Mrs. Taiwo Ajai-Lycet, OON, is a woman of many parts. She is an actor, an educationist, writer, broadcaster, life coach, voice coach, theatre instructor and dancer.
In fact, the list goes on and on. She is a known face in the acting world, both within and outside the shores of Nigeria. She has been around for decades and is a force to reckon with in her chosen field. Speaking from experience in this interview, she has some scathing words for some of her colleagues as well as the elite in the society.
TNE: At 78, are you still active in all the things you did when you were younger or have you relaxed?
Yes, I still do all of them. I have not relaxed in anyway. I’m still doing all these things. I’m still acting, I’m still dancing, I’m still a life coach and all that.
TNE: Are you thinking of retiring any time soon?
No. I don’t think so because you can’t retire from life and if we are talking about retiring from work, you can only retire from something that bores you or that aches you; something you can’t wait to get away from. But since all these things I’m doing in my life, I have raced towards them and embraced them, and they inform my life immeasurably, why am I retiring from them?
That’s my answer and its not facile as it sounds, it is real. I can’t perceive myself retiring and yet, somebody might say I’m not being real, because as we age, we lose steam physically because that’s how we are made. As we age we lose steam, yes, but we don’t lose the ability to think unless something is organically wrong with us and as long as we are thinking, we will keep creating. That’s what I mean, not that at some point one won’t grow tired, because the energy level is reducing.
So, at the risk of being unrealistic and naive about aging, I don’t see there’s anything to retire from. You just cut your coat according to your cloth. You still do what you like to do; you must retain your enthusiasm for life and still give what you have to give.
The other thing about retirement, which always worries me about society, is that you are asking people at that time of life to be invisible. Society has invested so much in them that at a time, it should be requiring them to give so much more back rather than the other way round.
If you look at our traditional societies, older women are the king makers, the powers behind the throne. Why, because of the wisdom they have gathered over the years. So many men have died, so many dynasties have come and gone in their lifetime, so they have a lot to give.
There is a need to look at this question of retirement. Give the ‘old’ ones something to do so that they can give back to society. Europe is beginning to do that. They are extending retirement age and I don’t think it is entirely commercial or financial because of the pension they will give to the people.
The fact is, if you retain them in the workforce, you can use all their life experiences. That’s my take on retirement issue. I think it should be a societal issue rather than personal. Don’t make them invisible because they have reached a certain age, because they can’t run as fast any more. Make it possible for them to give the residue which is in their brains if their health permits.
TNE: You have spoken passionately about what you do and how you’ve embraced it all your life. What would you say your greatest experience has been up till this point?
When you are experiencing something, you don’t know. You don’t have any experience until you have experienced it and when you are experiencing any issue, you are not aware. It’s like knowledge; until we know something, we have not developed the neuron to recognise that knowledge. When we are experiencing all these issues that years after, every one says; oh, how wonderful that was, you did very well, you are not aware. I’m not aware I’m doing anything. I’m just living. That’s the thing about being able to talk about your experiences.
You can’t talk about the best experience you’ve had because to me the best is yet to come. You don’t know what is down the line, you’ve just gone through an experience and you’re happy that you went through it and the details of it I don’t think strikes you.
For instance, the crew of the play ‘Hear Word’ which I’m part of, just got back from the biggest International Arts Festival in the world held in Edinburgh. The play has been going on in Nigeria for five years. The International Arts Festival has been going on for about 74 years encompassing classical music, performing arts, fine arts etc. We’ve been to Harvard University in Boston Massachusetts, twice. We’ve been to the New York Festival.
I was at the festival in Edinburgh 47 years ago; it was an experience. I lived it. I was in two shows. I hardly was alive to know what was happening. Later on, I’m hearing people saying, ‘wow, it’s the biggest show.’ I come back 47 years after, I’m able to see what people were talking about and I’m like ‘wow, is this what I went through? Now, I dare talk about it because I know it’s the biggest international arts festival and if you are an artist, if you have not appeared there, you have not arrived.
