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Monday, 27 June 2016

I ignored an oil job to be a dancer, now I travel around the world

-Zara Udofia Ejor (Producer/Theatre Performer)

When a dance instructor, singer and performer tells you that, "being artistic can be a burden," then you have to take it seriously. That is because Zara Udofia-Ejor expectedly, would know what she is talking about.

A Nollywood actor who luckily got groomed in stage performances as a teenager, and went on to work at several productions in Nigeria, and on several production tours abroad, Zara Udofia-Ejor has had to fight her own personal battles, in order to emerge  a true professional performer.

To start with, resistance came from home. Her family
did not believe that being an artistic performer is a proper means of livelihood. Despite attaining stardom, her family believed that without going to a university, she would be a nobody! And after gaining a university degree, she was urged on to an oil company. And her artistic talents became a barrier. She tells us her story in this interview with Paul Ukpabio.

People used to know you as Zara Udofia. When did Ejor come in?
Ejor was formally added in June 2012 when my then fiancée decided to do our traditional wedding and went to court to also officially formalise the marriage. But it was not made public until 2013 when we went to church for the solemnisation of the marriage.

So what do you do now that you are married?
I am still in my usual profession. I am an actor, a performer, a choreographer and a theatre producer. Though, I just prefer to be called a performer. That is usually more pleasing to me to say because; it captures all my talents instead of taking it one after the other. For instance, I may not be a full blown singer but I get away with singing during productions.

How long have you been doing this?
I was first introduced to professional theatre in 1994. Then every now and then, I was in and out, to do some work with Isreal Eboh who was then the executive producer at Fezi Productions. I did that until I finished school. I was shuttling school and working on productions. Then I met with Ben Tomoloju and that was the time I can say that my informal professional training started. I worked with him all through 1997 training on the job. By the next year, I worked with Jide Ogungbade and he also continued my training. My formal training continued until 1999. The best part of it was that all through those years, I was on training; I had started working on productions and getting paid! I was getting trained and being paid for it all. I didn't think that was ever possible. But it was for me. However, all through that period, my parents were worried. And they kept reminding me that once I was through with productions that I must go to school: That I should do something serious with my life. Some people didn't really think that what I was doing was a serious thing. However, when one production finished, we went into another one without much break. I was performing on stage; I was appearing on television screen because I had started doing things for television. I had started travelling with productions abroad, but they still thought it was child's play.

And then what happened?
In 2000 I decided to go back to school, to convince myself that this is for real. I enrolled at the Lagos State University for part time study. The deal I had with my family was that I do part time course so that I will still be able to have time for my artistic calling. At that time also, I was looking out for opportunity to go for more training at a drama school abroad. When I got admission to LASU, I had to put the drama school abroad ambition on hold. Though in school, I kept on working as a performer.

But why was your path directed to the arts at an early age?
That is how I found it in life. I found that it was something I could easily do, and again I found the right people to coach and train me too. Right now, I am still an actor, I still dance, I am movement and dances instructor at Lufodu Academy of Arts, I am Managing Partner at Oxygen Koncepts and Productions Limited. There I express myself, producing for theatre.

How has it been so far?
The last four years has been very exciting for me. In 2014 we started the journey of 'Hear Word' with by Ifuoma Fafunwa, and that production had an amazing array of talented women in it. There was Mummy Ajai Lycett, Joke Sylva, Bimbo Akintola, Elvina Ibru and other amazing people like Omono, Ifuoma, Debbie, Rita Edwards. Then another set went on international tour this year, performing in Havard, Connecticut, and Amsterdam. As a producer, last year I had two productions. The first was 'What is this all about,'  as revised by Toyin Oshinaike from the original South African film. I produced that on behalf of Oxygen Productions. I also produced our original film inspired by the story of Okonkwo in 'Things fall apart.' Early this year, I went on a national tour with Lufodu Productions with Professor Ahmed Yerima's 'Little Drops' which was produced by Joke Sylva and Olu Jacobs. Right after that we left for America with 'Hear Word.' So it’s really been exciting for me.

