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ADEBAYO, Aminat Titilayo: Space and Theatre: The Nigerian National Theatre and the Euro-American Spatial Design Legacy

Space and Theatre: The Nigerian National Theatre and the Euro-American Spatial Design Legacy

Aminat Titilayo ADEBAYO

School of Postgraduate Studies

Department of Creative Arts

Faculty of Arts

University of Lagos

Lagos, Nigeria


GSM: +234-706-608-2245


Space is a crucial and essential element of theatre and theatre in performance. The theatre space is one of the earliest arena in which man has consistently attempted, and is still attempting, to come to terms with the spatial phenomenon of his being. Relatedly, mankind’s several attempts to come to terms with the spatial phenomenon of his being in the theatre space has been a constant source of reaffirmation of the critical role of theatre in an ever changing society, where the survival of theatre has been intrinsically linked to the survival of a particular society and its degeneration also invariably linked to the degeneration of the society. While many factors have been suggested as responsible for the underdevelopment of the Nigerian theatre, its practices and performance tendencies, the primary factor however, may be adjudged to be the intertwine issue of Nigerian government choice of Euro-American spatial design of the Nigerian National theatre, and the subsequent concerted replication of this spatial design choice in almost all national and educational theatre spaces in Nigeria. This paper is an attempt to place in historical perspective the relationship between Euro-American inspired spatial designs of Nigerian theatre space as exemplified by the Nigerian National Theatre and the declination of Nigerian theatre practice and performance trends.


While many books and papers have been written about the influence of Euro-American designs on modern Nigerian theatre design and practices, Ododo (1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2006), Oni (1985, 1995, 2004, 2005), Enendu (2012), and Nzewi (1981), etc., its direct effects upon the development of Nigerian theatre space, and the legacy which it has left upon the Nigerian theatre space design have not anywhere been placed in solid and yet comprehensive perspective. It is however the burden of every age to rewrite their history especially within the ambit of events and issues that mandates a re-evaluation of their conceptions of history, economics and political development. This paper attempts to do so, however, without failing to give indications of the economic origin of well-known social, political, and even academic drifts of Nigerian theatre space design. This study has been inspired not only by the dearth of socio-economic based investigations of Nigerian theatre space design but also by the notion of a Nigerian National theatre space designed and developed by the Nigerian government, fully entrenched in a foreign culture template. Taking cognizance of the correlation long established between the theatre space and the amplification (or otherwise) of the theatrical experience (Oni 204), the Nigerian National theatre with regards to its spatial design has consistently prejudiced the image and practice of Nigeria theatre, its culturally diverse people (and continental filial; as a product of socio-economic-political change, and a cultural repudiation of a nation’s aspiration in theatre and practices.

The study concludes that the Euro-America inspired spatial design of the Nigerian National theatre and its subsequent replication in other national and educational theatre spaces in the country is a reflection of the idea of the ruling Nigerian elites of the 1970’s; and it is almost exclusively so not so much due to her historical colonial heritage, but more so in terms of in the essence of what that period represented in terms of increased crude oil revenues which was so readily available to the ruling government and by extension the ruling class of the period, whose ideas of self-interest and elitist penchants were more vigorously pursued rather than an actual and interested desire to stabilize the country’s mine-field of political landscape through theatre practices, and least of all is an objective to develop and promote a national and mass oriented theatre practice and performance trends, capable of promoting and articulating Nigerian national consciousness and an acclaimed international recognition.

Background to the Nigerian National Theatre

Earlier in Nigeria’s colonial theatre history, spaces like the Glover Memorial Hall, J.K. Randle Hall in Lagos, the Lugard Hall and Mapo Hall in Kaduna and Ibadan respectively and early missionary churches, had promoted European culture and theatre in the Nigerian state. The rapid proliferation of theatre spaces and theatre groups in the 1940’s to 1960’s however, was primarily borne out of a new sense of cultural identification and rejuvenation in an emerging post-colonial Nigerian state, and secondly due to educational advancement especially with the establishment of University College Ibadan in 1948, and the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo) in 1962. Regrettably however, the colonial theatre education system pioneered by the Department of English at the University of Ibadan saw the construction of the first educational Arts theatre in 1955, and as remodelled in 1958 (Oni 176). It was hasty replicated in the University of Ife in 1968 and in other Nigerian universities in the years between 1970 and 1990 with many university theatre spaces built to service the academic curriculum and production needs of new departments of theatre Arts which were still basically tuned along Euro-American tradition (Enendu 5-6).

