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Sunday Ododo: “Live performance sustains history; it sustains culture.”

Sunny Ododo is a distinguished playwright, and professor of performance technology and the immediate past General Manager of the National Arts Theatre of Nigeria.
May 19, 2024
6:30 pm
Prof Sunny Ododo
Prof Sunny Ododo

In this interview, he delves into the changing technology of stage performance, the controversies surrounding the National Arts Theatre and the investment of $100,000,000 by the Bankers Committee on the renovation of the theatre amidst pending litigations.


TNR: I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t quite know the meaning of being a professor of performance aesthetics and theatre technology.

Sunny Ododo: Every production has a technical input. In terms of lighting, illuminating the stage, scenography, creating backgrounds for the environment where the action is taking place. Costuming the actors. The make-up on the players. The general iconography of the production. These are what constitute theatre technology. That’s my own area of specialization. Also performance aesthetics and the beauty of stage productions in performance.


We look at the beauty, the functionality of bringing out the message in the performance for the appreciation and understanding of the audience.


Are you talking about set design?

Set design is part of scenography.


What is the full gamut of scenography?

Scenography is the entire atmospheric environment. It includes  light, set design, actors in set, props on set, etc.



Sound is not part of scenography. Sound is sound.


Does sound constitute another aesthetic?

It’s part of the aesthetic of stage design and stage performance.


You can bring sound in to reinforce realism. For instance, a new baby crying, even without showing the baby, announces its arrival. The sound of rainfall creates the awareness of rain. War, gunshots. The sound compels the audience to feel like we’re in a warzone. These are aspects of performance aesthetics and theatre technology.


Prof Sunny Ododo
Prof Sunny Ododo

These days, the average stage has electronic backgrounds, smoke and all of that. What’s your comment on this development?

Technology makes things easy. In the processes that we knew before now, you see a whole ensemble of musical instruments, live production.


You see players of guitar, the oboe, the drums, coming together to play and sing. But all of these have been computerized. You just press a button and collocate the kind of sound you want.


It’s now possible for one man to produce music with just a console: to produce many sounds that once needed a 25-man orchestra to achieve. That is the essence of technology.


Don’t we lose anything that way?

Yes, you lose and gain. So, technology reduces our natural instinct to engage with players on stage. It reduces  the memory of what used to be because the children don’t have the opportunity to see how xylophones are played.


You will not know even the xylophone instrument itself and the way it is played. If it’s just a soundbox and you’re only listening, part of that connection may be missing. But where you see the player doing it, you know. And it goes with all manner of movement. It’s part of the artistry on stage that the audience look forward to and enjoy.


But where that is not available, that audience- performers rapport is lost.


If you were to have a production, would you go technical or would you bring in all this grit and sweat of live performance?

Many factors will come to play when it comes to choices, right?


How much funds do I have to do what I really want to do? If I have enough funds, of course, I will go for the real performers. Bring them from the villages, camp them, take them through what I want for the production.


But if I don’t have such funds, I will have to strike a balance between technology and core reality.


Affordability. But which is better for us as a people?

As a people, as a nation, live performance sustains history, it sustains culture. It provides opportunity for upcoming younger ones to learn.


What sustains our people’s culture is the ability for one generation to transmit something the other will understand as culture. To the point that they live it, relive it, and pass it on to the next generation.


And passage of culture is not by talking to people alone. It’s about seeing you enact the culture.


You don’t teach a child that when you grow up, this is how to breastfeed a baby. They sucked themselves, they felt it. As children, they see other mothers breastfeeding children.


You know, drama is an imitation of life. These little children at play, they recreate all those things they observe.So the kind of disciplinary nuances that parents give to children, they also create it.


‘You don’t hear word! You don’t hear word.’


‘Go to school, and don’t be late.’


You see them recreating it. It’s not from a vacuum. It’s from their own environment, their own experience, within the family setup. Same way seeing a drummer on stage will lead to imitation and interest.