Many talents are discovered from there. People come from the festival to become worldwide names. So, we’ve gone through that, unarguably an incredible experience, but I’m not feeling anything. I feel awed if I feel anything.
Awed because after 47 years, I returned and the style I returned fascinate me. I was the face of the festival. So I have never been able to say, this or that is my greatest experience because the more you grow, the more you know how far further you have to go. That’s the point I’m making about that. I have been through many experiences and I dare say that looking back at them, they’ve all been priceless. There’s not been anything I can say was just ordinary when I look back. So I can’t tell you this was the greatest.
TNE: Would it be correct to say you favour the theatre or the stage over film and television?
That is very correct. I’m not particular about them. I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in ideas and the potency of ideas and the ability to communicate ideas.
TNE: Would it also be correct to say that glamour and television have taken over the stage?
Unfortunately that is true, but stage will come back. Once you attend a stage play, you will know the potency of the experience as against sitting in front of the television and watching movies. There are some films that are really knockouts, but you cannot beat a stage experience. It’s organic, it is almost religious, it’s spiritual, it’s a connection because you listen and hear what I’m saying and you switch on your emotional intelligence. You can’t beat stage. It’s right there and you have to know your onions. It’s not like television or movies where they can have take after take until you get it right. When you are on stage, you have one chance to get it right and that by itself is a discipline I like because it means that you just can’t get on stage and start messing up because it will show like a sore thumb. It’s also a discipline you need in life to know that you can’t insult your audience.
It’s a respect between audience and the actor.
So you can’t worry if it’s the good side of your face that is showing or whether your boobs are good enough which is what they worry about in the other ones. With stage you are dealing with ideas and people are looking at you there and although you are using this vessel, it is the totality of the vessel, it is the soul of the person that they see. It is the ideas that are the major currency in the encounter. I like that very much.
TNE: With all these good qualities that the stage presents, why are people not investing in that direction. Emphasis is more on movies. Why?
Because of the frivolity; it is frivolous and seductive. It is seductive because you are looking at pretty clothes and people shaking their tails and their boobs and everything. You’re not really listening to what they are saying and a lot of people who have the economic power are men.
You will find that for some people, it is their greatest wish to have an actor as a girlfriend on the side which offends me because it means that they see them as a plaything. An actor is not a plaything. An actor is like a teacher, a sayer. You are saying somebody else’s words, but you bring your intelligence, knowledge and everything and you expose that and you should be able to do it even in films and television.
When I do it in film people don’t tell me how pretty I look. It is the character that is appreciated and the character is appreciated because of the ideas I am trying to communicate. That’s what they are fixated on.
If you don’t do that, you are play-acting and not acting.
Play-acting is what children do when they play mummies, doctors, teachers and all that. I have more respect for the children’s play-acting because they are rehearsing for the future, they are mirroring what they see around them and they are committed to what they are doing.
That’s the commitment an actor should have. They are not worried about their dress or whatever. They are dealing with ideas and they’re really committed to it. You can’t say the same for our glamour girls. Their market is very different, and the ideas they are flaunting is quite different from the ideas those children are playing at.
So people are not taking actors seriously and that aches and worries me.
TNE: Who should be blamed for actors not being taken seriously?
It’s actors and that’s because a lot of them are not trained actors to know why it is you have acting. The entertainment industry is a wonderful tool to educate the people and if all you’re doing is wagging your tail about and being semi prostitutes or whatever, looking for a man to befriend you and give you a house in Lekki and open a shop for you, what you’re selling is quite different. You are not doing the job that an actor is supposed to do.
An actor, let me say so, is supposed to change our world. Because they have the ability to change our world, that’s why people are switched to them but unfortunately, they get the wrong thing from them.
TNE: The actor simply acts a script given to him. So should the actor really be blamed?
It’s the same thing because the writer is also not socially well educated to know what to say.
For instance, the play ‘Hear Word’ is talking about the plight of women, widowhood rites, abuse of young girls, IVF, child marriages etc.
