ORDINARILY, Austen Awulonu should need no introduction in Nigerian theatre and film sectors. But like most film makers who work behind the camera, he produces stars who hit fame, only to lurk behind the screen, unknown. Except if you run into him, and he or someone mentions his name you will hardly recognise him.Interestingly, although he had always wanted to be an artiste, his main desire has actually been to work behind the scene. For the man whose surname ‘Awulonu’ in Igbo hints that “action speaks louder than words”, working in the drama theatre, radio, television and film as a director or producer is a fulfillment of childhood dream.
In a chat with us at his serene modest home in Ikorodu, Lagos, he disclosed that from outset, he knew he was going to be an artiste.Born and raised in Lagos, he attended primary school in Yaba before heading to C. M. S Grammar School, Bariga, also in Lagos.”I have always been fascinated by directing. I tell people that one of the greatest things God has done for me as a person, which is why I didn’t experience the pangs that my mates experienced, was because early in life one was able to be focused and know what one wanted. And that was because of my upbringing.
I know my mother was very strict. The best thing she gave to me was the legacy of God, a legacy of Jesus Christ; which is the most important thing in life. And this legacy, my mother gave to me as a person. And what it did for me was to keep me focused, because as a teenager, I knew what I wanted to be 30 years from then. I was not into experimenting. Almost everybody at the time wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant and all that. But for me, I wanted to read drama, pure and simple. I wanted to be a theatre person.
Not just a theatre person, I wanted to be a director in the theatre, that was my passion. And that is what I have pursued all through my life. Today, a lot of people say how do you manage? Very simple. You do what you like and enjoy doing. Once you are doing what you like and you are enjoying yourself, you manage,” he said.While many will easily point at a particular individual or experience as being tir source of inspiration as artistes, Awulonu’s appears to be from a series of experiences. “I was in a play in the church, the Nativity play, the Passion of Christ; I remember that the ‘Uncle’, as we call him then, that played the role of Jesus Christ, did a a good job, and left an impression on me. Maybe that was it; I don’t know.
But for me it is not just being involved in drama, rather the point at which you wanted to be involved in drama. Because I found out that for a lot of people, the attraction was to be in the face of the public. But the attraction for me was to be able to contribute to what was going on in public; to be able to say look,we could do this. I remember that , in my church then, TREM in Akoka, I started a drama group there in the youth fellowship. were we do plays. I remember that Evangelist Mike Okonkwo used to provide us plays and drama skits which we enacted in the church. I was then in secondary school. And that could have also stimulated the interest.”According to him, although his mother had expected him to study law given his traits and the prospect of a lucrative, respectable career as a legal practitioner, he insisted on studying drama. “I am doing what I have always wanted to do.
I know that my mother of blessed memory used to call me pocket lawyer and felt that I should have gone to do law; because she felt that I talk and argue well and could make my points intelligently. Those are quality or traits she felt a lawyer should need to survive or thrive in a law practice. In fact, when I told her I wanted to go for drama, she was surprised as she asked me: Why drama? Why not law? “After my secondary school, I proceeded to the University of Ife, but finished in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. I entered in 1986, but by time I finished, it has metamorphosed into the Obafemi Awolowo University. I studied Dramatic Arts. Even while on campus in Ife some didn’t think I was a drama student because I would dress neatly, I would tuck in my shirt and knot my tie to go for lectures. They thought I was a medical student given the way I dressed because the average drama student in the university was dressed in dirty jeans, faded adire (tie and dye batik), then one pair of bathroom slippers,” he said.Awulonu informed that during his youth service in Benin, he was head of the NYSC Drama Troupe.
He worked with the then Bendel Broadcasting Service (BBS), and did a couple of programmes for them (drama and magazine discussion programmes). According to him, the key programme which he handled for them was a discussion forum entitled, How Una See Am – a pidgin English programme that dwelt with contemporary developments.”After that, I went to Kaduna to work with Desmins Broadcasting Company. We were producing television programmes, commercials, documentaries and all that, for the company, and the company would broadcast on stations that they felt was appropriate for whatever programme. We were the ones who produced the works. I did not stay so long in Kaduna, I was there for about six months before I left, and came back to Lagos.
And the reason was very simple. Before I left for Kaduna, I had applied for job at two different places, Moving Movies and Desmins Broadcasting. Those behind Moving Movies then were Amaka. Igwe, Bolaji Dawodu and Tami. But response didn’t come early enough from Moving Movies. Then they were producing “Checkmate’ already. I wanted to work with them because, at the time, “Checkmate was the thing closest to what I thought was quality production on Nigerian television. And that was unarguable, considering the level of works then. If you looked at the Nigerian television channels at the time, it was “Checkmate.” That was the programme to watch. So I felt that if I was going to acquire experience, I had to work with those who know what they were doing.That was where I was coming from.
It wasn’t like the motivation was, salary. I was ready to work in whatever capacity as long as I was behind the camera. Bolaji Dawodu was directing “Checkmate,” at the time. And of course that was a fantastic job he did, anybody would admit that. And Amaka Igwe was terrific with her stories – writing and plotting, language and all of that. So, I just felt, that coming straight out of school and wanting to practice, one needed to go where he will be further empowered, see how it is done, see the masters at the time, and how they were doing it,” he disclosed.According to Awulonu who is from Mbaise, Imo State, for whatever it was worth, he was ready to work within the Moving Movies team. He only had to go to Kaduna because he did not get the team’s response in good time.
“By the time the response came, I was already in Kaduna, working with Desmins Broadcasting. So I just packed my bags and relocated to Lagos. Some other things also contributed to my immediate relocation. It was the dynamics of Nigeria. There was the riot, the Southern Zaria/ Kaduna riot. Colleagues were attacked, some maimed. I saw the event up-close. People who you sat with in the morning, people who a day before, saw you and called you uncle and asked for money from you and you gave them whatever it is that you could afford to buy a meal, the following day you find them chasing you and your colleagues trying to mow you down. And it was not because of anything you did and anything they did. I
t was just because something had gone wrong and people felt that we were friends yesterday, today we are enemies. So, we had to kill ourselves.”Amid all that the letter came, and I had earlier told my uncle that I lived with in Kaduna that Moving Movies was my first choice. He encouraged me to go. So I left for Lagos to work with Moving Movies, first as production manager for Checkmate. “It was a daunting responsibility because it has a cast of about a hundred, from grand-parents to grand-children people from different works of life, different perspectives. But the good thing about it was that at least my Executive producer at the time, Mrs. Amaka Igwe, said I did a great job. And she said that I brought a lot of stability to the production at the time.
Like I said, I just needed to work in the right environment, where the job is being done in the way I thought should be done, in whatever capacity.. And then along the line, we did “Rattle Snake” directed by Amaka Igwe. At the time I was the General Manager of Moving Movies. I had moved from production Manager, to producer of ‘Checkmate” and to the General Manager. After some time I left Moving Movies and started my own company, Promocom Ventures.
“Today, he spends his time creating programme ideas, writing scripts and producing films through that his company. “Promocom Ventures, is a productions cum communication company which produces communications pieces, as I call it, be it movie television, radio, stage productions, deferent games. We produce magazine programmes, we produce programmes for churches. As long as it is in the sight and sound mold, we are at home with it. We have done Onga Delicacy – a radio drama series produced in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. We have also done One Thing at a Time (OTAAT),” he enthused.