Mojisola Elufowoju is a British born Nigerian award-winning director and founder of Utopia Theatre, an African theatre company formed in 2012 that synthesis African and western performing traditions…
Alongside working as Artistic Director for Utopia Theatre, Mojisola was a founding member of Mosaic Opera Collective and recently worked as staff director on Inua Ellams’ Three Sisters at the National Theatre. Utopia Theatre has recently announced the launch of its Creative Hub, a new platform bringing African theatre experts together to offer courses, workshops, and events online free of charge.
We spoke to Mojisola to find out more…
What first drew you to becoming a theatre director and founding your own theatre company?
I was lucky to be exposed to the Nigerian traditional travelling theatre of Hubert Ogunde from a very young age. Although my parents did not allow me to study Theatre in my younger years my passion for theatre continued to be reignited to the point where I chose to study Performance Theatre as a mature student. After graduating in 2011 and winning the York Theatre Royal Graduate Prize for Directors, I felt that there was a gap in the market as there wasn’t much visibility around the telling of stories of Africans in the Diaspora.
Where did the name ‘Utopia Theatre’ come from?
It came from an idea of aiming for perfection. Wanting to create a place where everyone can come together freely and have their stories told and be heard.
Utopia Theatre’s past projects involve both adapting Western texts, such as your adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi in 2015, and entirely original pieces of new writing, such as your production of Oladipo Agboluaje’s Shadows in Different Shades in 2018. What is most important to you when picking the projects that Utopia Theatre works on?
It must resonate with everybody no matter their sex, age, race, or class. For example, The Duchess of Malfi, a story of a woman fighting in a man’s world. The story must tug at my heart.
Have you seen any change in the British theatre industry since you started as a director, and do you think that current affairs will have any impact on how it develops in the future?
I’ve seen that there are a lot more people of colour who are now leading a number of theatre institutions around the country. There’s an increase in appetite for the type of work that I do. People in the industry are starting to realise that the work we do has currency value. The new generation of theatre-makers are bold and fearless and just getting on with it, refusing to be shackled by the establishment. My only issue is that these changes are mainly taking place in London.
I think the Black Lives Matter Movement has put the torchlight on theatres and drama schools and the institutionalised racism that still exists in a lot of the establishments. British venues and gatekeepers will have to ask themselves some very serious questions, in terms of whether what they program in their buildings attracts people who look like the common man on the streets and whether this is the best way to spend public funds.
Utopia Theatre is unique amongst British theatre companies in its fusion of African and Western performing traditions. Is there anything that particularly excites you about theatre currently being created in Africa?
I’m excited by people like Bolanle Austin-Peters who are now making musical theatre about important figures in the history of Yoruba people of West Africa. Not only are they starting to create a commercial brand of musical theatre with African aesthetics, but they are also educating the young generation about their history.
So, the Creative Hub is a hugely exciting initiative, where did the idea come from?
The idea came from a lack of visibility that I can see of African Theatre practitioners and the knowledge that these practitioners are out there. There is a vast amount of people of African descent in the UK, they have great ideas, news techniques, and new stories to be told and the Creative Hub is an opportunity to give them the exposure that they lack and deserve.
We hope that the Hub will allow those leading creatives within the industry to impart their knowledge and encourage/develop the next generation of theatre-makers. Also over 30 freelance black artists will be able to generate an income in these difficult times.
How did you decide on which workshops to offer?
The decision of what content to create was based on wanting people who know nothing about theatre but are interested in learning more to be able to engage. We have included a number of entry-level content through to professional/academic level content. We have also added a number of courses to enable the demystifying of what happens backstage in theatre as there are not enough black people represented enough in this sector. Eg. Set and lighting design, stage management.
The Creative Hub follows a lot of theatrical content being released during the Covid-19 health crisis in that it provides content online and free of charge. Do you think there are any lessons on accessibility that the theatre industry can learn from the situation?
Definitely. Whatever the new normal of theatre becomes in the future we’ve all realised that part of the issue with engaging new audiences to theatre is based around the issue of accessibility.
This has been an opportunity to have a real think about what the future may be. We may need a mixture of digital/live Theatre working hand in hand to create a new experience.
In light of the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on the British theatre industry, how does Utopia Theatre hope to operate as lockdown eases?
The very first time I saw theatre, it was outside under a tree. Utopia theatre plans to evolve and make work for whatever environment we find ourselves in. We will work around social distancing guidelines or digital platforms. I don’t see Covid as a threat, I see it as an opportunity and a platform for us to be more innovative with how we engage with our audiences.
What future projects lie on the horizon for yourself and Utopia Theatre?
My vision for Utopia Theatre is for it to have its own space that can develop with what a post-pandemic future will be. Our next project is an outdoor community production that tells the stories of the history of Africa.
Utopia Theatre’s Creative Hub launches on Monday 29th June with a full program of events extending until Friday 18th December. You can find out more about Utopia Theatre and the Creative Hub here.