The establishment of the above named institutions along with the subsequent creation of their theatre art departments in 1962 and 1966 respectively gave rise to new features and challenges in theatre space design, facilities, management and administration. Whilst this period saw the birth of diverse theatre tradition and types, as well as spontaneous interests in theatre spaces, theatre space design, management and administration, Ogunde, the acclaimed father of contemporary professional theatre company in Nigeria, had earlier, while drawing his inspiration from artistic and managerial operations of the Alarinjo travelling theatre with its peculiar lineage/cult tradition, appropriated its largely itinerant tradition, but took theatre indoors from the traditionally open-air, theatre in the round to raised platforms and proscenium arch theatre buildings, and by extension, withdrew theatre patronage from the courts to the masses (Clark 4; Oni 168, 174, 77).

Two identifiable trends emerged from this new space challenge, the emergence of private and public theatre spaces each with peculiar spatial demands, managerial cum administrative structures (Oni 176), but still primarily based on the intention of ownership, while functions, operational philosophy, principles of management and availability of fund to a large extent become secondary considerations. This trend saw the emergence of formal and conventional theatre buildings which were planned and designed to accommodate more audience under one single roof with provision for comfort, security and of course technological facilities. The public performance venues are government owned performance venues and sub divide into university, theatres, arts and cultural centres/halls and the Nigerian National theatre while private theatre spaces are often non-governmental, some of which have since include, Glover Memorial Hall, J.K. Randle Hall, New Culture studios Ibadan, Muson Centre, Terra Culture, etc. (Oni 181).

While these peculiarities elicited newer challenges in the development of Nigeria theatre space design and the emergence of a technology driven Nigerian theatre space, it eventually climaxed in the conceptualization and eventual construction of the Nigerian National Arts Theatre and its subsequent facilities in line with Euro-America space design. Whereas the Bulgarian Varna Palace of Sports and Culture is primarily a sports-gymnastics-multipurpose cultural retreat, its Euro-American spatial template and facilities were gratuitously adopted as the model for the Nigerian National theatre. Chief Anthony Enahoro, the then Commissioner for Culture, overruled recommendations and repelled strong protestations by theatre experts to the ill-considered choice of Euro-America design and this rapidly replicated especially at other federal and state owned theatres, cultural centres, Arts Councils, educational institutions and even private theatres (Euba 383-384; Adelugba 130; 140-141 ).

The Nigerian National Theatre

Whereas the idea of a Nigerian National Theatre was actually born out of a genuine need for a space for arts and culture identification, rejuvenation and promotion in an emerging post-colonial Nigerian State (Atte 144), some other fortuitous circumstances/ considerations made the notion of a national theatre ever more urgent and imperative. One of such other fortuitous considerations that was the circumstances of the Nigerian Civil war (1966-1970), and the numerous internal crises and political instability that had engulfed the Nigerian State prior during and at the end of the civil war, and which required most adept solution to the socio-political, cultural and economic challenges these crises portended for the newly independent state. Adjudged the most probable achievement of the General Yakubu Gowon led regime, the construction of the Nigerian National theatre commenced in 1973 (Atte 144), as arts and culture, were earmarked for the rehabilitation, reconciliation and reintegration processes of the traumatized Nigerian state.

