It’s not obvious – in fact it’s often completely overlooked – but the truth is that in every high quality performance in the arts, including literature, the writing is the key. You can have great singers, great musicians, great actors and directors, and great editors, but the foundation of it all – the one unswerving essential – is the writing, and it is so across the board.
The greatest songs, the ones that rise above the rest – Paul McCartney’s Yesterday; Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay; Elton John’s Daniel; Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah; Black Stalin’s, Black Man Feeling To Party; Joe Cocker’s Up Where We Belong; Amazing Grace (it could take pages) – we associate those songs with the performers and the stirring renditions, but in every case, the songs were great long before they were sung because of the writer. Frank Sinatra brought us a song in My Way that will live forever; bands play it; the karaoke crowd loves it; it’s a favourite at testimonials; and yes Sinatra’s rendition is one of the best, but before Sinatra opened his mouth the song, written specifically for him by Paul Anka, was already great.
The best movies, the ones that ring true; you’re watching good writing. The classic television shows – The Honeymoooners; The Wire; The West Wing; Seinfeld – great writing underpins them all. No matter what song you sing, or film your make, or play you stage, or book you publish, if the standard is high it means great writing is behind it. Vice versa, too; if the writing isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if you have Whitney Houston singing, or George Clooney acting, or Jascha Heifetz playing – if the material is poorly written the effort is going nowhere.
It’s the same story in comedy. You go to a show like the Link in Guyana. Thinking about the performance afterward, it strikes you that some of the scenes were hilarious, but not all the scenes reached that level. I know for a fact (I wrote shows like that in Cayman) that the good skits are almost always the result of better writing. Ask the Director Ron Robinson; ask the performers in those shows; they will tell you that when the humour is at its very best it’s because the script they’re working with is of a similar standard.
Two years ago, a young lady named Tennicia DeFreitas burst on the musical scene here in Mashramani with a calypso called I Don’t Want To Be Born. Tennicia became an overnight favourite and now, two years later, this calypso, unlike many festival songs, continues to draw attention and has appeared in a number of presentations here and elsewhere. In musical parlance, it’s a hit; a big hit. Well before the Mashramani Calypso Show I had heard a recording of the song, and it was immediately clear that Tennicia was working with a superior piece of material in this calypso written by Burchmore Simon of Krosskolor Studios. All the ingredients were there: the concept was novel; the verse flowed naturally into the chorus; care had been taken to construct lyrics that were always on target (many good writers sometimes fail that test); and the song maintained emotional impact throughout. From only one listening it was apparent that this was superior material, very well performed by Tennicia; only an equally superior song would defeat it, and, as it turned out, none emerged. The attendant acclaim that Tennicia received was well deserved, but the reviewers didn’t mention Simon’s song-writing skill underpinning the effort. It was the key ingredient.
Another example was the recent set of plays produced by Merundoi as part of an exercise, funded by the IDB, to develop theatre skills in young people here. Staged at the Theatre Guild, over three days, the 9 short plays represented an impressive range of acting and directing skills, but once again, the most impressive showing, entitled The Colour of Race, while well acted and directed, rested principally on the fine work of fledgling writer Sonia Yarde. The gaps in believability and coherence, evident in some of the other plays, were not found here. Yarde had tackled this sensitive subject head on, confronting all the cliché ethnic positions, and showing the often chilling intransigence found in racial conflicts. The fine cast were a delight to watch, but they were working with better writing, and that’s why they stood out. Those same performers, with a second-rate script, would have produced a second-rate play.
I cite these examples in pursuit of the more fundamental point, which is that it is in this area of original creative writing that I feel our artistic enterprises in Guyana have the most work to do. Everywhere one looks, the deficiency is apparent. Whether it’s a commercial jingle or a poem in a literary journal, or a comedy skit in the theatre, or a song competition entry, the source of our standard often falling short is in the standard of our writing. For some reason, we seem able to produce an impressive range of performing talent, but we’re not doing nearly as well on the creative writing side. Why that is so, I’m not sure, but here’s my theory: all high-standard creative writing rests on two things – natural talent and unswerving commitment to high quality. Every successful creative person I know, or have learned about, has those two qualities, and I suspect that it is the latter one – that disposition to put in the long, grinding hours to refine and improve the product – that may be missing among our young creators.
I know without asking that Burchmore didn’t just knock out that song for Tennicia in an afternoon; he worked at that thing like someone with a knife and sandpaper working on a carving. You listen to the dialogue in Sonia’s play, you watch how the characters behave, and you know that plenty late nights went into what flows so effortlessly on stage; the delivery of actors speaking lines as if they just thought of them.
It is the nature of the arts business that the performers garner the bulk of the acclaim, but people involved with the business know that every time the artistic product shines it’s because the writing shines. At the base, at the heart of the thing, it’s always about the writing.