A visit to the Artiste Village office cum apartment of veteran TV personality Lari Williams situated in the premises of the National Theatre evokes an emotion of pity and surprise. Now left in penury and want, the neglect of Lari, who has given his all to the development of the Arts and Entertainment industry does not play out as a good commentary on our national life. The recently evicted thespian who expressed sadness at the hardship being experienced by veteran entertainers across the length and breadth of the nation opens up on a host of issues in this no-holds-barred interview with AHMED BOULOR.
Let's clarify the report by NAN about your being blind and homeless?
I had an interview with NAN (News Agency of Nigeria) asking about my comment on the death of Dan Maria Jos; I made comments on the issue and I also made extensive comments about the fact that the attention of the government should be called on the state of artists in Nigeria. I referred to people like Ambrose Campbell; the man who was called from England to come and sing Nigeria into independence. That man is the first Pop musician that left the shores of Nigeria for a stint abroad. He came and went back; he got old was crying for help to come back to Nigeria so he can be well taken care of until he died and was buried there. It is saddening to note that note no Nigerian or government official knows his place of burial up till today. It is the same with Orlando Martins, the first professional actor that left the shores of Nigeria to perform in England and America. He even went as far as performing with the likes of Ronald Reagan (one time president of America); I said nobody takes care of us. I even mentioned the late Garuba of the Village Headmaster fame who died miserably in his house after years of suffering. I also referred to myself as having served this country and the industry for years; I have done everything and I have nothing to show for it. I have lectured in three Universities and when I was out in Calabar lecturing by the time I came back my landlord had sold his property and I lost my accommodation and since then, I have been living in my office trying to get another place with no help and support coming from anywhere. I even my sight is failing and I am trying to get treatment for it but NAN painted a dire story of my state though the facts were through. They reported that: "I am going blind and homeless". It is a little bit embarrassing but let's take it that it is factual but I haven't gotten any meaningful response from the public concerning that report. I have given so much service to this industry and I feel I deserve a better deal.
One expects expect a response from well meaning Nigerians and even the government considering your state…
I have given so much service to this industry as the first President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria and therefore the 'father' of Nollywood', nobody seems to bat an eyelid concerning my state of affairs; for Lagos State, I have performed severally on TV. I have been part of over a dozen soap operas starting from 'Village Head Master', 'For Better for Worse', 'Adio Family', 'Mirror in the Sun' and so on. For home videos, I was part of the first movie titled 'Witch Doctor of the Living Dead', 'Black Powder', 'Blood Money' and so on. For stage, I have produced my own written plays at the National Theatre main hall; I was the first bring the dreaded Egunla Pampa to stage and even the Baba Ajanaku on stage. I have performed severally in plays and also taken part in other peoples plays; I was brought home from England to take part in FESTAC '77 and since then I have not stopped. I have lectured Theatre Arts at LASU, UNILAG and UNICAL; I have also kept a column going in the arts called 'Stage and Screen' on Vanguard newspaper for the past 28 years. I also have the record of featuring in the highest number of soaps on NTA. Have I not done my bit; and if I run into any problem can't any of these organisations I have worked for help my situation? I am now planning to go to India to get treatment for my failing sight and I am also looking for a place to stay. I have been bestowed with several awards such as the Member of the Federal Republic MFR endorsed by the late Yar' Adua and several other arts related awards and I must say I do not deserve my present state.
There was news making the rounds sometime ago that you were given a house by the federal government. Is that true?
That is a big lie and I don't know where that rumour came from and the fact that it is not a statement of fact should be emphasised. How would I get a house from the federal government and then live in my office. I am crying out now that I don't have a home and someone is peddling rumours that I have been given a house. Are they suggesting that the house was given to me and I rented it out or what? Somebody must have started that false news.
Where do you think the government and the society at large has gotten it wrong concerning your state and that of other unsung TV veterans?
Let me take you back to the fact that when Goodluck Jonathan gave money to the Arts sector, I was the first person to write a thank you letter published in no less than three or four national dailies thanking the former president and also suggesting that we use the money to build a Hall of Fame and also to use the funds to take care of our aged artistes. I requested that we set-up a Hall of Fame which would preserve the history of our artistes and the industry at large and also take care of industry practitioners that cannot work anymore. But nobody took note of that; today they are sharing the money and nothing has been done. The idea of the Hall of Fame was first mooted by me in 2009 and up till this moment nothing has been done about it. Artistes do not have a retirement benefits or social benefits; therefore I have written severally that there should be a special ministry for the Arts. That is my emphasis and in fact, in my last article, I suggested that such a ministry should be set-up so that ageing artistes can be taken care of. The Arts should not be merged with the ministry of Culture or Tourism because it is hugely commercial; the Americans realise huge sums of revenue from the Arts every year. If you go back to the history of showbiz you'll find out that theatre is the basis for films and entertainment as a whole. But it's sad that the theatre culture in Nigeria is dying.
What's your take on the fact that TV has taken over Theatre?
That is evident because we have overtime not created a Theatre tradition; when Theatre tradition is created it will solve a lot of problems. It will reduce miscreants on the streets, people will have places to go and relax and unwind. TV is interesting because it gives you the convenience of just switching on your TV in the comfort of your living room but it is limited. The tradition of Theatre is something that takes you out because you dress up and go out to see a stage play. Instead of going to beer parlours people can go watch a stage play; if every district has at least a 500 seater auditorium it will reduce crime and miscreants on the streets and people will learn how to be decent because Theatre is not there to make you laugh, it is a means of education. It will encourage writers, performers and actors thereby reducing unemployment. Art can rebrand Nigeria.
In all of this, the Nigerian Cultural Policy seems to be the bane of the dying Theatre Culture in Nigeria. What do you think should be done re-engineer such a policy in order to make Theatre attractive again?
