By Ebun Babalola
Larry Williams is a bigname in Nigeria’s entertainment industry. A familiar screen face for many movie lovers, a good performance poet, journalist, the multi- faceted artiste is a recipient of the Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, MFR. Sadly, he has literally disappeared from the Lagos culture scene where he was ever present. But Saturday Vanguard team runs into him and he opens up to McPhilips Nwachukwu, Vanguard Arts Editor & Prisica Sam-Duru.
Well, I have a two year-lecturing contract with the University of Calabar (UNICAL) to teach drama and acting, particularly, speech and acting technique. But while I was there, I didn’t just stop at lecturing. As a person , I trained as an actor. My life is all around acting. So , it is the same thing that made me say that I must have my troupe here. I have always had the Larry Williams Play House in Lagos.
And so, I started another one out there in Calabar and this troupe is what I have been using for what I call a Cabaret. The word cabaret is French and means,a mix bag of entertainment. The concept is some kind of variety show that you can perform in a big hall as well as in a restaurant as long as space is there.
Talking about my teaching experience in Calabar, I would say that it has been very interesting. But what I found out there is that, really, drama is not a thing to teach in the University. Drama should have its place .Abroad, in places like England and even, America, they have drama schools, some they call acting schools.
So, I trained in an acting school. It is all about acting and they train you physically, mentally and psychologically. So, they train you ready for performance. But here, we have theatre art departments in the university and our acting is a contrast. It’s not quite it. I think they are making a mistake because going to university is like trying to tell people you have to know the theories which are split into history of Elizabethan period, the history of theatre, the history of this and that.
But what about acting itself? Getting on stage and performing, that I think is what I find missing. That is why we have not been able to produce stage stars or even television stars.
I would not want to compare teaching in Calabar and Lagos. No, I don’t like to compare. I believe in the same world, the world of training an actor and performing myself. And it is very difficult to say this one is better in a show business. No, I don’t like the idea of this one is the best. Everything can be good.
We can have 10 good actors as well as 10 bad actors. But I can say that the training is not correct for performing arts, especially, acting because we are not really giving the best. There is what we call psychology in acting or psychology of acting and that is lacking. I found out that for instance, here in Nigeria, a lot of people would say oh! that girl can act, she can cry, she cries and you will believe her and all that. But you ask yourself, what does it mean that she can cry? You can cry because you lost a boyfriend, or broke a plate or because somebody slapped you.
All these cryings aredifferent and we just see people crying. They don’t even know the level of crying and how it should be. Little things like that show that we are not getting the details . What they call sub- text in acting is not there and we don’t understand it.
Speech is a wonderful thing in acting. Speech is one of the first things we need in acting because it is a direct means of communication and if we cannot speak well, how far can we go? That’s why we are not selling our films abroad. That’s why we are not taking stage plays abroad because our speech level is not good enough , not that we don’t understand English.We speak English but may be we don’t understand enough.
A good speech in acting functions properly when the speaker is comfortable in expressing himself and the hearer is comfortable in understanding the depth of the same message. And like I said earlier, sub text is where you can say something and the other person knows that you are saying something. And underneath that is speech.
About Cabaret, the Cabaret idea came to me because I believe that we have a lot of young talents in this country and unfortunately, we are not able to tap these talents. What I now decided to do is take for instance, drumming which is one of our stage acts that is dying out. Drumming is African. It is not just hearing the sound but in the performance of it, you see a good African drummer. He is drumming and dancing at the same time and that is missing because the Western world has succeeded in putting drumming into a keyboard. So, instead of getting drumming as an art, it has become part of a keyboard.
So, I took drumming as one of the aspects of the Cabaret because the African drummer is a performer. Now, I went on to dance, what does drumming call for, the dancing. So, we have dancing in various forms.
Maiden dances. One of the most popular ones in the East is moniken and that is Northern Cross Riverians where they do female circumcision. Abang, mkpokiti and lots of other native dances shouldn’t die because we have hip hop.
So, we have various African cultural dances and I brought them in. Then, we went into poetry .
Poetry is something that almost killed itself because people relied on the old form of poetry where words are so juxtaposed that people don’t understand what it means. They don’t want to go to the dictionary before they understand what they are reading because they want to understand it straight. So, I wrote simple poems with deep meanings. And I simplify the language so that people can enjoy them. I even sing and dance them.
So, poetry came into it and that is the third piece. Then there is modelling.
In the western world, we only see slim girls that are like wooden effigies in modelling but what I call modelling is something to represent us, because the beautiful African woman has a body that is not just slim and scraggy. So, I said modelling is part of what we are going to showcase and we have people in their various shapes. We do our cat- walking and the rest.
Then, the main thing which is all about what I do is drama . We have about five segments in the Cabaret. We also have the choral part of it . I want to capture these young people with their fresh talents. The schools and university theatre art departments will fail if they continue like this and in fact, they are failing because they have not brought out any stars. Also, they are not adhering to all these things that I just mentioned. There are young talents in native dances but as soon as they leave the village, they forget about these dances and say they want to do hip hop. And we are losing our culture which is the main style of identifying a people. If we carry on like this, we won’t have Nigeria.
I take the dances one after the other. Yes, that is what I do. In fact, I take them from different parts of the country. I did mkpokiti before I knew its name. Atilogu has been very popular but we did it because it is good and it is agile. Another dance that I learnt is ekonbi which is an Efik dance. It is a very graceful dance. I’m a Lagos man but I just have to learn all these as they are introduced to me and I am sure they are being introduced to other fellow Nigerians. So, I take dances from different places, from the North and from the Middle Belt.
I still call my troupe in Calabar Larry Williams Play House as it is in Lagos, thanks to people like you who have been projecting my column, Stage and Screen.
So, no point in going there to start with a new name and people would want to find out who is this. It is still the same and because few people know my background, about how and where I studied, they believe that they will come and learn something. So, I keep the Larry Williams Play House going. I have also set up another group in Ikom, one in Calabar and the original group at Iganmu, Lagos.
The challenges of going about this kind of concepts, of course, is usually money. People don’t understand and I mean people living in high places don’t understand that producing a play costs a lot of money. They forget that to perform a play, you need to pay artistes over a period of time which we call rehearsal period. People don’t just leave on air and travel from their homes to the locations. So, you have to pay them. You also have to pay them their fees, you have to build the stage and this costs money. These are the major challenges.