To set our values right, parents have a lot to do. Parents have to live right because the children are watching them like a living theatre.


And some children even create idols out of their parents. So if your idol is not living right, they also believe that that’s the way it has to be. Nothing can change it. Imitation is the primary mode of learning.


So what is your Facequerade about?

Wow. You’ve been reading a lot about me. That’s my seminal insight, which I’m so proud of.


Facequerade is a concept that I use to contrapose the essence of masquerade.


The mnemonic sign of a masquerade is a mask. In other words, a concealment. But you have masquerade that do not don any mask. And they’re still called masquerade. You have the genju in Ogun State.  In Oyo, you have Alakpanshapa and the Ekudaho. I’m Igbira. So, it’s this Igbira example that I used to theorize Facequerade. If masquerade typology exists without mask, is it still correct to call them masquerade?


We said no. We should refer to such categories as Facequerade.


Prof Sunny Ododo
Prof Sunny Ododo

The word is your creation, a neologism?

Yes, it’s my creation. It’s original to me.


Is it part of mainstream terminology for drama now?

I’ve been invited to Oxford to speak on it. To San Francisco to speak on it. I’m excited that other scholars have located similarities in their own culture which they are also talking about and expanding.


Even outside of Nigeria?

Yes, in Ghana, somebody wrote about it. In Kaba, somebody wrote about it. In Ondo,  Bayelsa and even in Edo, scholars are writing about it.


Talking about Edo, is there a sense in which the Oba is a Facequerade. He doesn’t wear a mask but he’s over and above the face that we see. We attach certain …

…Mysticism to it. So that’s just it, duality of presence. That’s the core of Facequerade theory. All you see, what you see is not all that exists. There’s more to it. That is dual presence.


The mask is created sometimes with fearful ambience. This one is a bare face. But yet you can’t look straight into that face because it radiates some spirituality people cannot stand.


Then you talk of ancestral descension because masquerade is located within ancestral festival;  that is, our forefathers, heroes, our forefathers that are gone and there’s a need for them to join us on earth and mingle with us.


We give them messages back to God. Seek their blessings, and all of that. And also it’s an opportunity for them to enjoin us to live right. To do things correctly so that the anger of ancestors will not be upon us.


The masquerade institution is correctional. It’s to instill fear and to guide the living. It’s an institution that creates order in a society. So, unfortunately, in modern times, it has been diluted to the point that it’s losing its core value.


But the Oba is seen in most cultures as next to God. Elekeji orisha in Yoruba. He’s the living intercessor between the people and God.


Look at the ritual of ascension to throne in most cultures. It has linkages to the forebears of that throne.  Issues of  spirituality are involved.


We’re going to bring this now to our national theatre, using the criticism by Wole Soyinka in those days that our national theatre is a cut and paste from Bulgaria and doesn’t reflect African architecture.

Yes, it’s very correct. When  I assumed office here, the way the National Theatre was run didn’t fully come to terms with what National Theatres all over the world are known for. What National Theatre should be.


And indeed, the mandate of the National Theatre was not fully explored.


In 1976, when Obasanjo, the then Head of State, commissioned the National Theatre building, the first function that he defined for the National Theatre is engraved in a plaque. It’s still there. That this National Theatre should be used for the development and advancement of our cultural heritage.


How do you advance and develop cultural heritage? It’s through programming and projects. I think there was a misunderstanding by the Nigerian public and probably previous managers of this theatre.


There is National Theatre, the edifice, the building. We can’t change that. And there is National theatre , the parastatal.


But, over time, there has been over-concentration on the edifice being run as an event venue. People come to book for halls, pay, perform and go. People come to run events and programs. That’s attractive because it brings money.


But the National Theatre  must be responsive to the cultural reality.


You must engage the society and run programs that will sustain the culture of the people. Expose the vitality and viability of our culture. Export our culture. Good. Any culture that does not have followership, does not have appropriation, adaptation, adoption, will go into extinction.