How were you able to harmonise your going to school and then being on production and tours at the same time? Didn't it clash?
Throughout my LASU years, those two aspects of my life clashed. The saving grace was that I was on a part time programme. It was always unpredictable. Sometimes, there were strikes. And that happened usually and suddenly and I couldn't plan. That is because, I probably would have turned down work for a period of time to face school, only for a strike to take place . At such times, I am faced with a dilemma. I would then go back to ask if the work is still available because I am suddenly available. If it was somebody that wanted me that bad, they would have been praying on their own part that I suddenly show up. And sometimes, I accept work only for the school to demand my presence through test or something similar. 
However, I knew the days, such days that were my heavy days in school, and such other days that was my light days. Some days I could just take off for three days to go and perform somewhere and then return to school. Sometime in 2005-6 we were touring with a dance production. I remember I was in the east for production and suddenly the strike was called off in school and the following day examination was supposed to begin. There was no time to catch up or do a review of the course content. So I had to fly straight to school, wrote the exams and the good thing was that I didn't have another paper for a couple of days so I flew again to Calabar to continue with production. That was because I had signed a contract which just meant I had to shuttle between examinations and production. It was really difficult at some point, and at some other point, everything aligned properly. But somehow, I managed to graduate.

How did you cope with your stardom on campus?
I didn't go to campus pushing my profile in people's faces. All I was about, was to go to school and blend just like every other student. And that was what I did. In fact a lot of people in the theatre department in LASU, did not know that I was there. It was actually in the middle of my year two that people started getting to know that I was there. I just wanted to blend and see what it would be like to have a normal life as possible. A lot of people go to campus and they are involved in a lot of social activities on campus. I knew that wasn't going to work for me because I knew I had to also cope with work outside the campus. All through the years, instead of staying four years in campus, I stayed longer because of the strikes that took place in campus.

As an artiste, have you ever been embarrassed?

Yes, there was a time after I graduated from campus and proven a point to my family that I had a degree, and after I had also already become a household name, and a name in the industry, but to my surprise, I missed a call from a family member, so I decided to call back.  So I said sorry, I missed your call I was at work. So reply, 'ha, se o ti ri ise ni?' which meant, 'have you finally found a job?' I was shocked to realise that even after attaining such heights of stardom in my artistic field, some members of my family still thought I had no job!
Even with a degree, they tried to send me to banks, to oil companies, to multinationals where they thought they believed they could fix me in a job. But each time I will ask them, do people do theatre in the bank or in the oil companies. And then I will ask them, do people do theatre there? I also ask do people do dance in the banks? (Laughs) Eventually they left me alone.

And how has it been over the years?
Its been fun and exciting, crazy sometimes. Life itself is a drama, so just imagine you are there as an actor. We are always acting, always playing a role. The difference is that we are paid to do it. So, for me that I am paid to do it, my life is double exciting. The most part of what I do is fun for me.

Memories and experiences while working abroad?
Its mostly the same except that in some countries at particular times, it was colder and of course, we couldn't have our usual 'Iya amala' down the road to serve us lunch or dinner (laughs). You had to get back to where you are staying, to make the 'amala' yourself. Thats if you even get the ingredients to buy. There was a time in my earlier travel years, when we were at a workshop on cable with some school students abroad and someone asked us about our clothes and the way we dress. I didn't see it that way because I really didn't see the difference between them and us, after all we were all mostly in Jean.  But that trip broke the myth for me. I suddenly realised that whenever I am to travel, I should just be expecting to meet people just like me. It is true that the dresses may be different, the culture may be different, even the time zone may be different, but there is no difference between someone living in Nigeria and the person living in America. For instance, the hustle is the same! The hustle is real and they hustle very well. There may be difference in what is paid and how it is paid, but the hustle is the same.

How about the audience during your tours, how receptive have they been?
We had some amazing audiences in each of the countries that I have been to on tour. Earlier in my career I was in Berlin and a few other cities in Germany and the audience in those cities were amazing. And it was a mixture of Nigerians, Africans and Europeans. And for the play 'A horse on my back' that was not sub-titled, and was in English with English and Yoruba sounds, which was directed by a German, it received a rousing reception. There were  two plays that we actually travelled with, one of the the two was an adaptation of Femi Osofison's play, which had chanting and Yoruba songs. Those two plays had Nigerians inflexions, Nigerian songs. The audiences were thrilled. Many came back asking that we teach them or write out the songs for them. The power of the arts, still communicated what the two plays was about. The wanted to know what the songs meant, they wanted to be taught.

But since we have different cultures, how did they react to the issues in our plays which are mostly African issues?
In 2012 we travelled to participate in the cultural Olympiad in London with three plays, 'Sefiata's naming ceremony,' Fred Agbeyegbe's 'the king must dance naked' and 'The Lion and the jewel.' That trip taught me that people out there are hungry for arts and culture from  Nigeria. It was well received and welcomed. 2016 we were in America and Amsterdam with 'Hear Word' which is a multidimensional, multidirectional pieces, that are mostly Nigerian stories but representing universal stories. And it was well received. They were Europeans in Amsterdam, people travelled all the way from London to Amsterdam to see the plays. It was amazing. But we were worried that they may not know or immediately understand the naming ceremonies or procedures or even the issue of the Yoruba culture of girl child being discriminated against the boy child or even the mother in law factor in marriages, all those African issues. But funny enough, the audience related to it. That goes to show that we are all human beings. That also taught me that discriminating between muslim, Christians, hinduism, east, west or north really means nothing when we come down to the real fact of it. We are all the same. And that reminds me of a childhood proverb which says that, 'Its only a child that has never left his father's compound that thinks that they alone have a palm tree in their compound.' Some people even think that the sun only shines in a particular place, but travelling has let us know that, the sun is everywhere.

