In this exclusive interview, veteran Nigerian actress, Joke Jacobs, opens up on her career, current projects and challenges confronting Nigerian theatre.
PT: You have stayed on top of your game for over four decades. Do you see yourself retiring soon?
JOKE: I am very lucky to belong to an industry that doesn’t recognize retirement. There are so many actors in the West who say they are retired but still find their way back into the profession. Ours is an industry that allows for longevity and I have taken advantage of it.
PT: In hindsight, what are you most grateful for career-wise?
JOKE: Being able to re-invent myself in ways that make sense. I am very grateful that at every point of my career, re-invention has made sense for that particular time it occurred. This has also ensured that I remain relevant.
PT: Is there anything you wish you could have done better or differently in your career?
JOKE: I am very glad that I began acting at the time I did. If I were to do anything differently, it will be to learn to persevere better. Although my husband and I produced several stage plays in the 80s, not until we produced Holy Child in the 1990’s did we break even. It was a huge success while the earlier ones were such a struggle. By the time we staged it the third time, it was a commercial success and we made our monies back. But then, we should have continued because people were looking forward to it every year.
PT: Tell us more about the play?
JOKE: It was a Christmas story and it narrated how Mary and Joseph survived the controversies that might have ensued following Mary’s pregnancy. This is due to fact that Joseph never had any sexual relationship Mary. I recall that somebody posted a picture of my husband and I in the play very recently on Instagram. I was so surprised to realize that media personality, Lamide Akintobi, could still recollect the lyrics of the song verbatim. I felt so fulfilled as it only showed that the play really captured the imagination of people at the time.
PT: Tell us about other productions you partook in?
JOKE: There was Digging for Gold. We collaborated with the business arm of our business and we were able to get investors. But it was so much hard work just getting people to visit the theatre for an entire month, which was exactly how long the play, ran for. It entailed over 20 performances but by the time we got the audience to come see the play in droves, we had already recovered the monies our investors invested. So, we just moved on and this is one thing I would have done better. This only goes to show you that funding remains a challenge especially for theatre in Nigeria.
PT: What keeps you going when faced with challenges?
JOKE: I think a lot of it is passion; I am very passionate about my career. That is why I always strive for innovative ways of getting our message or product to the public. I can’t discountenance the grace of God in my life and career. I also know that I have been highly favoured.
PT: What is it like working with your husband?
JOKE: It feels great and now our oldest son has also joined the company. Every one of us has an idea of how to go about the business; we have a lot of arguments and that way, we are able to go forward. Each one of us sees different loopholes and this sort of complements our strengths and weaknesses.
PT: Has your son always been act inclined or did you coerce him into joining the company?
JOKE: No, he was the one who wanted to come into the industry but he prefers to be behind the scene.
PT: How does it feel to have a child who has come of age and is also interested in the family business?
JOKE: I am very grateful to God and if he hadn’t chosen this path, we would have supported him anyway. The fact that he is interested in this industry its fantastic. So, all I am doing is making sure he understands the terrain even better than we did at his age.
PT:Is directing an area you will like to explore?
JOKE: I’ve directed in the past but I haven’t had enough time for it. I directed “Digging for gold” and it was successful. I recall the late Amaka Igwe saying, ‘Why aren’t you directing more often’? I get more work as an actor and as a producer than I do as a director.
PT: As a veteran actor, what advice do you regularly give to the younger actors?
JOKE: I always tell younger actors that they should never limit themselves to being either an actor or director. Even though we all are actors, I tell them not to think of themselves as only operating in the acting industry.
PT: Can you shed more light on what you mean?
JOKE: The entertainment industry is wide enough and every actor must be talented enough to express his or herself in various aspects of the industry. When an actor doesn’t limit his or herself in the entertainment sector he or she can survive. But, when you limit yourself by regarding yourself as only a theatre actor, how do you then get to know that you are not a film actor? Who says you can’t work for the camera if you learn the skills? Some people don’t do very well in crossing over but if you are an actor, who says you can’t be a director as well as an actor? Who also says you can’t be a producer as well as an actor? Be focused in one area first so that everybody knows you for that and this is what has worked for me.
PT: A school of thought believes that only trained stage actors make the best film actors because they are more grounded. Do you agree?
JOKE: Well there’s always that argument but it is not one that I subscribe to. I do know a lot of people who have been able to cross from one platform to the other. However most stage actors who have been able to make the switch to film tend to be extremely powerful; but it’s not easy when to make the switch from film to stage. Theatre is so big and attempting to contain that energy in front of a small camera is a no mean task. If you attempt to transfer your theatre technique into film it always turns out horrible and simply doesn’t work. It all boils down to understanding the various techniques because there are people who started out in film and are also doing better in theatre.
PT: But some people still argue that actors are born and not taught
JOKE: I believe that actors are trained but that raw talent has to be inherent. But it is important to get trained and it can either be formal or informal. With regards to the latter, you attend an acting school and for the latter you can be mentored by a well-grounded actor. If you are lucky enough to attach to an acting company, you can get to learn on the job.
PT: What project are you currently working on?
JOKE: Our Company, Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts is currently producing a music drama titled Heartbeat. All the songs are specially being recorded for the production. It takes a cursory look at us as a people who are at a crossroad of development and where the people are kind of disillusioned. But then, violence is not the answer to the disillusionment. When you are disillusioned of course you want to attack but there is always a better way.
PT: It’s obviously inspired by the happenings in our society
JOKE: Yes it is, but it’s funny because it’s more like a prophetic play; because it’s been 10 years in the making. It took this long because we have been trying to find the right people to bring on board and also because we have been basically tightening all loose ends.
PT: How do you know that the time is now right?
JOKE: Thanks to the likes of Bolanle Austen-Peters who has been able to pioneer Broadway productions like Saro the musical and Wakaa! the musical. Music is an intrinsic part of traditional African theatre. The western world brought about a new dimension to dance drama; they took it away from our own traditional setting and gave it a more contemporary outlook. That way, you are able to find that there’s an audience for it.
PT: Will you also feature in the production?
JOKE: No I am not (featuring) and that is because producing a play in Nigeria is tough. A lot of times when we are receive funding to do any project most times the investors insist that my husband and I have got to perform or feature in it. They do not know how hard it was to produce and act at the same time. But, this time I was able to get away with it not performing in the play. We have got very good singers, dancers and an incredible director in the person of Najiti Dede. The play will be open to the public from November 6.
PT: Do you plan to take it outside the shores of Nigeria?
JOKE: Of course we are (planning to), but I am very particular about having sustainable theatre in Nigeria. Nigeria really is my focus. But if we are invited outside Nigeria we will accept the invitation.