24 Apr 2015
Founder, Society for Performing Arts of Nigeria (SPAN), Mrs. Sarah Boulos, has helped artistes of diverse ages and fields to realise their dreams. As her organisation clocks 10 this year, she speaks with Mary Ekah about its impact on the Nigeria’s entertainment industry and her determination to do more
What does it feel like to celebrate 10 years of SPAN?
It is very emotional. When we started, I never thought that so many people will be empowered and educated and that they would succeed like they are doing today. Sometimes you just embark on an adventure expecting something good to come out of it and so you work so hard even when you do not know what will be the outcome. And seeing the outcome of SPAN today and our achievements, especially for all the people that have benefited, I am just so happy and humbled because I can see that God has worked through me to use me for something that is so necessary and needful for Nigeria. So I am humbled and so emotional about it.
You said SPAN has been doing something necessary and needful for Nigeria. How do you mean?
We hear every day of people trying to achieve their purpose, trying to follow up on what they are supposed to do for themselves to better their lives and at the same time trying to find out what job opportunities are available for them out there as well as trying to make a difference, especially when they are artistes. Such people need a platform to actually explore their talents – play their musical instrument or learn their dance skill or act on a stage in order for them to develop their talents and nurture it, you need a place to do it and then you are not able to find the right place in Nigeria. Although we have universities where some of these skills are taught, SPAN has a different approach. What SPAN does is that it provides that opportunity for people who cannot afford university education. Usually what they do is that they come to SPAN where they are taught for free and then they raise money because sooner than later, they become very good dancers, musicians and actors, they save that money and then could go to the university.
So we aid this transition period from the high school diploma to the university degree and some times they can’t even afford to be on a high school diploma because some cannot even finish their exams before they came in contact with us. So SPAN with its curriculum and academic work has been able to open doors for those that have been forgotten and lack opportunities. It has also been able to answer the needs for those that want to further develop in their already identified profession because what a lot of the universities in Nigeria offer is theoretical and not practical, so what we do is that we groom the students to a point where they are able to find themselves and bring out the best in their professional works so that heir brand can sell and also become part of their entity.
So to explain this in my own way of thinking: I am a student of the art, I love what I do. I have a talent and I need to make money out of it. I need to finds a way of being productive. Now, how many dropouts from college are able to find jobs in the entertainment industry. Unless you push them towards somewhere, they would never be able to achieve their dreams, you need to guide them and that is what SPAN does – it is answering the needs for these young students who want to achieve something in the performing arts but cannot but when he/she comes in contact with SPAN, he is able to ignite what he has been called for and so he is able to get job, open a bank account and build a family because he has been empowered by SPAN through his studies, training programmes and leadership empowerment programmes; he is groomed to function properly where he fits in the society. And I think that is why I am still here – answering a need.
Are you saying that every student that has passed through SPAN has done so free of charge?
Yes, they didn’t pay a dime. Like they didn’t pay for a whole years of training at SPAN; they get a one year free training after which, every time they want to get a class, they give back through performances like when they go to perform and they get paid or they give back through community services. And then people who were trained by SPAN got hired to be teachers and earn salaries and could also pay back from what they are paid as salaries. And I could go as far as telling you that the first two generations of SPAN go transport allowance to come to the training school then. They were paid and fed to train, so a lot of them, once I started taking away some of these privileges, of course, they felt that there was something missing. That is where the power of service comes in. So you give back by helping your fellow brothers and sisters. Whatever you do has to benefit others and if it does not benefit others, why are you doing it in the first place? That is why SPAN is running today.
The act of service is very important to us. Once they finish the free training programme, we tell then straightaway that we need to guide them. So now what they do is that the people that come back to SPAN to further their training are making money even while they are still on training with SPAN. They are hired everywhere because we have given them a platform that is sellable and we do not ask anything in return. The only thing that we ask them to do is to serve their fellow man. Right now a lot of them have opened their dance and music companies as well as production houses. Interestingly, I met most of them recently and they all said that SPAN has helped them take the step further to a world that is yet to be discovered. And they were able to fit in the society and excel in what they do. So SPAN pushes.
We take them as refugees even though some have been graduates of universities, they end up in SPAN because they have not been able to achieve what they wanted in life or find themselves. These are young people that are artistes at core and need to find themselves, so what happen is that in SPAN, after the free training, all we ask from them is to service humanity by teaching in the schools in their neighbourhood, teach community classes and perform for us if we need to perform but after that there is no holding back unless they are teachers in SPAN officially hired an are paid salaries. So the whole process of training is a free will. They may decide after that one-year if they want to service humanity or just walk away but we audition those who can stay on with us after the one-year free training because if they were not grounded enough, they didn’t need to stay any longer with us. So they have to be ready to be auditioned to stay in SPAN, that is very important. So out of the amount of people that we have trained in SPAN, only a few stay back to serve in the society a lot of others just went away.
So how does SPAN generate income to sustain itself?