Paradoxical though, Gowon’s regime was overthrown in a palace coup on 29 July 1975 without his fulfilling most of his promises. With the Nigerian political arena on the brink of becoming a mine field of political crises yet again, subsequent regimes, (General Ramat Murtala Muhammad in 1975, General Olusegun Obasanjo from 1975-1979) earnestly sought to stabilize the country's political misfortunes by any and every means necessary. Arts and culture, once again pre-eminently featured as the most adept tool for this purpose. Arts and culture was annexed and adopted as a tool for national reconciliation, reconstruction, integration and re-direction of a traumatized state with the theatre arts at the forefront of this challenge (Egbo 15-17; Eyo 21-27). Thus, propelled by the need to forge a new national identity for national development and reconciliation, overlapped by the desire for international recognition and acknowledgement especially in a rapidly globalizing post-colonial era, the mission of building a monument of national and international status is a fait accompli.

Nigeria hosting of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77), in 1977 was another motivation for the birth of the Nigerian National theatre (Yerima 187). The maiden edition, simply known then as the World Festival of Negro Arts, had held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, while subsequent Pan African Festivals, conferences and congresses, (such as the UNESCO Conference on Influence of Colonialism on African Culture, Dar es Salaam in 1972, the 6th Pan-African Congress, Dar es Salaam in 1974, the pre-Colloquium of the Black Arts Festival Dakar in 1974, etc.) that followed it had also sought to create, and redefine conflicting and contrasting opinions on the issues of identification, recognition, evaluation and development of African arts and theatre as ensconced in the African past, present and future (Soyinka x; 3-4). FESTAC ’77 was significantly a redefining event in line with this mission and vision. The Nigerian government didn’t want to disappoint in making available the most befitting space and facilities for such a continental and international defining occasion.

The Nigerian National Theatre was commissioned on the 30th of September, 1976 under the Obasanjo led federal government, and as gratuitously modelled after the Varna Palace of Sports and Culture, Bulgaria. The interesting fact however, is that it is not only about three times bigger than the Varna model, but it is also about four times bigger than the National Theatre in London (Atte 145).

Nigerian Theatre and the Theatre Space Challenge

Despite theatre history has irrefutably established the primary consideration in setting up a theatre as the aim it intends to serve, for this not only determines its content, form and substance but also its language and especially structural design, the implication (s) of a Nigerian national theatre space designed out of line with traditionally informed theatre practice and performance needs of the Nigerian society was obviously lost on the ‘creators’ of the Nigerian National Theatre. The Nigerian government’s adoption of Euro-American tendencies in virtually all its National theatre space designs has exerted, and is still exerting tremendous influence on her theatre practice and performance culture and trend because space, as a crucial aspect of theatre in performance exhibits sheer physicality that signifies much more beyond its manifestation as structure/a building to accommodate the other key players (i.e. performers, spectators, designers, etc.) during process of the theatrical experience(Carlson 8; Burns 5).

Conceived as an all-encompassing space to source, identify, develop and propagate this national and international arts and culture mission: melting pot to blend, reconcile, develop, promote and project the country’s cultural, theatrical and performance diversity, the Nigerian National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos is the iconic representation of the apex development in theatre space design in Nigeria, and also with regards to its role as an arena to identify, conceptualize, and advance the dynamism of the Nigerian theatre practices and performance culture, and further advance its internationalization. However, like most government intervention in the Nigerian ‘national’ projects and public life, it is an exhibition in overt grandiosity, specifically in terms of its spatial design and facilities. Despite its initial conceptualization as a place of popular and mass theatre practice, the Nigerian government over the years has proven to deviations and superficiality of politics and policies, overt nationalistic pretence and pretence to international sophistication in arts as in other endeavours, have acquired peculiar penchant for sheer exhibitionism and grandiosity in terms of ideas, concepts, and structural achievements, such that, ‘internationalist’ facilities rather than ones identifiable with, and capable of nurturing the indigenous artistic contents, values, and their practices are often embraced (Euba 387-388).

