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As the coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge to arts in what seems like a tailspin, Nigeria’s National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) has come up with a physically distanced solution to fill the void created by the closure of entertainment events—with a drive-in theatre performance.

Before the pandemic, drive-in theatres had been relatively rare across the world, but the strain on the creative industry, as caused by COVID-19 has seen a boom in attendance in countries like the U.K., U.S., Spain, France with Nigeria joining the league.

A drive-in theatre is a cinematic structure with a large outdoor, theatre performance or movie show in a large parking lot with the audience enjoying the communal leisure experience from their vehicles.

Earlier in May, as the effects of coronavirus pandemic bit harder in Nollywood, a Nigerian filmmaker, Charles Okpaleke, introduced drive-in cinemas in Abuja and Lagos with a live performance from a popular musician, Style plus and the best DJs, and a screening of ‘Living in Bondage.’

Mr Okpaleke, who bought the rights to ‘Nneka the Pretty Serpent’, ‘Glamour Girls’ and ‘Rattle Snake’, five years after he acquired the rights to ‘Living in Bondage’, said the drive-in cinemas were a way to keep cinema-goers happy while honouring social distancing guidelines.

But for the Director-General, NCAC, Olusegun Runsewe, the COVID-19 strain has not only caused an entertainment deficit but also a cultural void for many cultural arts enthusiasts.

Mr Runsewe, who recently unveiled a virtually cultural tour of Nigeria, launched the drive-in theatre performances of a play and cultural songs as a prelude to the 2020 edition of the annual National Festival of Arts (NAFEST), to be hosted by Plateau State in October.

He said the effort was also to keep stakeholders engaged and the creative sector busy, in the light of the public health emergency.

After a series of virtual meetings with stakeholders, ranging from experts, members of the diplomatic community and journalists, he said, the ideas of a drive-in theatre and cultural tour were birthed as part of efforts to reposition the sector to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, rather than keeping the sector idle.

He added that the pandemic is plated with both misfortunes and opportunities to explore.

“The arts and culture sector has been one of the hardest hit of the coronavirus pandemic with many events being put on hold and businesses close up. However, from another angle, COVID- 19 is like rain falling and it gives us an opportunity to think outside the box and to come up with new innovations such as the virtual cultural tour and this (the drive-in theatre) which serve as a therapy and rain jacket for the pandemic,” Mr Runsewe said, during his opening remarks at Sheraton hotel, Abuja on Sunday night.

Corroborating Mr Runsewe’s stance, the Chairman, House of Representatives committee on culture and tourism, Ogbeide Ihama, said the public health crisis had opened a window of new innovations despite its maligning effects.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do things differently and also must continue as a nation and as a people. This initiative by the NCAC is not only laudable, it is also convenient.

“From one’s car, one can see the staged play and other theatre performances with strict compliance with the pandemic protocols on physical distancing,” Mr Ihama said.

Nigeria's art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre Nigeria’s art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre

Drive-in theatre

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In compliance with government regulations on social distancing and an attempt to ensure a risk-free environment the drive-in theatre was accessed by a selected few with no more than 20 vehicles spaced two metres apart.

At the entrance of Sheraton hotel parking lot, PREMIUM TIMES observed temperature checks being conducted and hand-sanitiser given to passengers of each vehicle who appeared in protective face masks.

At the far ends of the car park were mobile toilets positioned also two metres apart, for emergency excretion with proper sanitary items provided.

As the event first featured a live performance of cultural songs across the three most populated tribes—Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo— by the Nigerian Cultural Troupes who regaled the audience with cultural trips, the Sheraton hotel chef curated a top-notch menu of snacks and desserts served through a contactless delivery method, to keep hungry audience happy.

Afterwards, a staged performance of “Grip Am,” a Pidgin-language play written by one of Nigeria’s foremost playwright, Ola Rotimi, gripped the audience with alluring performance by Nollywood actor, Francis Duru, who played the character, Iṣẹ.

The play centres around Iṣẹ, a poor farmer with a lot of problems and a chaotic marriage. One day, he is visited by an angel with a message from God that He was tired of his troubles and marital squabbles.

The angel promises to grant him one wish by God’s leave. Ise requests that if he says “Grip Am” to any being that comes near his orange tree, the tree should grab the climber and not release its grip until he (Ise) tells the tree to let go.

In one comedic twist after another, Ise uses this power to get everything he wants, including trapping the Angel of Death to the tree and making him swear not to kill him or his wife ever.

At each riveting moment, the roar of revving engines replaced applause from the audience to reignite the communal leisure experience.

Nigeria's art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatreNigeria's art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre Nigeria’s art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre

‘A welcome development’

For Tunde Ogunbamiwo, a civil servant, the drive-in theatre was a new experience he never imagined he would have.

He said apart from the compliance with the pandemic protocols, he was mesmerised by the live cultural performances, adding that he couldn’t wait to share his experience with colleagues at work.

“This is a wonder initiative that is not only COVID-19-compliant but is also intriguing. The experience is really good, I can’t wait to share it with my colleagues at work, so they could join the league,” he said, beaming his bright smile at his child tugged to his chest.

It was not a first-time experience for the deputy counsellor of the Venezuelan embassy in Nigeria, Luis Pineda, to enjoy a drive-in theatre, but it was a great time and his first in Nigeria.

Nigeria's art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatreNigeria's art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre Nigeria’s art and culture agency unveils drive-in theatre

“I enjoyed it, it’s good. We can eat some food in our car while we share experience and similar cultural trips from both the staged play and other performances. And of course, there is the compliance with the social distancing guidelines, we can’t leave our car without a solid reason like peeing,” Mr Pineda said, sharing the you-know-look with his partner.

For Winifred Alobo-Agogo, a socialite, the event was a bastion of fun and education. Despite the coronavirus blues, Ms Alobo-Agogo said the performances were soothing and more importantly, enlightened many like her on how to manage relationships in tiring moments as the play offered a ray of hope at the end for the protagonist.

“Looking at what was done today, it gives you an idea on how to be creative about managing relationships during this difficult time. I like the fact that it gives a ray of hope at the end,” she said, expressing gratitude to the arts and culture agency.

Asked why the event was only open to some quarters of the public, the NCAC’s spokesperson, Chas Nwam said the audience cut across stakeholders of the culture sector and members of the diplomatic community to meet the guidelines on social gathering and physical distancing.

“The notion that the event is only meant for the affluent is wrong, the audience here are mostly stakeholders of the creative sector and some members of the diplomatic community. The national association of theatre practitioners is here, the head of tourism association is here, arts reporters are here and some representatives of some embassies are here to. All this is to strictly adhere to the pandemic protocols,” Mr Nwam said.

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