On October 1, 2021, one of Nigeria’s greatest cinematic theatre directors, Chief Dr. Ovunda Ihunwo fta, will produce ‘Hopes Of The Living Dead’. a play written by Prof. Ola Rotimi, with his theatrical group at the Garden City, Port Harcourt stage.
Dr. Ovunda, a dramatist from Rivers State, is a professionally trained actor, musician, and senior lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department at the University of Port Harcourt. He is a member of the Directors’ Guild of Nigeria (DGN), and a Fellow of Theatre Arts (fta).
He’s been tearing up stages and screens, serving up human-centered and politically charged performances that address contemporary issues affecting the family and Nigerian political system. In this interview with PTV Media, Dr. Ovunda reveals the secret to his successful career and upcoming play production.
PTV: What primary, secondary and tertiary institutions did you attend?
Ovunda: I attended Air Force Primary School Port Harcourt, but sat for the First School Leaving Certificate Examination at Community Primary School, Olanada, Rivers state, and proceeded to Government Comprehensive Secondary School, Bishop Crowther Memorial Secondary School, and Army Day Secondary School, Bori Camp, all in Port Harcourt. I attended the University of Port Harcourt where I had my B. A. Theatre Arts, M. A. Film Studies and PhD. Film Studies.
PTV Media: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grow up?
Ovunda: I wanted to be a musician. So I looked forward to studying music but my parents would have none of that. It took some struggle and rebellion before I settled for Theatre Arts.
PTV Media: You are a professionally trained actor, dramatist, film director and lecturer. What ingratiated you to live drama/stage production, and why a drama of struggle with Hopes of The Living Dead, aplay that symbolically illustrates the question of our society’s plurality to be performed on Nigeria’s Independence Day?
Ovunda: Live drama for me, still has that electrifying feel because of the instant feedback it gets. It also toughens the actor and gives him the latitude to express himself artistically. As for my reason for choosing to stage Ola Rotimi’s Hopes of the Living Dead on Independence Day is to awaken our consciousness because we have become a people groping in the dark. Nigeria is now like a rudderless ship heading for the precipice. There is the need for us to search for purposeful and selfless leadership that can steer the ship in the right direction.
PTV Media: Oddly, Ola Rotimi is still a familiar name to many Nigerian Theatre Arts students, lecturers in Theatre Arts departments in Nigerian Universities, and theatre enthusiasts in Nigeria. Can you throw a few lights about the playwright?
Ovunda: Funny enough, I never met him but I have heard and read so much about his strong personality and commitment to the growth of theatre. I have been privileged to produce and direct a number of his plays too.
PTV Media: Hopes of the Living Dead by Ola Rotimidramatizes and illustrates the historical pre-independence years during the Leprosy’s’ Rebellion of 1928-32 with the struggle of the characters to attain a right to exist live in dignity in society. It also tells us through the use of language situated within a historical context clearly depicting the struggle in the context of an inter-relationship between leadership and followership. Why did you choose a play that captures fear, resoluteness and determination, and why Port Harcourt where the story is set with Harcourt Whyte?
Ovunda: Well, it could have been anywhere. Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja, etc, but Port Harcourt is my base. In fact, we have plans to stage this play in Abuja and Accra too. My reason for choosing this play is that we have come to that time when the people must take their destiny into their hands and demand leaders that can be held accountable in all facets of society. If the revolution begins in Port Harcourt, others will hear it and take dressing.
PTV Media: Hopes of the Living Dead is a unique drama easy to follow because of its heterogeneous blend of many Nigerian languages used in the dialogue. Ibibio, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo are among the languages spoken by the characters. Are you going to use your directorial licence to infuse more visible languages due to the way the Nigerian state is going on?
Ovunda: Sure! It depends on what language my actors are fluent with. In this case, I added Ekpeye and Esan languages.
PTV Media: Ekpeye and Esan languages? That’s so thoughtful of you. Don’t you think Ola Rotimi drew on personal experience as a defender of the downtrodden, by commissioning himself in Hopes of the Living Dead to show his dislike to the Nigerian post-independence leaders merely using the leprosy plot as an alibi?
Ovunda: You may be right. That’s why the play still remains relevant today.
PTV Media: In many parts of Africa, songs, mime, and dance are all part of the theatre, and the playwright demonstrates all that in the play to understand the characters’ and society’s cultural sensibilities. How are you going to achieve that?
Ovunda: I’m a music lover. It is difficult for me to stage any play that is not total theatre. Hopes Of The Living Dead has a lot of Harcourt Whyte songs, and we have done justice to them in such a way that the audience will not only be entertained with good drama but will also be enthralled with great classical music.
PTV Media: Stage or theatre production is very painstaking. While Ola Rotimi obviously has high expectations for the people around him, it’s also evident that he was able to overcome the variety of forces that worked against his works. Do you believe in the charge theory of Ola Rotimi during rehearsal when he said, ‘Those who show up (for the first rehearsal) remember – in theatre work, my bargain is that of the devil himself: you volunteer your person, I insist on your soul, till the production is over?
Ovunda: I’ve been privileged to work with very committed artists. The realities have changed today. You can’t insist on the soul of a hungry man who also has bills to pay. So, I try to be as flexible as possible but with every sense of theatre discipline.
PTV Media: A film director uses the size of the shot to focus the audiences’ attention- a close-up being the way to give the biggest impact. The actor will be directed to move across the stage to get the audience to focus on that line of dialogue. The proscenium is the biggest difference, but I still want to ask what kind of stage would be befitting for a production like Hopes of The Living Dead?