This peculiar penchant probably gave birth to the almost wholesale importation and adaptation of the architectural design of the Varna Palace of Culture and Sports, Bulgaria, a gymnasium-sports-Cultural Centre as the model for the Nigerian National theatre by the then Commissioner for Information, Chief Anthony Enahoro, without due considerations and appreciation for the true value of the Nigerian theatre space, practices, performance requirements, and as well as what a national theatre portend, despite opposition by renown theatre scholars and practitioners (Adelugba144).

This adoption and subsequent replication of a spatial design that is an hybrid between Euro-American proscenium theatre space and a Bulgarian sports centre, significantly mid-wifed a national theatre space that has been variously labelled, namely, “an amorphous parody of a Bulgarian gymnasium” (Hunwick 68), “an embodiment of the general misconception of the world theatre” (this is only by application and implication since Soyinka used the label in reference to National Theatre Kampala), an elitist theatre (Jeyifo 420-421), etc. Adjudged as highly inhibitory to Nigerian theatre practice and performance trends (Hunwick 68), the spatial design of the Nigerian National Arts Theatre has initiated amongst other things, a theatre practice that relied heavily on “institutional support, grants and endorsement for its productions thereby laying the foundation for the emergence of a public and non-commercially fixated theatre” (Adedeji 3). Also, the emerging elitist tendencies and class division in the post-colonial Nigerian society was also to reveal itself in the design and construction of the Nigerian National theatre had clearly set out to alienate the popular theatre/mass from this space (Jeyifo 420-421; Hagher 13).

Almost four decades down the line however, the national theatre space in its design and consequential structure and facilities have continued to generate heated controversies mostly tied around the ‘foreignness’ of its design. Most claims surmise that the spatial design of the Nigerian Nation theatre endorses its severance from the Nigerian people and their theatre, inherent in its lack of significant contribution to Nigerian theatre practice and performance trends. Undoubtedly an imposing edifice, a lot more however, beyond architecture or mere physical design defines a theatre space especially a national theatre space which the Nigerian National theatre represents.

While the study of any period of theatre history has revealed a consistent constructed evolution of theatre space, the role of theatrical forms and performance tendencies have been well highlighted (Whiting 231). The early Greek theatre was a religious one; as such an altar to Dionysius, the orchestra, a large circle where actors performed, and seating arrangement for the audience were essentials to the theatre design. The centrality of the audience to the performative process also dictate important considerations in performance space design because theatre spaces dictate so much emotional and sensory impact on the audience that directors seek the most appropriate space possible for each production.

Thus, while traditionally, three types of theatre spaces have been identified in the theatre, namely proscenium, thrust, and arena space (this is a type of space design in which the audience entirely surrounds the acting space), others includes surround space, in which audience sits in the middle and the dramatic action occurs around them, found spaces – outhouses, a warehouse, church etc. or any other space which does not have any other major specifically designed theatrical pieces and have sets design etc. imposed on it, or in a converted theatre space. These are specially found theatre spaces which are transformed by adding designed seating and/or architectural or scenic pieces that help locate the action of such a space. These spaces are distinct to a large degree by the physical relationship of the performer and audience. Directors acknowledge that the size, shape and layout of a theatre space directs, even dictates a performance‘s mise-en-scene. Some directors even choose to look outside the traditional theatre space for an appropriate place to bring a concept, a script, performers and audience together. For some, traditional theatrical space is chosen, but used in a new ways. Either way, space is seen as a pivotal element in the directional relationship between the performers and its spectators since the physical distance between people can relate to social, cultural and environmental factors. Changes in those spaces can stress or enhance the characters and plot.