These are political issues. That’s what I mean.
There’s nothing glamorous about them. They are issues asking society to change itself.
Religion is taking over our minds especially the women. They’ve surrendered their intelligence. A woman is not having a baby, it’s her mother-in-law or sister-in-law.
Everybody is a witch and the pastor will deliver her and the man of God is abusing her, sleeping with her. That’s what I’m talking about in the difference between theatre and glamour. Are those doing theatre not glamorous enough? The real glamour should be in the actors heads. They should be trying to change the society, to have dialogue with the society with a view to working together to change the things that are not working for us and to enhance and continue to encourage the things that are good for us.
The actors should influence those writing the scripts.
TNE: Is there anything the government can do or should do to encourage the theatre?
If you have enough people in government who know the power of theatre they can positively impact on theatre. I think they really know in a way, because during their campaigns they use actors because they know they have following and that if a popular artist speaks for you, he or she is saying vote for my man or woman.
They know that theatre is useful, but there is a poverty of ideas as to what is good for us to develop our country. We always think that what will develop our country is money, but it is not. We don’t lack money but ideas as a nation and if we are stupid, our leaders are the most stupid because they know we are not going to fight them. They capitalise on our mentality of ‘I am your brother or sister and if I give you a little money and something to eat, then you’ll be okay and I can do what I like.’
That’s why I say they are the most stupid, the most wretched, because if you are an elite, you should lead by example, you should have some ethics and moral stamina and backbone and you should recognise your responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number. If you don’t have that, you are the most wretched of people.
So because they are wretched, they are not going to know, those who have money, that they should support the theatre and what it stands for.
If we want this country to grow, education must be made a priority. Nothing else except knowledge is what we need in the country. We have to politicise our people, educate them, galvanise them and mobilise them. We need theatre to do that. We are mobilising, but in the wrong direction with bags of rice and all that. They think that’s mobilisation but it’s going to impoverish us for ever and ever. Yet we have so much wealth.
If we have as much wealth as we have in Nigeria and we are this poor, then I’m not abusing anybody when I say they are wretched. There is poverty and wretchedness of critical thinking.
For most people it is just me, myself and I. We can all see that it’s not working and it will never work because that’s against natural law.
The law says if you have a leader, that leader must lead you to the promised land not down the abyss, not up the precipice, and down the abyss. That’s the responsibility of leadership.
However, they are taking advantage of the people and if you take advantage of the ignorance of the masses, of your fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and say you are alright and pack the number of cars I see some politicians have in their homes when you know your village doesn’t have any roads, no hospitals, no schools, then such a person is the most wretched of all human beings. Such a person cannot have any intelligence because it does not make sense.
This is not an abuse. It really does not make sense for someone who is intellectually aware, emotionally intelligent to do that to himself and think that he’s risen above everybody else because what he’s doing is fomenting trouble for himself and for innocent people who have no hand in his greed.
That’s why they are not sponsoring theatre.
They use actors so they know the importance and advantage of these actors who have fans who follow them. But for them to think we should have a National Theatre other than song and dance they won’t. We have a national troupe but I don’t see the incredible idea about the nation that they are projecting whereas that’s what they need to be doing. It’s not just having a national troupe but we also have to have a National Arts Council that work and know what it’s doing and what its responsibility to the community and the nation is. If you have Arts Council like that who are doing things other than sitting around and sharing money and collecting salary at the end of the month, but really projecting ideas, people will be going to the theatre. They will be having movies, and but even the movies will be talking about our issues.
How much of the issues we have in Nigeria do you see on television? Most television stations talk about government, especially the state owned but if government was intelligent, they would sponsor other voices and the way they could do that, but as they have their own state television talking about them, is to have the Arts Council talking about the issues in the country.
TNE: If they allow the Arts Council to talk about issues affecting the country, don’t you think they will see it as projecting their failures?
