

History of Drive-in Cinema

Drive-in cinema is a cinema-viewing business that takes place not inside a conventional cinema house but outside, in a large open field as large as 29 acres which can contain 2,500 cars, as in the case of Johnny All-Weather drive-in at Copiague, New York (Fitzgerald), where large screens (15 to 28 meters wide, and stand at about 5 meters high) are mounted to screen films.  Viewers arrive in their cars where they stay to watch the show. There could be two or three screens, depending on the number of cars. The audio from the film is received through the car radio or from a speaker hung on the car window.

Writers have traced the beginning of drive-in cinema to Richard Milton Hollingshead (1900–75), who opened the first patented drive-in movie theatre in New Jersey in 1933 (Segrave; History.com; Reid, Everts; Aldredge; Thorp). However, it is on record that the history of drive-in movie theatres goes beyond that. According to New York Film Academy, forms of drive-in movie theatres operated as far back as 1915 in New Mexico (Fitzgerald). Hollingshead improved and popularised it. Kerry Segrave documents the rise of drive-in theatre in America, its heydays in the 1940s and 1950s, when the larger venues could accommodate as much as 3,000 cars, to its decline in modern times, as well as the patent battle, morality concerns, audiences, the role of technological advances, among other things. The book also captures how the trend spread to other countries, such as Italy and Japan. Robin Reid places the number of active drive-in theatres in America at its peak in 1958 at 4,063. However, the number dropped steadily to about 400 in 2014 (Fitzgerald).

The Decline

Writing in Los Angeles Times, Chris Robrahn records the slow fadeout of the drive-ins due to the evolution of video rentals. A cross-section of drive-in theatre owners, David Baker and Malcolm Green spoke to Robrahn about their frustrations with the decline in the drive-in theatre business.

At its ebbing days, according to History.com, as well as Mark Fox, the number of drive-in theatres in America dropped from above 4,000 in the 1950s to barely 500 as of 2015. A post by Driveinmovie.com relates that 7 drive-ins closed in America and Canada in 2019, and in 2022, 17 movie theatres were up for sale. Fox attributes the decline to “changing cost structures within the industry, demographic patterns, changes in viewing preferences, and to changes in Americans’ relationship to their automobiles” (43). While Meg Bucholtz agrees that several factors were responsible for the fall of the drive-ins, she identifies what she calls the real reason thus:

Urban and exurban sprawl is a substantial undercurrent leading to the demise of drive-ins. At first, blush that feels obvious, because we all know there’s less physical space available than in the ’50s and ’60s [sic] when the suburban boom first began. Still, it’s more complicated than that. It takes a lot of land to run a drive-in theatre, and their business model often meant charging less per customer—sometimes they’d offer a flat fee or discounted rate for just the car’s entry, no matter the occupancy. The volume of cars takes precedence to make up for the cheaper ticket offering. On top of that, a majority of America’s landscape is bound to go through at least a couple of months a year of prohibitively cold temperatures—if not snow—meaning that many drive-ins could only operate seasonally.

Fox, commenting on the space required for drive-ins, states that for a 500-car capacity, 10 to 14 acres of parking space is required (46). All other things considered, it appears that apart from creating an alternative to the indoor theatre in times of need, drive-in does not compare favorably with indoor theatre. For instance, within a thirty-mile radius, Fox estimates a ratio of 13 indoor theatres to one drive-in. The large expanse of land required for drive-ins has dwindled.

Currently, it is mainly parking lots and airports abandoned because of the pandemic lockdown that are serving as venues for the drive-ins. The large number of cars in existence in this age should be of great benefit for drive-ins. But that is undermined by the unavailability of land. When the lockdown is lifted, businesses will resume and flights restored. The parking lots and airports will no longer be available for drive-ins. The drive-in theatres, therefore, are only temporary measures, which is why they keep emerging. However, its comeback, at any time for any reason, would depend on the availability of enough open land space. From the foregoing, the land is in short supply in this age and time.