It is when culture has patronage that it survives. It’s just a few people that are observing the culture, when those ones are gone, the culture is gone.


But when there are adherents, plenty of people who believe in that culture and they are practicing it, expanding it, recreating it, it will survive.


You are aware of some languages going into extinction. It’s because those who speak and use the language are few.


Prof Sunny Ododo


How do you intend to sell, promote, preserve the Nigerian culture to make it such that there are patrons from around the world?

The plan is already on. I told you when I came, what I saw is not being run on the merit of propagating our culture and all of that. When the renovation started, my staff say that we are busier now, than when we were in that building.


Are you referring to the National Troupe?

National Troupe is another parastatal. Though we have the same board, it has its own CEO. The Artistic Director.


I thought it was brought together under Ahmed Yerima.

The good thing is that the current artistic director and myself, we have very good co-operation to serve the Nigerian people.


I don’t know what you mean by that because we have not seen any production by the National Troupe in a long while.

You can’t say in a long while. Maybe you are not available to watch what they have been doing.


Last year, they had two major productions, ‘Strings’ and ‘Drums of War’. And they had about three international performance trips.


In 2023, they were at the villa for the inauguration of the new president. And they are going to perform in many national and international events. And I am aware that they are preparing now to go on a U.S. tour.


During our own Festival of Unity, they featured prominently in our programs. Yes. The question you asked, this is your answer. The new thinking. You see, the programs we have lined out.


Some of these have taken off while some, we’re still looking for partnership, sponsorship and all of that. Because to do well and go far in the cultural sector, we cannot depend on government. We need the critical stakeholders in the creative industry,  cultural space to collaborate.


And, regrettably, the Nigerian government over the years, don’t place a premium on the cultural sector. We are hoping that this new government will be different. There are signs that they are likely to be different because, for the first time, the government saw the need to make art, culture, creativity stand alone.


Now we have Ministry of Information and National Orientation. We have art, culture and creative economy standing apart. We also have tourism standing. These three ministries came out of one ministry.


So, this is a sign because a government that understands will know that culture defines who we are. Culture regulates our value system. Culture points our society in the direction to go and excel.


Prof Sunny Ododo


Now, how far is the renovation going? What is the status of the theatre as of now because we hear of the Committee of Bankers, we hear of the CBN and we even hear of people making a stake that they have already bought this space in Dubai.

In Dubai?


You’re in court, aren’t you? People want to know the status of the National Theatre as of now from somebody who should know.

The status of National Theatre is not in doubt. It remains the property of the Federal Government of Nigeria.


This is not subject to litigation?

Ownership of National Theatre is not subject to litigation. But interests in who to revamp the National Theatre is what is under litigation because some people say, I don’t want to be subjudiced because it’s already in court.


All I can just say is that some people claim to have received the right to revamp the National Theatre from the federal government in the past.


And Bankers’ Committee, through the CBN, has gotten the same right to do so.But, right now, those who claim to have got that right before, did nothing.


And I think they are in court to prove to the courts that they got the right.  It’s the court that will determine whether they actually got the rights or not. And those that are there working assiduously now, got the right that I’m aware of.  And that’s the instrument that has empowered them to do the massive work that’s going on here.


What is earmarked to this project? Is it up to a $100m? Is it N25bn? We hear of these two figures. Which is true?

One hundred million dollars. That’s what the Bankers’ Committee earmarked for it.


There’s a first phase, and there’s a second phase. How far have we gone?

Yes. It is an interesting package, which Nigerian creatives will benefit from greatly.


The first phase … well you didn’t even allow me to talk to my new thinking. Okay, maybe you’re going to extract that into your story. Fine, you know. You see it, you have program projects, you have talent hunt projects. This has nothing to do with the building. It’s about the people.