SPAN generates incomes not from the performances but from schools by teaching. So for the music department we have Chellarams Plc, an Indian group that is into performances, the group also own the Chellarams Foundation and Art House Foundation, which is in support of Fine Art and they also have a trust fund for education and so they have spread their tentacles to leadership, business, Fine Arts and performing arts.
And especially, the young son of the Chellarams groups is a musician himself and so he is very interested in supporting and growing the Jazz Contemporary School of SPAN and that is how we pay the salaries of our teachers to train people for free. Now how do we pay our staff? That is a very interesting aspect. We teach in over 20 private schools and the money generated us used in paying our staff and also the money generated goes back to SPAN so that we can pay the salary for the admin staff and the teachers. We have support fund for all the events that we do. The support fund system is to present the events and there is one particular company that has been of huge support to us, which is the SCOA Nigeria plc.
SCOA has provided us a building in Lagos Island and it is also providing us the diesel that we use in running the classes. So we do have a support system that helps sustain us over time. But what pay our staff with is 100 percent from the dance, acting and music class that we teach in private schools. So we go everywhere around town and collaborate with studios and schools that we can generate income from. We have organisations that have been there for us and they have not stopped being there.
These include Indomie, Seven Up Bottling Company and ITB Construction. These companies on a yearly basic give us what they can afford so that we use their money to present the events of SPAN and also to educate the community. The money that sustains our school is from either SCOA Nigeria Plc. of Chellarams for the music department, dance class and the art classes that we teach.
That is how we have been able to survive. Without events, we cannot have any credibility. So the events sponsored by the Indomie company, the Seven Up Bottling Company and ITB Construction Company gives leverage for us to expand and that is why this year Access Bank just came in to support us with a small fund for our gala night. So we are building a relationship with them. So it is about building relationships and seeing the importance of developing the entertainment industry. So everything we do, is serving a purpose to make sure that our community centre is run and is giving back by providing education to the people who are in need.
Are your events only held in Nigeria?
We have done tours with the Spirit Of David in the past, where we took them for five days outside Nigeria and I have a very strong leading next year to take a group of SPAN artistes on a tour across West Africa with the story of SPAN and it would be sponsored by Groupe Fadoul Afrique, my father’s company which owns SCOA Nigeria Limited and has branches across West Africa.
You have turned out a whole lot of young people from SPAN so far. How do they cope with competition out there?
It is very interesting to know that because our students are properly trained and highly skilled, they actually stand out where ever they go. So if they go for auditions for jobs, they get picked and I have many credible names I can give. When you watch a dance and see something unique, you know that such a dancer or a group of dances were trained at SPAN. So we have been able to train a lot of dancers who have also formed their own dancing organizations now. Dancers trained at SPAN are usually picked at any audition they attend and most often they win any competition they enter because they have been able to understand what it is to go on stage. And we are planning to work on a system that will make SPAN a proper university but it will take some time and efforts.
You seem to have so much at hand at the moment. How do you cope?
It is the grace of God. Really I am a walkie-talkie battery, an energizer kind of battery. I think I cope because I have a compartment in my brain that guides me to go through the process. When I delivered my baby, I breastfed for nine months without a nanny around and I was still running SPAN I was taking my baby to every classes. I believe that when you are driven by passion, you are able to organise things no matter how hard. I am very forgetful. A Personal Assistant (PA) would be helpful but it has to be one who really loves me to be able to follow me everywhere.
I have not seen yet a PA that would be able to work at my pace. I work 24 hours a day. My husband will tell me that I work more than he does because I do so many things that are different at the same time. In fact, I would say that my driver, Solomon, is my PA for now. It is very interesting because he has become part of my world because he drives me everywhere. A typical day in my life, it like yesterday, for example: I wake up at 6:30am, dressed up and call my driver and he puts my breakfast in the car. I do my devotion in the car and then we went all the way from Ikoyi to Festac to meet with a lady that runs an outreach programme for premature babies that I want to support with a concert where she can raise money to take care of the babies.
And then I went for my private dance classes in Victoria Island, then went for a four hours dance classes at deferent schools and studio in Victoria Island where I teach ballet dance classes and in between that I met with the architect for the new La Pointe Delicatessen Store that we are opening. I finished at 7:00pm and went home to spend time with my little son and also make plans for an older son who was graduating and also my daughter who was doing her final exams after which I collapsed in the bed and woke the next morning and then start over again. I live a crazy day. It is not only that I oversee La Pointe Delicatessen Store, but also I am also a ballet teacher and the chairperson of SPAN and a happy mother of three. I am 44 years old right now.
How does your husband take this?
He looks at me and says, ‘she will never stop”, but I manage to watch a particular TV series with my husband most often. My biggest fan is my husband, Dr. Massad Fares Boulos. He has supported me all the way with finance. We have been married for 27 years and he has supported me from the beginning of SPAN, for better or for worst. He is a definition of what a spouse has to be for such a lady like me.