Theatre Forms, Practices and Performance Trends in Nigeria

Often referred to as crude, the folk and popular dramatist of the 1940’s however set the pace in the rise of professional theatre in Nigeria. The theatre upsurge of the 1960’s and seventies saw the professionalization of the Nigeria theatre and theatre business, with Ogunde leading the pack, Duro Ladipo and Kola Ogunmola soon followed suit. Three common features of these theatre groups include their commercialization of the theatre business and their independence from any financial assistance from government of funding agency. Secondly, their itinerant nature, and lastly, their organizational setup, which often consent the director-manager-ship role of the founder of the company. Oni also goes on to categorize the different groups involved in theatrical practice in Nigeria into four major groups, namely, university theatre groups, indigenous performing groups, amateur groups and professional group (164;199-201), a recurring decimal in terms of production styles of these groups have largely been ‘simple, practical and functional’ easily adaptable sets/backdrops, props, etc. (Ogunbiyi 348-9). Actors often act on part time because the theatre group often cannot pay their cast and crew from their gate takings course it’s often insufficient to cover their production expenses and majority of contemporary theatre companies in Nigeria still operate on this basis. The major implication of this is that funding, to a great existent, is still a problem (Akomolafe 425-428). Despite some staggered attempt at government and corporate funding and sponsorship, funding is still a major issue in Nigeria theatre practice (Oni 182). However, a significant part of the problem is accessing an appropriate theatre space for performance.

The Nigerian National theatre because of the grandiosity of its space design has remained largely inaccessible to quite a majority of the theatre groups earlier identified and a mass audience. The funding required to rent a space for performance in the National Theatre has remain largely exorbitant. Funding and expertise for technical facilities and design contemplations required for the performance are also largely out of realm of these groups. Also, a theatre space, and especially a national theatre space in its design and facilities, amongst other contending factors, is supposed to satisfy the peculiar aesthetic incentives and needs of the people whom it’s created for (and/or who created it); as this will lead not only to an inclination in their desires to maintain and sustain the theatre space as a structure, but even more so, enhance the development of their theatrical forms and practices as a pathway to an improved social life, advancement toward a cohesive communal/national identity, development, international acknowledgments and acceptance and recognition.

As such, while the theatre space in its design conceptualization and realization in terms of structural gratifications bear significant burden of meaning and purpose for both its creators and the people it is created for, a ‘National’ theatre space design within the same context assumes an even bigger burden in the substantial magnification of its symbolic and non-symbolic functions, its tangible and intangible roles, i.e. national theatre space is often the apex in terms of conceptual nomination, a model in terms of structure and design, a forerunner in the exercise of certain fundamental duties germane to its creation, but even more so, in the clarity of its obligations to the advancement of a nation’s theatrical practices and performance tendencies, etc., national identification, and also, international recognition and acceptance. Adelugba recognized and agreed that the art of space design like any other art is first and foremost an affirmation of human intuitions, experience and attempt to control the reality of his essence that is to be appreciated on its own terms and merit (64-65), while Ogunbiyi asserted that ultimately any meaningful and relevant theatre seeking to inspire development must draw its strength from the people (336).

The study of theatre history has revealed a constructed evolution of theatre space, both formal and informal. While peculiar but interesting interconnectedness has been established between the mortality/immortality and proliferation of performance forms of a society and the design of its theatre space, with either’s survival or demise often intrinsically interwoven; the survival of any a society can conclusively be said to be innately linked to the vibrancy and preponderance of its theatrical diversity, as evolved in the intricacies of its theatre forms, practices and performance tendencies; and as explored and expounded within the limits of the design of its performance space(s).

The choice of the Euro-American spatial design of the Nigerian National Theatre interpreted along the Marxist theory offers revealing information about the age and intention of its “creators.” Marxism is the political, economic and social theory advocated by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels and their followers around the early nineteenth century based on dialectical materialism and historical materialism (Burns 13-15; Lenin 20). Marxism has three component parts: political economy, philosophy and scientific socialism. The political economy aspect holds that the relationship in economic productions of goods and services that sustain social life is what determines all other facets of life for a given period; all other realities – law, morality, religion, art and culture, etc. are superstructure dependent on that (Marx & Engel 363; Engels, Preface to the 1883 German edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party).

The Marxist theory of political economy furthermore clarifies the role of changing mode of productions in relationship to the emergence of dominant ideas in a perpetually human society changing society (Marx & Engel 57). The second component of Marxism, dialectical and historical materialism essentially, advances the philosophy that development is a process of coming into being, growing, dying and becoming something new in an endless cycle of live and living on in which nothing is constant but everything is constantly changing: applied to human society and history. Marxism identified that a number of societies emerged and others will still emerge due to the growth of production capacity and mode. from the earliest primitive tribes, through slavery, feudalism, the current capitalist system, and eventually socialism and communism (Marx 372).