We have creative and talented youths. If we harness this, many of them will leave the streets.There will be jobs for them that would put food on the table. Open Theatre Series is an initiative. This one is for students in the Theatre Arts Department to come periodically to the National Theatre to showcase what they’ve got.


Another is the Exhibition of Nigerian Royal Regalia and Paraphernalia. Royalty is huge in Nigeria. Every royal zone has a story. Has a history, and they are connected to the people. The people is the mainstay of our existence. With Skill Acquisition Academy, we are creating an academy, where people – women, men, children – can come and learn skills.



Will it start after the renovation or during? Is there a timeline?

There is no timeline but this is what we want to do, and we have advertised it. We are talking with various stakeholders to partner for this to happen.


How many festivals have you organized since you started managing things here?

I’ve done three.


What would you say you are proud of in terms of results?

We have discovered some talents. The audience see them, scouts take them up to  develop them into megastars. We used the lawns and the marquee that we created when this renovation started, so that we have a performance space.


When is this renovation going to end?

In 2024, we believe.


How much percentage of it have you covered?

We’ll say seventy percent.


Why Cappa D’Alberto? We’re not prescribing. Why didn’t you use the original builders? Have they gone extinct?

That action had been taken before I was appointed. Decision on who to work had been taken. But I do know that what action was taken in that regard is the best interest of the project.


The idea is not just to renovate. It’s rehabilitation, revamping, restoring it, making it more functional and modern.


Note that an originator may find it very hard to go beyond the original idea. So, probably, the Bulgarian company that built this, if you brought them back, you could see them operating within that original concept. They may not be able to bring in new things.


What is your sustainability plan for this project because this is not the first time the National Theatre is being renovated.

This is the first major innovation.


Yeah. Maybe major.

This roof. The shape of this roof is certain to hold stranded rain water. This curvature retains water and will not permit water to flow out.


The interesting thing about the new approach is, like you said, sustainability. Part of the understanding is that, a company, a facility maintenance company will be engaged to ensure the maintenance of this facility from time to time. Consistently.


First, they maybe be engaged for five years. If they do well, they can be engaged again because the inability to address a fault leads to another fault, magnifying. And before you know it, you have a system in your hands that is unmanageable.


Prof Sunny Ododo
Prof Sunny Ododo

How much has been sunk into this project?

I don’t know. I don’t have such facts.


So who is managing the project? How does government know their actual financial input.

The Bankers Committee. The amount of $100,000,000.00 was agreed. Don’t forget that the CBN governor is the chairman of the Banker’s Committee.


What are the terms of their investment? What is the arrangement?

You don’t invest without expecting some returns. Otherwise it’s not an investment. I’ll just leave it at that.


But what I want you to know is that what they are bringing to the table is not just the revamping of the National Theatre. In the second phase, four creative hubs will be created: One in music, one in IT, one in fashion and one in film. These are four creative entities that tap the creative ingenuity of our youth.


What that is going to do is that there is an outlet to observe, absorb  and train the creative potentials for our youth. And it’s going to help the creative economy of the nation a lot .


What is the timeline for this?

It’s easier to build than to rehabilitate. So it won’t take as much time as this one. The understanding is that this has to stand.


Then that one comes. Preparatory work for the second phase is already going on. But we should commence fully this year.


The second phase is part of the hundred million dollars. Or it’s for phase one?

It’s only for phase one.


Prof Sunny Ododo


Then it will take them quite a long time to get their investment back.

How long shouldn’t be your concern.


I’m worried because part of the issues National Art Theatre has had is the turnover of ministers. And turnover of administrators.

This time around, I think under this arrangement, the minister that started it ran his full tenure. He is the first minister of information and culture to serve eight years at a stretch. That’s Alhaji Lai Mohammed. We owe a lot of credit to him on this project because he was consistent and persistent in ensuring that this project is delivered.


He is out of office now. Did it affect the work?

The new minister of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, Hannatu Musa Musawa is also very passionate that the National Theatre should play a cardinal role in a creative economy.


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