The Come Backs

The coronavirus pandemic necessitated the resurrection of drive-in theatres in 2020. There is nothing peculiar about the resurgence of drive-ins. Over its history, drive-in theatres have had to appear and disappear at some point (Lamb; Backman; Brandon; Colbert; Eliot; Ramachandran; Abrams). Referring to data from United Drive-in theatre Owners Association, Lamb indicates that, 43 drive-in theatres reopened in the United States between the 1990s and 2000s; however, some of them made more revenue from concessions than ticket sales. What is, perhaps, peculiar about the 2020 return of the drive-ins is the scale—more than three thousand in the United States alone. Also, Ramachandran reports that the number of drive-in cinemas in the U.K. rose from three to 40 during the coronavirus pandemic. Some months into the resurgence of drive-ins in 2020, Maurice Backman poses the question “Could Drive-in Theatres Make a Serious Comeback?”Also, Nwakunor wonders if the drive-in theatres will “drive-out” after the pandemic. These authors wonder if the re-emerging drive-ins will survive the post-pandemic era. The answer that comes to mind is that drive-in theatre can only be sustained by the condition that engendered it. The cause of the current re-emergence of drive-ins is the COVID-19 pandemic. It, therefore, will determine how long the drive-in will last.

Problems of Drive-ins

Space required for many cars to park at the same time is a problem, especially now that it costs a lot to acquire land. During the pandemic, abandoned spaces such as airports and shopping mall premises, such as Walmart, offered temporary venues for drive-ins. Home entertainment has advanced so much that people will patronize drive-ins only occasionally. On other days, one will relax in the comfort of their home and watch their favorite programs on cable television, CDs, YouTube, and other digital modes of entertainment.

Contrary to popular opinion that drive-ins are cheaper than cinema houses because charges are usually made per car, which can contain two or more friends and family members. The audience could be faced with additional expenses posed by the problem of draining the battery and fuel shortage through running the car engine. In order not to run down their battery, some people buy a portable radio to listen to the sound. That way they can switch off their car engines and conserve fuel and avoid battery drainage. This is additional spending.

Sometimes, the audience in a drive-in live theatre can disrupt the performance by flashing their headlights on stage, thereby, interfering with the stage light, or honking their horns instead of clapping.

In countries without a steady supply of power,  producers end up incurring extra expenses by purchasing or hiring a power-generating set, and the gas that goes with it.

The cheapness of the event favors the audience because drive-ins usually charge per car. This means more people less fee. For the producers, on the other hand, it is not all that profitable. Therefore, the concession services are the perks that come with it. For example, in Nigeria, Schlola Ventures advertised an outdoor cinema experience scheduled to take place on 10 December 2022, at the Chlola Open Theatre, Victoria Island Lagos. The attractions promised in the advertisement include “an opportunity to win incentives, a whole range of excitement, unique red-carpet experience, brand engagements, lots of items to buy from concessionaires, as well as an unforgettable movie experience and car-party; the first of its kind in Lagos.” All this is coupled with the fact that the venue itself is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Lagos Island. This makes drive-in theatre an elite-oriented form of entertainment, excluding the masses.

The audience also derives other benefits from drive-ins not just because it enables them to enjoy their favorite shows in difficult times, but also, as Erin Blakemore recounts, because it affords the freedom to smoke their cigarettes, eat and drink, chat and even make out in the privacy of their cars. Other fun activities at the audience’s disposal include dance halls, contests and fireworks.

Cars arriving for the drive-in theatre performance of Grip Am by the Mosaic Theatre Production (MTP) on 20 May 2020, at the Silverbird Entertainment Centre, Abuja. Photo: Courtesy of Agozie Ugwu
Mosaic Theatre Production—The First Drive-in Live Theatre Experiment in Nigeria

When it comes to the history of drive-in theatre in Nigeria, it needs to be stated that neither drive-in theatre nor drive-in cinema existed before the COVID-19 outbreak. The drive-in cinema mode was first introduced by a Nollywood film producer, Charles Okpaleke of the Play Network Africa fame, in response to the lockdown declared by the Federal Government in March of 2020. The lockdown was the only way to check the spread of the deadly coronavirus which was ravaging the world at that time. However, the lockdown that was aimed at checkmating the fast spread of the virus also led to the shutdown of businesses, especially those involving crowd gathering and socialization such as the entertainment industry which Nollywood is a big part of. The question became how to keep cinema-going and, at the same time, avoid human contact. The drive-in option became inevitable and Okpaleke was the first to seize the opportunity to success, with his screening of Living in Bondage at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja. Following on the heels of Okpaleke, other major cinema outfits in Nigeria cashed in on the trend. Genesis Cinemas put out advertisements promising cinema fans “a whole new cinematic experience” (Josh). Silverbird screened Legend of Inikpi on 7 June, hinting to also screen in Lagos and Port Harcourt. MTN, in collaboration with Play Network Africa, Blue Pictures Entertainment, and Transcorp Hilton in Abuja treated film-starved fans with Jump 22 Street on 2 July, Spiderman Homecoming on 24 July and Equaliser on 25 July 2020 (Adebowale). All these were cinematic experiences, and the filmmakers were able to screen pre-COVID–19 recorded movies.