The above laid the foundation for the last component part of Marxism, Scientific Socialism, which holds that a historically inevitable cooperative society must come into being through the struggle occasioned by capitalist exploitation, and the workers' (masses') struggle, consequently leading to a revolution that will deliver it. Marxist theory emphasizes the division of society into classes with irreconcilable interests, the struggle of these classes, occasions reforms and lead inevitably to revolution, and the birth of a new, higher social system. The theory embraces propaganda, revolutionary ideas as radical weapons for societal change (Lenin 28-30).

Inevitable, however, is the fact that the best Marxist criticism seeks a total view of a work of art, precluding limitation to any particular aspect, but recognizes and accentuate every influence and factors for a most significant, comprehensive and evidence-based understanding because “a work of art is itself part of a dialectical reality, in which its meaning will never be static.” As such, Marxist theory attempts to define the influence of society (as entwined in the relationship of productions, the organisation of the economy and politics) on morality, law, philosophy, arts and culture, and to evaluate their position in the society in which they originate. This paper recognize and appreciate that the relationship between theatre, theatre space, performers, the audience and the society in which they emanate is the premise of Marxist criticism as the theory clearly outlines the idea of what these relationships was in the past, and should be both in present and in the future of a particular society. This, remarkably, is in absolute consideration of the fact that ‘reality and theory are not static and despite that progressive materialism has had tremendous influence on the development of modern archaeology and other sciences since after the beginning of Marxism.’

Since art like many other facet of human society is full of contradictions and subject to many different and often deferent forces, Marxist theory of art particularly emphasizes that art work symbolize a worldview or ideology and serves as a frame of reference that expresses the vision of the world of the particular social class/dominant class to which the work belongs with particular attention paid to the struggle of opposites (dialectics) and to the examination of social contradictions in the society. The theory further advances the viewpoint that art should not only reflect the norms and value of any society but it is binding that it makes a positive contribution to changing that society. Trotsky in The Defence of Marxism espouses;

It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to accept or reject a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judge by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why (page?).

From the above, it is appropriate to conclude that the Marxist perceive arts and its creation as an ideological phenomenon whose sole aim is to change the world in a political (Revolutionary) manner. Subsequent of which, art and its creation for a Marxist should have an overriding concern for the poor, the deprived, and the underdog of the society. Often, an art work (or design) is considered a low art if its value does not dwell on the belief in advancement towards a better society.

Finally, Marxists theory see art works or designs as a reflection of a particular age and period, and must subsequently respond to its general theme which corresponds to the social structure of that society. The theory’s substantive and objective clarification of the role of changing mode of productions in relationship to the emergence of dominant ideas in a perpetually changing human society (as the base of its political economy) is of great significance in understanding the choice of Euro-American spatial design as a model for Nigerian National Theatre design. Thus, while the sheer grandiosity of the spatial design and facilities of the Nigerian National theatre can be substantiated within the Marxist positions that, historically, all intellectual (and artistic) production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed, and that the ruling ideas of each age have always been the ideas of its ruling class, the alienation of the Nigerian masses by implication of the spatial design of the Nigerian National theatre design may have pre-empt a revolution between the ruling classes and the Nigerian masses especially in view of emerging and changing political dynamics of the Nigerian state and her fledging democratic heritage.


This paper posits that Nigeria’s aspiration in advancing her national theatrical development, international recognition and acceptance is possible only when Nigerian theatre spaces   (especially national theatre spaces) are designed in dynamic tune with the profundities of the Nigerian theatre practices and performance trends; and is subsequently a reflection of popular predisposition rather than elitist inclinations. Only then, can our theatre practice and performance predisposition truly be national and international in spirit, structure, facilities and outlook.

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