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My Knowledge, Experience As Actor, Dancer, Foundation Of My Scholarship –Olokodana-James

Dr. Oluwatoyin Olokodana-James is a versatile actor, dancer, dance teacher and theatre scholar. She has featured in several Nollywood movies in both the Yoruba and English genres, as well as television drama series. A lecturer in Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos, her research interests are in African Theatre and Dance, Film and Gender Studies. In this interview with TONY OKUYEME, she recalls her journey as an actor and dancer to becoming a theatre scholar. She also talks about the relationship between theory and practice in the field of theatre, and other issues

Can you tell us a bit about your journey from being an actor and dancer to becoming a theatre scholar?

This is a very long history (smiles). As an actor, if I remember vividly, my professional acting experience dates back to 1998 when I featured in a TV program titled ‘It’s Real’, directed by Segun Apata for African Independent Television (AIT). I have featured in several Nollywood movies in both the Yoruba and English categories and television series thereafter. My dance journey was necessitated by the need to acquire some dance skills rather than go into dance professionally. All I wanted to do was gather knowledge about different dance genres as a student of Diploma in Theatre, Film, and Television Production at the Lagos State University (LASU). So, a friend of mine introduced me to the Ivory Ambassador Dance Company at the National Theatre, where I was not only introduced to the rudiments of traditional, contemporary, and modern dance in general but also became a professional dancer.

I didn’t want to leave dance and theatre anymore; I got stuck there, juggling between dance, acting, and singing. However, at some point, despite my success in the field, I discovered that there was a vacuum, which eventually became a burden. I had already, at that time, secured a well-paid teaching job at one of the top private schools in Lekki. After careful consideration, I woke up one morning, tendered a resignation, and returned to LASU for a degree program in Theatre Arts. Afterward, I registered for a master’s and then a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts. That was my journey to becoming a theatre scholar because I was offered a teaching appointment while still on the PhD program.

What inspired you to pursue a career in theatre scholarship after being involved in the performing arts?

Honestly, if I was told about 10 years ago that I would venture into academics, I would have argued and dispelled the thought absolutely. But I knew I wanted to do something else besides the theatre/ performing arts. I knew from day one that being a performer in this part of the world was not good enough; I mean, it was not economically viable; there had to be other side hustles. I knew the theatre couldn’t sustain me and the life I hoped to lead. So, when the opportunity surfaced, I grabbed it with both hands, and looking back today, I am glad I did. So, I think I was primarily inspired by two professors, Profs. Duro Oni and Muyiwa Falaiye. I was also inspired by my academic environment, colleagues within my department, looking at young scholars and professors within my institution and the doors and opportunities one can access as a scholar.

How has your experience as an actor and dancer influenced your research and understanding of theatre?

I often hear this question, and my response is always very simple. My knowledge and experience as an actor and dancer have been the foundation of my scholarship. Theatre art is not like the sciences, and I am saying this within a context; you need the practical knowledge to excel, especially with the recent crop of students that are not only tech-savvy, many of them may have at one time or the other gone into practice, so many of them have practical knowledge in different fields. It becomes necessary for scholars in theatre to possess that practical knowledge in any theatrical field so that their scholarship can be fully appreciated. Being an actor and a dancer has dramatically influenced my research and teaching.

For my teaching, I can easily, through my knowledge of plays, drama, or performances, cite qualitative examples, and I can also explore a vast array of dances within African premise, contemporary and modern styles, making considerable references in class, during any of the courses that I teach. In addition, understanding human temperament and behaviors, having a perspective knowledge about human emotions and many more are advantages of my theatre training as an actor and dancer within my academic environment and beyond. My theatre and film experiences generally influence my research work, which is evident in the quality of my academic work and the research areas I mainly cover. It makes the research easier by creating a pedestal I primarily operate on.

What are some of the challenges you have faced while transitioning from performing arts to academia?

It was a smooth process for me, but I still had a few challenges, one of which was writing consistently. It takes a lot to be a force to reckon with within academia; you have to keep writing and conducting research, which also involves writing and developing course notes, research, or academic papers, without which you cannot be promoted. You also have to attend conferences and workshops and present papers with novel subject matters. Writing a drama script or libretto is altogether a different ballgame entirely. Academic writing requires you to do a lot of reading, comprehension, and discussion with details.

These were all initially challenging, but I got used to it. Another challenge will be working within a structured environment and observing all the bureaucratic processes, which can be frustrating sometimes, especially when you know what to do and how to do it. The theatrical environment may also be structured; this is more like saying that doing your own thing is different from being a civil or public servant, where you must observe all the rules. For instance, writing letters of notification and seeking approvals were no requirements while I was strictly a practitioner and running my own theatre company. All of these challenges only made me better.

How do you think your background as a performer enhances your scholarly approach to theatre?

I believe I already answered this question, but my research has been about filling the gaps and finding the nexus between town and gown, connecting practice to theory, and identifying grey areas in the theatre. All of these are a result of my background as a performer.

How do you see the relationship between theory and practice in the field of theatre, and how has that influenced your work?

Well, there is no doubt a symbiotic relationship between theory and practice in the field of theatre; they are interrelated. Theories explain and provide the conceptual framework; practice may be used to dilate and validate theories. However, there is a huge gap between these two in Africa as a whole, and this is simply because many of the theories employed in our theatrical narratives or criticism are either too ethnocentric/Western or lack the fundamental relativist quality. Interestingly, African scholars, particularly in Nigeria, are developing many theories to address the shortage of theories on African scholarship. This has been a field that has influenced many of my writings, basically to develop theories. So far, I have created three concepts: Trans-Sociological Hybridity specifically for dance practice, the Aruku-Improv for Drama and Dramaturgy, and Feminine Transversal Identity, a gender- based concept to explain the requirements of modern women. You can call for the papers to read more about these emerging theories.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors or dancers who are interested in pursuing a career in theatre scholarship?

Keep your head straight and start early, but remember that one may be compromised at the expense of the other at some point, but you could find common ground much later like I am trying to do. For actors or dancers aspiring to pursue a career in theatre, scholarship, work hard and be dedicated. Being a theatre scholar takes a lot of work, so start acquiring the needed grades to follow the path of scholarship seamlessly. I know someone whose vision was terminated after a terminal master’s degree, and the will to realign this vision was not there afterward. So burn the candles at both ends if need be.

Are there any specific projects or upcoming research work that you are particularly excited about?

Honestly, I wish to return to practice more this year, and I look forward to producing films, theatre, and television content by the grace of God. I look forward to collaborating with top- shorts in the industry and possibly funders.

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