For live performances, however, it is a bit more complicated because of the liveness. The question became how to perform live theatre without physical contact. Physical distancing is easy to achieve with the audience who sit inside their cars in a large open space to watch the action on stage. But the actors cannot afford not to move, talk and touch. And they cannot perform wearing facemasks, not during rehearsals and not on the production night. To leverage the drive-in mode, a live theatre show has a lot more hurdles to cross than a film show. This did not deter Agozie Ugwu, the director of Mosaic Theatre Production, to experiment with the emerging drive-in technique, when on 20 May 2020 he produced the first Live Theatre in the drive-in mode in Nigeria (Olatunbosun; Sam-Duru; Ugwu and Nwaozuzu). The play was Grip Am, a seven-character play written by one of Nigeria’s leading playwrights, the late Ola Rotimi, and performed at the Silverbird Entertainment Centre Car Park, Central Business District, Abuja.

The production was well attended.  There were 224 cars  arranged in rows of twenty cars. Live theatre met technology in this drive-in theatre experiment. The performance which attracted support from MTN Foundation was staged in 3D, which helped to enhance the stature of the actors and digitize the stage set and lighting effects. The audio was taken care of through the cars’ radios from where the occupants of the cars heard the sound from the stage clearly. The company made a lot of money from the experiment from sponsors and the box office.

MTP performance of Tony Wants to Marry on 4 April 2021, at the Transcorp Hilton Entertainment Complex, Abuja. Photo: Courtesy of Agozie Ugwu
Drive-in stage performance of Tony Wants to Marry by MTP on 4April 2021, at the Transcorp Hilton Entertainment Complex, Abuja. Photo: Courtesy of Agozie Ugwu
Audience Reception

The opinion of the audience matters a lot at this experimental stage because it will determine whether the trend will continue and, most importantly, whether it will revive the fortunes of live theatre performance in the country. Below is part of the statement that the excited Director and Producer, Agozie Ugwu, posted on his Instagram handle,

Watch my interview at the Drive-in Theatre
The feedback has been amazing.
The international and National coverage is amazing
We are delighted to have contributed our own quota towards changing the narrative amidst the pandemic in the first-ever drive-in theatre in Nigeria, Grip Am.

Also, Arise News Television and Channels Television recorded the responses of some members of the audience, as well as some of the cast and crew. It was a great experience for all, but the question remains, can drive-in restore the glory of live theatre?

The greatest test of how the audience loved the drive-in can be seen in the number of phone calls that the director reported he received from patrons, two to three weeks after the show, asking when there would be another drive-in show. But there is not going to be more drive-in theatre, at least for now, because, as the Director revealed to this author, the exercise was too capital intensive and can only be continued with a lot of funding. With the global economic downturn, such funding is not assured. It was a big relief, therefore, when the lockdown was lifted enabling performances back to the indoor mode. Another challenge facing drive-in live theatre is fumigating the venue for days before the show opens to keep mosquitoes at bay. A lot of money was made from the ticket sales, which was done online, but running cost was also huge, such that without the funding from partners such as MTN Foundation and Play Network Africa, not much proceeds would have been made.

Cars arriving for the drive-in theatre performance of Tony Wants to Marry by the MTP on 9th May 2021 at the Transcorp Hilton Entertainment Complex, Abuja. Photo: Courtesy of Agozie Ugwu

When the lockdown was lifted, it was discovered that things will not stay the same if COVID–19 and its variants were still prevalent in the world. To begin with, cinemas cannot reach full capacity anymore because physical distancing requires that half of the seats will be left unoccupied. Observing the mandatory physical distancing, therefore, entails that cinemas will operate at half capacity on their best days. Reduction of the number of viewers entails an increase in the price of tickets. Only those who can afford the new price can come to the cinema.