Yes, but that’s the reason why the Arts Council must engage other impartial actors. All the creative minds don’t have to be employed by the Arts Council. That’s why you must have diverse voices talking and if they were intelligent enough, they would allow the diversity, but we know we are not intelligent enough. Look at the mess we are making of the blessing of diversity in our nation.
TNE: So how do we make the country work?
Can we agree to disagree? This is what theatre should be able to teach us. The ability to be in the other person’s shoe. But if you see yourself that you’re Ibo, all your friends are Ibo and you don’t want to know about the Yorubas and vice-versa, it won’t work. We need the ability to appreciate one another. I cannot say because I’m Yoruba, everything around me should be Yoruba. If I do that, 95 percent of my mental sense has been locked up, I cannot see the world properly. It’s called ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s in all the wise books. If you have no ability to love the other person, if you cannot appreciate the other person, we won’t have a nation. It’s important for you to know yourself and love yourself before you can be love another. So if we’re doing what we are doing, it means we don’t really love ourselves, it is called enlightened self interest.
When I’m kind to you and I’m good to you, don’t bother to thank me because I know what I’m doing. What you give to the world is what comes to you. If someone doesn’t know that, that’s what I mean that they are stupid, wretched and unintelligent.
In order for me to live comfortably and feel safe, I have to make other people feel comfortable because when all is said and done, they will look after me. So when you take care of your neighbour, whether they are green, blue or yellow, you are looking after yourself. We haven’t developed that. It is good to have ethnic purity because that’s your root, but you have to honour that root by extending whatever you think is so wonderful about your root to other people. If you are not doing that, you are insecure and emotionally unstable and imbalanced. There is nothing to be proud of in all these ethnic sentiments.
And these are the issues film should be looking at not the frivolous storylines they come up with.
TNE: Is there a way of regulating who gets into theatre and movies based on your earlier position that those writing the scripts do not even know what they should talk about.
You cannot regulate. I know these problems force us to go against our best instincts.
Creativity is creativity. You can’t regulate.
The only thing is that you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t stop them from writing.
They feel they have to write so they write.
They don’t even know when they write nonsense.
From the outside perspective, you know it’s rubbish, but for the writer, he thinks he’s written the best script.
That’s why I stress the importance of education. They need to be properly educated to know their limitations. We have amazing colossal arrogance in this country. We also have some of the most clever people in the world in this nation. Even as I say all that I say, the most incredible minds are in this country but they are swamped by mediocrity and because they have great minds, they have the humility to know how far they can go. The ones flaunting about don’t know anything.
Television and films are mesmerising. They shut down your critical faculty, you just sit down and stare at the screen. It’s no secret that they are called ‘Idiot Boxes.’
TNE: So what would you tell an upcoming actor who wants to make impact in the industry?
My advice is always to get an education and to continue getting educated about the industry, and about the society. ‘Read, read, read I say.’ Read everything and anything. I didn’t study to be an actor. It was by accident that I got into acting in England but after getting into the profession, I trained for it. I did voice training, speech training and I took acting lessons. So education is the key.
When people come to me and say they want to drop out of school to go into acting, I advice them against that. I tell them to finish their education and if after graduation they still want to act, they should come back.
I run an art studio and I never take anybody who didn’t finish their education at least up to university level. That is important. It develops your mind to the extent that if you get a script, you can educate the writer on how best to handle it.
People can be discovered without training, I’m an example but the reason I have stayed this long, over 50 years, is because of training. I didn’t trust the flash in the pan.
TNE: It would be correct to say that it is education that has sustained you in the industry?
I swear by it because you have a different perspective to life if you are educated. You learn how to be in the other peoples shoes and you will acquire permutations for you to use and it gives you confidence; not false confidence, but confidence based on what know you can do. There’s nothing coming that the ground will not take, so when you are educated, you know what to do at every time.
When I’m given a script I don’t know how it will turn out because it’s a new entity. But I know the antidote. Work, work and work. Don’t think that because you had done one play and it turned out very well therefore every script is a piece of cake. It is not. You have to find out what it is saying to you that you are now going to be saying to the people.