So which will you prefer, performing for television or live productions which is called stage?
(laughs)  The television has its challenges, so does film, but the stage has its peculiar challenges too. But they are different. I do not love one over the other.I could say however that I just love to be a performer. Though I am a stage person, but I also love being on television productions. The main difference again is that the audience comes to you in one and in the other you go to the audience. With film and television all you need is your Tv remote and you can get to see your stars. But with stage or theatre, the audience has to go to meet the stars. If you look at both, as a performer, they bring different experiences. The advantage of film or television is that you can do 'take 2.' But on stage, there is no re-take, you are on your own, its like a firing squad situation.Right there on stage, you must work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

How did you meet your husband?
He tells that story better. Definitely it was not love at first sight. He is a performer, a designer and my partner at Oxygen Koncepts and Production Limited. We met in 2008 at Tina Mbah's production set of 'The Return of The Golden Sword.' His story is different and my story is different too. We became friends and there was just something about him. The most amazing part was that he just made it clear to me that he wasn't going anywhere else. So I had to create space for him. He stuck to me and we had to agree that we will make it happen. It was dramatic.

As an artiste when you are not on stage costumes, what kind of clothes, appeal to you?
I love comfort in whatever I wear. Even when I'm in high heels, If it’s not comfortable, I won't go out. Comfort is my idea of fashion. I like being glamourous, I like being sexy but it has to be comfortable. However, there is a tinge of Tomboyishness in the background of my wardrobe. I used to be much of a Tomboy as a child but I'm better now. I wear lot more of female dresses these days. A while ago I used to just dress and go. But now I take my time to have everything in place. I carry an extra pair of shoes and earrings in my bag.
Zara on stage

How about shoes?
I like to feel my feet on the ground. I wear more of flat shoes. I wear sneakers too. I also wear high heels a lot too, especially when I have to do lot of dancing. I dance salsa. I wear shoes according to how its needed or required. I'm not that crazy about shoes, but I have to look the part. Like I said, life is a stage, so we are always on stage. Its always a role.

You and your husband are performers, you are used to fun and acting. So when you both want to relax, what do you do?
We entertain ourselves. People who are usually around us can tell. He sings for me, he dances for me, he acts for me, he is a bundle of joy. I am his number one fan and he is my number one fan. Sometimes we do not plan it, we just go into some character, perform for each other and thereafter laugh about it. We have formed a lifestyle, this has become part of us. It just goes to show that we are well blended. The lifestyle we live also helps us in our work. We do not have to waste time on special rehearsals, or waste time to go into character at our job. We do that at home regularly. When we are together, I feel everything is right.

What is the future like?
The future looks bright for me as a performer.  I am ready now more than ever to take up challenges in film and television, we have started doing partnership and collaborations with other production companies, we do theatre. We are passionate about theatre, we are looking forward to bigger things, bigger productions.
Also we started the year by doing some form of mentoring programmes. We have been mentoring female practitioners, who are interested in doing technical theatre. There are no women in technical theatre. We can count the female directors we have in theatre. But how about lighting directors, set designers, there are none! So we have started a mentoring programme for young ladies who are in the industry and are interested in going into these areas.

How about motherhood?
Oh, I'm looking forward to that. And I have my expectations. If you ask me how it will affect my performance, I will say I don't know. It is better I wait till then to know. If while I'm pregnant, I get a producer who would put me on stage, with a huge stomach, then we will go ahead and do it. I am not afraid to take on any challenge of life especially where it has to also do with my profession as a performer. 

Last year, I was in the cast of a movie called '93 Days' directed by Steve Gukas. It’s a story that captures the events and occurrences of the '93 days' that Nigeria experienced the Ebola disease scourge. We are looking forward to having it released this year.
What can you say of theatre in the last five years?
I can say that within that period, theatre has been revamped. We are grateful to Tera culture for instance, in creating a space for theatre and giving young theatre practitioners opportunities to have the space to develop their talent and express their art. But there is still so much that can be done. As a country, as a corporate body, we all have roles to play in investing in the theatre industry in Nigeria.

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