Unfortunately, the cinema which has always been a popular entertainment is turning elitist, shutting out much of the population. The filmmakers are aware of this disparity against the masses. Some of them have decided to reach out to the displaced masses. Agozie Ugwu of the Mosaic Theatre Productions, in a phone interview, reveals the plan his group is making to mount shows for the public at little or no cost to them. That will assure that more people can watch. However, such a gesture is possible only if the production is fully funded, which is proving harder in the present economic dispensation. But then, only those who can afford a private car can attend, and in this part of the world, the vast majority cannot.

Drive-in Theatre of the Mosaic Theatre Productions
DateTitleAuthor/DirectorStage or ScreenVenueNo. of CarsSponsors
20th May 2020  Grip AmOla Rotimi/AgozieUgwuStageSilverbird Entertainment Centre Abuja224 
26th June 2020Grip AmOla Rotimi/AgozieUgwuStageSheraton Hotels Abuja163 
April 4th 2021Tony Wants to MarryJerry Alagbaoso/AgozieUgwuStageTranscorp Hilton Abuja198MTN Foundation, Transcorp,  and Play Network Africa
9th May 2021  Tony Wants to MarryJerry Alagbaoso/AgozieUgwuStageHabour Point Event Center, Lagos178MTN Foundation

The above table represents the drive-in theatre experiments carried out by the Mosaic Theatre Production. The sparsity of the productions is indicative of the difficulty of performing live theatre in the drive-in mode. In a space of 13 months, only 4 live performances in the drive-in mode were produced. Ola Rotimi’s play, Grip Am, was performed in two different venues in Abuja (20 May and 26 June 2020). Jerry Alagboso’s Tony Wants to Marry was performed twice (4 April 2021 in Abuja and 9 May 2021).

Conclusion

This paper examined the emerging drive-in theatre mode in Nigeria which was engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdown of businesses. Drive-in theatre became an alternative entertainment mode towards curtailing the spread of the dreaded virus with the audience driving into a large open space and sitting in their cars to watch shows. Cognisant of the dwindling fortune of live theatre in the country, the paper explored the possibility of the drive-in theatre mode to revive live theatre.

The paper further argues that drive-in theatre is not a new theatre technique per se; rather, it is a renaissance of ancient outdoor theatre practice, now leveraging the auto and new media technologies to stall the spread of the deadly Corona Virus. Therefore, drive-in theatre achieves two things at the same time; while it serves as a veritable strategy for restoring live theatre, it also adequately meets the COVID–19 physical distancing protocols. However, from all indications, it is a temporary measure, for as soon as the lockdown was lifted in the country, the experiment ceased for reasons already indicated above. Be that as it may, the experiment with drive-in theatre indicates that Nigerians still favor their outdoor theatre experience. It does not always have to be drive-in which excludes people without private cars. Instead of cars, there can be tents with seat arrangements for the audience, especially in favorable seasons of the year. This will restore theatre as a popular entertainment and enable outdoor performances to take place elsewhere other than in the big cities.

New strategies need to evolve to revive live theatre. Apparently, the audience is ready and waiting. Hopefully, when the economy improves the producers will be able to get the funding they need, not just from companies but also from the government. Therefore, more research needs to be done on the possibility of sustainable funding. There lies the hope for the drive-in live theatre to thrive.


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*Ngozi Udengwu, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, holds a PhD in Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has more than thirty-six publications including the book, Contemporary Nigerian Female Playwrights: A Study in Ideology and Themes. She is a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Her current book project is on Women in the Professional Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre. Her special areas include Dramatic Literature and Performance Studies. 

**Godwin Onuche is a Lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts Kogi State University, Anyigba. He holds a BA (Hons) Theatre Arts from Kogi State University, Anyigba. He had his Masters Degree in Dance theory and Criticism from the University of Nigeria Nsukka where he is currently roundoff his PhD programme. He is a highly motivated scholar, a drummer, dancer, playwright and a flutist par excellence. He has published extensively in peer-reviewed learned journals both local and International. He has equally participated in conferences with published proceedings and book chapters.

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