We need to remake the Cultural Policy and let us all be aware of what it points to; we should also have a dichotomy between arts and culture. Arts is commercial and culture is gives us an identity so they must be divided but not entirely. The fact that culture feeds the arts does not mean that culture is the same as the arts. So we need to identify each sector and make things clearer for ourselves; we should also have it at the back of our minds that arts being commercial gives us a lot more reason for improving our sector and also improve professionalism. Our ambassadors are not even making things easier for us because they are not identifying with our culture; if every ambassador we have can invite dancers, actors, sculptors, painters and the like we should be able to export our plays every year to two or three countries of the world and in turn make hard earned currency. The dying nature of theatre in Nigeria is because we do not have a market for our stage plays; we cannot also have a market because we do not have trained actors. I have lectured in Nigerian universities training actors and I can tell you that our university system is not well structured to cater for budding actors. I was trained abroad and as a matter of fact I attended one of the best schools for acting based in Stratford; I also trained in London at the Mountview Theatre School and compared to what we have here is a far cry. University is not the place to teach acting because it should be separate and that is how it is done in advanced climes.
So you are subscribing to the fact that we should establish acting schools here in Nigeria…
We should have acting school here in Nigeria and not establishing Theatre Arts departments in our universities because it is a waste of time. They give them two hours a week for acting class which is grossly inadequate because acting is a full-time engagement. It is a physical venture; normally you should have a morning of exercise and your afternoon should be for interpretation of scripts, reading and speech delivery. I have witnessed instances in the department of Theatre Arts where students groan when lectures are being delivered because they'll tell you that they didn't put in for acting and in most cases the Theatre Arts department is dump sites for students who could not get their chosen course of study. At the end of the year, you'll discover that you've only trained three or four students who have passed through the Theatre Arts department. All they want to show is their certificate and most Theatre Arts graduates are seeking jobs in Banks and the Telecoms industry that is why we don't have make-believe actors. What we see today on TV is just acting but in actual fact the actors on set should make you believe but that is not the case today. What they do now is cram and recite; our actors are not well trained.
As the first President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, would you say that most of the objectives set out in your time are visible now in present day Nollywood?
I was the pioneer President of the AGN and it didn't take long enough to say I established this or that but the fact still remains that I at the time introduced the AGN to the Senate President, the Inspector General of Police and so on.
Do you still have any affiliation with the AGN?
The last activity I had with the AGN was when I was invited to talk about Nollywood clocking 20 years. One of those I would commend is Zik Zulu Okafor who has been there for me and the last series I did titled Heaven's Gate is produced by him and I have been a member cast in recent times.
What's your take on the privatisation or outright sale of the National Theatre?
I don't think it should be sold but it should be run by people who know about cinema. The tradition of the General Managers and Directors started wrongly; the first Director of the National Theatre was a Historian known as Asiwaju I know about that fact because I was invited home from England for FESTAC '77 when he was appointed. If you ask me, what does a Historian know about Theatre? For your information, Theatre is a very technical venture. One needs to know the science of running a Theatre before he is so appointed even after him, the very few people that they have been training know very little about Theatre.
There was a time the Village Headmaster was to be revived on NTA but the effort did not see the light of the day. Why did it fail to fly?
It couldn't be revived because majority of the cast are dying; there has been no less than five dead members of cast of the series. The first Village Headmaster Femi Robinson is dead so also is the last Village Headmaster, Justus Esiri. Chief Eleyinmi is dead, Councillor Balogun is deceased, Sisi Clara is no more and so also is Gorimapa. It is not easy to bring these people back and if they want to revive it they'll have to start all over again. Even if it is revived, it will no longer be called Village Headmaster.
With your currents state of health how have you been able to sustain your troupe 'Playhouse'?
I have been running Playhouse since the 80's and I still run when I am not performing or producing. I have never stopped training youngsters, I have a problem with my sight but that has not stopped me from continuing in my passion of teaching budding talents who want forge a future in the arts.
Do you regret venturing into the Arts?
No, not at all; I started out as a cub reporter of the West African Pilot and I later travelled to England to study Journalism. From there I veered into Acting and I have not regretted making such a move. I have acted in the UK, America and here in Nigeria and my present predicament doesn't make me regret venturing into the arts.
Your sons also have a thing for the Arts…
I have an actor son who performs in England; his name is Femi Lari Williams and he is a trained actor. He was trained in the UK and he is doing well for himself. My last son is a Lawyer and he is also a musician; he trained with Peter King. He spent his first two years after secondary school learning the ropes with Peter King and after that he went straight to the university.
What is the support system like from your sons and their mother?
I hesitate to talk about my private life but if I have done enough for the industry I expect that I should expect support from the industry and the government rather than wait for my son who just graduated from Law school and is serving.
How would you compare TV of your time and TV of present day?
The technical side of making movies and TV are okay but the people who tell the story are inadequate and ill trained. A lot of them cannot put two sentences together; some of them just cram lines and talk. We do not have good actors and we don't tell our stories well; the technical people are improving but the actors are not well trained. The characters are not good enough because of lack of training and that brings us back to the government should encourage the establishment of acting schools in Nigeria.
In what way can the government and well meaning Nigerians help your situation?
The government should have a plan for the Arts so that practitioners can be taken care of and not just at old age. The Arts industry should be restructured so that we can have sustainable growth; the good thing about art and artiste is that art is like wine. The more mature it is the better it gets. Actors don't retire; the same Orlando Martins I mentioned earlier was acting until he was 80. Pa Ogunde who died while working on set was working until he was 76; ageing actors should be made comfortable so that they can keep churning out materials. If I have a comfortable apartment and I am sure of my next meal I will remain optimally creative and serve the future generation of our country who want to forge a future in the arts.
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone.