- * Radio license, festival of flutes, rare regalia, Sights & Sounds of Durba, art expo berth soon
* Fresh plays from undergrads to be sourced, performed, published in Talent Hunt
By Anote Ajeluorou
Prof. Sunnie Ododo is a well known academic, playwright and cultural activist now heading the iconic National Theatre edifice that fell into bad times and joins a list of academics who have headed the theatre while its fortunes nosedived. But Ododo seems to have brought something fresh to the management of the theatre, coming at a time also when Nigeria’s Bankers’ Committee stepped in to renovate and reposition the theatre to return it to its former glory. Securing a radio license among other things marks Ododo’s barely two-year tenure as a sign of new things to come even as industry practitioners are watching keenly how he navigates the civil service establishment that tends to be the clog in the wheel of the theatre’s progress
Sometime ago, you reeled out your roadmap as the GM/CEO of National Theatre, Lagos. How far have you gone with its implementation?
WE have gone very far. I came up with the 22-point agenda at inception, and I can confidently tell you that within one year, we have executed no less than 15, and nine are still on course while others are still firming up. I want to make them more operational and effective. I have here, for instance, some of the programmes we are already running. Our Talent Hunt project is on. Our National Festival of Unity is fully on. We’ve done two editions now, and on that platform alone we work to sieve out talented artists in oratory, drumming, and all of that.
We also have a programme for the exhibition of Nigerian Rare Regalia and Paraphernalia. I visited Abeokuta to see Alake of Egba recently on how we can push that to the public. We are working on National Festival of Flutes. Work on the Sights and Sounds of Durba is going on. Cottage Theatre Development is on the cards; we want to see how cottage theatre can be made alive among the people, take it to the people and entertain them with live theatre in their own environment. This theatre will be fed by the available cultural content of those areas, so communication can be effective. As we work, we will tailor what we do to the needs of the people with information on health and other key government policies that can be explained to the people, so they have proper information.
We are also in partnership with Evergreen Music Ltd with Bimbo Esho (founded by Femi Esho, her father) to digitalise music of old. We are coming up with an annual Expo on Fashion, Film, Literature and Allied Arts. We have an Entertainment City that’s coming up here at the National Theatre immediately the renovation is completed. We’re going to have four hubs: one in Fashion, Music, IT and Film. Fashion is a business like the others. You can see that we are fully on course and our Quarterly Play Reading is on course. We had the first edition here at the theatre in August last year.
Now, we are giving it mobility. We are going to use the National Theatre to connect Nigerians. How am I doing that? I will be touring all Nigerian universities, where theatre programmes are being offered. So, virgin good scripts from each of these universities will be read and awards will be given. But the core thing is that such scripts, once they are performed in the universities, the National Theatre will publish them, and distribute them round the country, and in key institutions across the globe. It’s still part of our Talent Hunt strategy, because we are focusing on scripts that have never been published before. That way we announce to the world new gifted playwrights.
I can also announce to you that I already have in my kitty license to establish National Theatre Radio! And that of television is on the way. And, of course, we will be starting National Theatre Awards and Hall of Fame. People invested in Nigerian theatre creatively; people also laboured to make it happen and they are still doing so. No major requisition has been given to theatre practitioners over the years. Look at Hubert Ogunde, tell me what major award has Nigeria given to him? Forget about Officer of Order of the Niger (OON) and the likes, but recognizing him strictly by the art and entertainment industry?
The National Theatre is the epitome of creativity in Nigeria, indeed in Africa, having hosted the second FESTAC in 1977. So, people like that will be given posthumous award and the living like Wole Soyinka, the first African Nobel laureate, will also be awarded. We’re lucky that he’s still alive, so it will be a sight to behold to honour him with the first National Theatre Award and engraved into our Hall of Fame for all times. So, the list is legion, but let’s leave it for now.
Work is going on at the National Theatre, and by the end of this year, by the grace of God, we would have a brand new National Theatre that the whole world can be proud of. What is coming in there will be second to none, because it’s the latest. You come in for a conference, and about 15 languages will be translated. All you need do is put on your headphones. Is there any country in Africa that can boast of that? There is none!
I’m sure the industry can’t wait to see these happen. You mentioned awards, hall of fame and all that, but what practitioners have been lamenting over the years is the inability of the theatre to actually service practitioners, because theatre has actually moved away from the National Theatre to some other places in the city. If theatre doesn’t really happen at the National Theatre with performances every now and then, then that is failure all over again. With the bankers renovating the theatre with an eye on return on investment, what’s the assurance true theatre will return to the National Theatre?
The MoU of this engagement is public. It’s clearly stated there. We will be part of the new management of the theatre that is renovated, revamped, and certain percentages of usage time, space, will be given to maintenance centre, exclusively, while certain percentage will be handled by the management team. We can’t commit that kind of money and not recoup. So, what is given to us is what we willwservice the industry, because we know there are upcoming artists who are still trying to hone their talents, find their bearing; you can’t expect such ones to come and pay a huge sum of money to use the theatre space. So, there will be service regimentation commensurate with friendly payment schedule that will be available to such people.
If you look at what we have in our care, theatre is already happening here. Since 2020 when I came, when we had the Festival of Unity, everyday performances have been happening — drama, dance, music; so that has come to stay. Now, we’ve started hosting performing troops. By April 15, Crown Troupe if Africa will be here to perform. These are just teasers to bring our people back, and we still have plans to build more marquees of larger sizes to host performances. What is going to happen is this — those that cannot go into the main National Theatre space will use the marquees. So, your success within the marquee environment will catapult you into one of the halls, and probably into the Main Bowl eventually.
One thing in life is that when you have stimulation, when you have layers of stairs to climb, that’s what you look forward to; you are challenged and your aspiration as an artist is to perform in the Main Bowl of the National Theatre. It’s just like the actors; they start from the crowd, before they become friends of a main character, then they move from there to become the star of a script. No actor just comes like that and becomes the star of a play — it takes time. So, we will only appeal to our colleagues to be ready to work, to raise their creativity to the centre stage of National Theatre. If your art has that quality, it will pay itself and there will be sponsors to push it, but you need somewhere to showcase what you can give. That’s why we are making provision for that space. In the end, everybody is a winner.
Even if you’re only coming to watch performances, it’s part of it. There’s a lesson to take home, and there’s networking to be done. What is important is that the National Theatre would become a beehive of activities. People will come for different reasons. Back in the university, at my spare time, I go round to watch student rehearsals to achieve three things: to see the growth that is taking place amongst our trainees, to also learn new things, and to guide. When I’m there, I can stop the rehearsal and make an input, demonstrate to everyone; that can also happen here. As an artist, you come in, watch what’s going on and there’s something to learn. Interact with those performing; there’s something to take home. At the end of some of our porogrammes, there will be workshop engagements. As an expert in your own rights, you come in and also offer one or two advice to the young ones performing. This is the nexus of creativity in Nigeria, and when we are ready, everybody will converge back here. We are not doing this to send anybody out of business; we are doing this to raise the bar, so that more great artistic offering can come out of Nigeria.
The Venue Makes the Event was the motto of the National Theatre back then when it was the centre of the arts, like you mentioned, until things went downhill. I don’t know if it has changed. You set out to have some MoUs with some fellow government agencies like NTA, etc. Did you also reach out to practitioners in the industry by way of saying: ‘Look, this is our place that is coming back. How do we work together?’ Was there any such MoU?
Of course, last year, I think in September, I had a roundtable discussion with corporate organizations, practitioners in the entertainment industry, to see how we can partner. We’re working closely with the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP). Why do you think Crown Troupe of Africa will be coming? It’s because we have some working relationship. And let me add that there will be film shows every month-end here. We started in December, and Faithia Balogun’s film was shown here for a whole week. So, it’s gradual, because this place has been deserted for so long. But people are acknowledging whatever efforts we are making. The theatre is not available for anything at the moment, but things are still going on here. It takes a lot of ingenuity to go that far. Any time a play is advertised here, key players in the industry come. We try to market key events. During Valentine, we had a good performance here. On March 27, this place was also alive as it hosted World Theatre Day (WTD) activities in conjunction with NANTAP.
What has happened over the years is that the civil service part of this establishment tended to overshadow the core business for which it was setup, a place of theatre performances. And of course, professionals like you have come here in this same capacity to manage the National Theatre, but its fortune didn’t quite improve. So between the National Theatre and the National Troupe, what is the relationship at the moment? Are they under one roof right now, or still apart?
I would say we are under one roof, because we have the same board, and we have a very cordial work relationship together. I go to their programmes and they come to mine; we even done some collaborations together. If you understand your mandate and operations, there is just a thin line dividing us. I think it’s just administrative convenience that these compartmentalisations are made. Don’t forget that before now, National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), all of these were under one roof as Department of Culture, and they were all here in the National Theatre. Centre for Black and African Art and Culture (CBAAC) was also here. So, it’s a recent development to decentralize, and it was for effective delivery that all of these components were now dismantled – CBAAC, NCAC, and then you have Abuja Carnival that came to drive tourism.
So what is it that happens in National Arts Festival (NAFEST) that does not happen at the carnival? It’s almost the same thing. So, it’s never enough, and no one agency can do it all. So there are overlapping functions that we do perform. When this happens, it does not mean that you want to take over someone’s mandate. For instance, I know NICO has a performing troupe, and so too NCAC and a few others. Will you now say that they have taken over the functions of the National Troupe? Of course not. The mandate of what they are doing can’t be up to what the National Troupe will do. It’s to explain what you’re doing to advance. If you can afford it, why not?
FESTAC 2022 will be held in Zanzibar in May. Is the National Theatre putting up a show?
We have not been formally invited. I don’t know if they have sent an invitation to the Ministry of Information and Culture. None has come from there, but I have seen the preparation, and I have already put one of my directors on it, to study it and give me the information and proposal of what we can do. Once I get that, we will know what representation we can make to government to see how we can be part of that. I don’t know the magnitude yet. I also do know that CBAAC is preparing to liberate 45 years of FESTAC. We celebrated the 45th year of the National Theatre last year, September 30. The National Theatre came before FESTAC in 1976.
One issue confronting the sector is funding, and those who manage to do theatre at the moment rely basically on corporate patronage, with government essentially missing. Practitioners have cried over the years about the need to establish a National Policy on Culture that would also lead to the establishment of an Endowment of Fund for the Arts, with government fully driving the process by engaging private people to put money in the arts. Isn’t there something the National Theatre, which is at the heart of theatre practice, can do to push the process before government?
It’s an issue that is dear to our heart. Even before we got here, we have been pushing for it. There was a summit on culture and tourism: ‘Diversification of Nigerian economy through culture and tourism, that was in 2016. At that point, I was Society of Nigerian Theatre Arts (SONTA) president; we were invited to be part of it, and we prepared a position paper on what to do. It was a very useful engagement, but we discovered that some of the things we proposed had been implemented. Last year, we also found ourselves here, to also make our own contributions. So, the issue of National Policy on Culture, from the interaction I had with the relevant departments in the Ministry of Information and Culture, the buy-in of relevant stakeholders has been well sought. It doesn’t end with the ministry. We just finished policy on science and technology with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. I was invited to be part of it. So, it opened my eyes to many things. The documents had to go to all ministries to make an input. Because it is a national policy, how does it affect your ministry? Is it well captured? Does it affect your own mandate? Is there an overlap? Is there a place there can be synergy? And all of that.
The Federal Executive Council rectified it a few weeks back, and you know culture is not as straight-forward as science. It’s our presence there that even made the contribution to innovation part of that policy. They were looking at innovation basically from the scientific point of view. I said you cannot do innovation without an artistic point of view. The technology you produce, who uses it? It’s the creative industry. So, you have to have synergy to know their needs and know what to produce, so that what you produce will have relevance. It would be useless to come out with a technological advancement that is dead on arrival. That is why what is obtainable and utilized in Europe might not work here. You have to look at our own environment and indigenize it.
But in terms of culture, everybody has their own culture. Nobody wants their culture to be undermined. It’s a tall order to produce a document that the whole nation, with over 150 cultural nationalities can ascribe to.
A policy is just a guide; one constitution provides for everybody. So why can’t a document for culture also follow that path?
I tell you, a constitution, for instance, provides freedom for all, but why were the women’s bills having issues at the National Assembly? That’s how sensitive some of these things are.
Prof., right now, the industry needs funding, which a document like that could help provide, but it’s not there. Why do you think it’s difficult to produce?
I can assure you that I am not holding brief for anyone, but I do know that there is serious concern for the plight of the artist and his creativity. That is why the issue of talent hunt is very paramount; that is why the four hubs that are coming up in the Entertainment City are being pursued vigorously. Tell me, who would drive these four hubs? Fashion is driven by creativity.
But these people, young and old, need funding for this to happen. When you don’t have funding, you can’t make this happen?
The question you should ask me is: how would that hub operate? Because people will be enlisted into it. It’s an empowerment. No system can take care of everybody, but when you take care of critical sediments…, because what that would do is to empower those that are enlisted on a continuous basis, with knowledge, and empowerment, to also engage others and replicate.
Don’t forget that some loans, grants were made available, but the conditions given to accept these loans, many of the practitioners were not too keen to access them. So, the endowment will come when the policy is set. You cannot put the cart before the horse.
But it’s taking forever, and that’s the issue right now. Why so?
Yes. It’s just like the renovation of the National Theatre. It was taking forever but it’s here with us, and the work is going on.
You mentioned something about fashion as part of your project. There are some communities in the country that have fabrics that are indigenous to them: the Idoma, Tiv, Igbira, Edo and other ethnic nationalities; I think it’s the Yoruba who have advanced the adire and aso oke to an international level. But the Chinese have taken them over with better technology that we don’t have… Is there some kind of intervention in your programming, perhaps to see how these dying indigenous textiles can be revived?
That’s not strictly on my mandate. Perhaps, NCAC will fare better, but when such things come up, we don’t fold our arms. If you know me very well, I’m a great promoter for fabrics and indigenous textiles. I wear them a lot. I think the Ministry of Trade and Industry has a lot of commitment to drive it, and also Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. What is usually missing is synergy of relevant stakeholders to see how this can be addressed frontally and critically. I remember at the summit on the ‘Diversification of Nigerian Economy through Arts, Culture and Tourism’, It was advocated that the Nigerian government has to sensitize for more awareness for our local fabrics, so that there can be more patronage.
How can we achieve that? I’ll just give one simple example. You observe that whoever becomes the president, there is a mad rush to the fabric that he adopts as his own cultural fabric. When (Goodluck) Jonathan was in government, he began to wear Resource Control, bowler hats. Everbody wanted to identify with the president. When Obasanjo was there as well, the Yoruba cap became very fashionable. Now (Muhammadu) Buhari is there, so everybody wants to be a Hausa person spotting babariga. Now, what was the proposition I was making? We have over 400 ethnic extractions in Nigeria. Let Mr. President wear one dress from each ethnic extraction. You cannot even exhaust all in one year. What will you achieve with that? It has identity, and so when it so fine on Mr. President, others will copy. They will go after that material and produce it, and more market for people producing it, and it will lead to some kind of exhibition. If I become president of this country, by the grace of God, I can assure you I will wear something from different tribes everyday. I will wear something from Urhobo culture, Taraba, Akwa Ibom, Esan, name it. So, it’s still a proposal I’m pushing.