Ovunda: In 2018, I staged Hopes Of The Living Dead at the University of Port Harcourt Arts Theatre (Crab), on a Thrust Stage. This time around, the Arena Events Centre, Port Harcourt has a proscenium stage. So it can work anywhere. All the director needs to do is to make necessary adjustments in the blocking.
PTV Media: A director is someone who collaborates with the actors and the production crew to bring a script to life for the viewers and audience. What is the difference between a theatre director and a film director, and what are their responsibilities.
Ovunda: The responsibilities are the same; directing, interpreting and making sure that other collaborators key into the overall vision. The difference is in the technicalities.
PTV Media: How was the audition and casting of the play, Hopes of The Living Dead? Did you table cast or handpick the actors already in mind?
Ovunda: I had an audition and hand-picked some key actors.
PTV Media: It’s like you took an eye-catching and impactful design in this production with the casting of known popular Nollywood A-List actors like Francis Duru and Charles Inojie into the production. Is it for the box office show or for professionalism?
Ovunda: Apart from being A-List actors, Francis Duru and Charles Inojie are theatre artists and graduates of Theatre Arts from the University of Port Harcourt. It’s like a homecoming for them. You can’t also rule out the box office effect.
PTV Media: I want you to share an effective directorial approach to working with a large cast and crewmembers. How has your approach affected your rehearsals?
Ovunda: I always set out what I want to achieve for every rehearsal. I have a chat with my choreographer if there has to be dances, and tell him what I want. I don’t like long rehearsals. For that reason, I segment the play and concentrate on each segment for rehearsal. My cast is always comfortable with my pattern.
PTV Media: Describe a time where you had to fire someone because they weren’t the correct fit.
Ovunda: I have not had that experience. However, I have had to fire a lot of actors who think they are indispensable to deter others.
PTV Media: What are the most difficult production problem you had to solve?
Ovunda: I had great challenges when I staged production in Cairo, Egypt. I could not communicate with the lighting technician. To solve the problem, I re-blocked the play, dispersed out some of my lines and turned the rest to voice-over narration. Then, I had to man the lighting booth and did the voice from there.
PTV Media: How do you balance your work and private lives, because I can see you live both lives simultaneously?
Ovunda: That’s the beauty of our work na. We enjoy what we do. So, where others see stress, we see fun while working.
PTV Media: What was casting like in the production, Hopes of The Living Dead?
Ovunda: My main challenge was in cutting down on the number of cast and crew. Everybody wanted to be part of it, but I had to use music as a criterion. Casting was based majorly on voice texture and the ability to sing.
PTV Media: With such a large cast and crew, how do you establish and enforce rules in your rehearsals?
Ovunda: If a director is disciplined, enforcing rules cannot be a heinous task, whether with a cast of five persons or a hundred. I show the way; my phones don’t ring during rehearsals, I keep to time, and comport myself even in my own production. Members of the cast don’t have a choice but to do likewise.
PTV Media: Please, can you share an example of how you helped coach or mentor someone, and what improvements did you see in the person’s knowledge or skills?
Ovunda: As an actor trainer, I make sure that my students and mentees have adequate training in theory and practice. I teach them that packaging helps talent. I also engage them in meaningful productions that challenge them, as well as help them pay some bills. Most of them have not disappointed me. Today, I can conveniently give them a project and be assured of their delivery.
PTV Media: What is your dream collaboration in acting and directing either on stage or screen?
Ovunda: My dream collaboration is getting an international agency to fund a world tour, and participate in as many theatre festivals as possible.
PTV Media: Yes, production is a collective and collaborative venture. However, which actor playing a particular character are you rooting at to make the play come to life?
Ovunda: it is hard to say for this production but Harcourt Whyte has a lot of work to do. I trust him to deliver.
PTV Media: Who are the sponsors behind this great show coming up on October 1st 2021, and where is the venue?
Ovunda: This production is self-sponsored. Though, of late, we got some support from Fartrek Travels, Daayra Limited, and Grid. We also have media support from media houses in Port Harcourt.
PTV Media: What plan are you making to charge the town and gown together to make one holistic creative family?
Ovunda: We have been in it and it’s working.
PTV Media: What advice do you have for the government concerning the Nigerian theatre industry?
Ovunda: Let Government create a conducive and enabling working environment, and support works of art. For us in Rivers State, we are blessed with a Governor that loves the theatre and has shown tremendous support to artists of whom I am one. We still hope that he does more like establishing community theatres in other parts of the state.
PTV Media: What advice do you have for parents of kids who want to be actors, musicians and directors like you?
Ovunda: Do they still, need advice? I doubt it because the number of students seeking to study theatre and film is growing in leaps and bounds. Our works and achievements have given enough advice.
PTV Media: Describe the next five years of your life and your plan.
Ovunda: By The Grace of God, in the next five years, I would have become a Professor. I plan to establish an academy where I can train and breed professionals. I also plan an international theatre like I mentioned earlier.
PTV Media: If you could pass on one message to your fans, what message would that be?
Ovunda: Hard work and consistency pays. Be good at what you do, and light will shine on you someday.
PTV Media: I wish you all the best of luck come October 1, 2021.
Ovunda: I appreciate you for this beautiful interview. The pleasure is mine. Thanks a great bunch.