Sometimes these criticisms have triggered responses. The Nobel Laureate’s confrontation with Guyana’s President Jagdeo at Carifesta X added to more subtle persuasion from David Dabydeen, resulted in some significant accommodation of support projects funded by the Guyana government. Years of complaints and advocacy eventually led to the establishment of a National Gallery and Castellani House in Guyana. But for the most part it has been a history of insufficiency and a feeling of dissatisfaction.
It was an extremely important development and an accommodation of unprecedented magnitude, therefore, when the Government of Trinidad and Tobago responded to the needs of the arts and erected the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) in Port of Spain in 2009. Looking at it from outside, the architecture is spectacular. In terms of the sheer size of the project it is the grandest and most ambitious theatre edifice ever constructed anywhere in the Caribbean. It far outstrips anything of its type in the entire region. It outdoes London’s South Bank (a similar, but not quite the same, facility) and one may genuinely ask where else in the world (outside of China) it is surpassed.
Trinidad’s NAPA was constructed by Chinese. It is a huge multi-faceted complex built for the performing arts with a large main theatre and a smaller playhouse, as well as several other sections with diverse functions. The vast auditorium with luxurious seating and tiers of rows and balconies has a capacity of 1,500. The stage is even more spacious and breathtaking with towering fly area, unlimited lighting and the latest technology. If one is not sure which countries have larger facilities, the same does not go for the stage which will be out in front anywhere. Its floor space is boundless, it has revolving stage facilities and mechanisms for holding multiple sets simultaneously at different levels. The walls are engineered for acoustics and there is a deep and extensive orchestra pit.
In addition, there are spacious, well-appointed dressing rooms, rehearsal studios including one for dance with bars and mirrors, and more than adequate backstage acreage.
Annexed to that performance area a polished, luxurious 50 room hotel is included in the complex, so that visiting performing companies and anyone else, may be accommodated. There are two very large impressive-looking restaurants, one a Chinese restaurant, and a glamorous lounge and bar. These will be open to patrons at any time and not linked to performances. There is also a presidential room and lounge, private space for heads of state, including escape routes, solid and fussy security, an underground car park in addition to a vast outdoor car park.
The other section of the complex has been given to the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) for training, mostly in music. There are lecture and tutorial rooms, multi-purpose lecture theatres and performance space.
The exact cost of NAPA has not been pinned down although it is said to be over TT$1 billion, perhaps TT$1.2 billion. More has never been spent on an arts facility in the region, and oil-rich Trinidad can now boast of a state-of-the art theatre complex unique and unmatched. So why is Trinidad not happy? Why are the artists in Trinidad and Tobago not overjoyed and ecstatic with satisfaction and pride? Why are Trinidadians responding to this national project, this positive response from their government with satire, picong, ridicule and serious critical commentary? Some call it the “cultural palace” and calypsonians have sniped at it in song. As it happens, in addition to building this facility, Prime Minister Manning also announced the erection of a new residence for Trinidad’s prime ministers. Unfortunately, this was an immediate prime target for the satirists who have accused him of a “palace mentality”; building a prime minister’s palace and a cultural palace.
In a very well written and insightful (if not inciteful) commentary, columnist Lisa Allen-Agostini (Guardian, February 13) suggests some of the reasons. She feels that this is an elitist, upper-class convenience which will minister’s palace and a cultural palace.
In a very well written and insightful (if not inciteful) commentary, columnist Lisa Allen-Agostini (Guardian, February 13) suggests some of the reasons. She feels that this is an elitist, upper-class convenience which will never be open to or used by the populace, and is furthermore unsuitable for the indigenous Trinidadian performances which are often street theatre. A performing group called 3Canal staged a production at carnival time titled JAM-IT! which is the popular music term ‘jam it,’ but more importantly is a pun on the word ‘jamette,’ the name given to a proletarian, sometimes lumpen class of ghetto dwellers known for their violence, crass and ‘vulgar’ behaviour, but also credited with genuine working class rebellion and, especially, for their creativity. It was the jamettes who fortified the creativity in carnival in the 1880s and had to fight against colonial antagonism to do so. The story of carnival includes those battles against the notorious Captain Baker.
Lisa Allen-Agostini argues that this new facility will certainly not accommodate the performances of the ‘jamette’ which are the real theatre of Trinidadians. She praises the 3Canal show but points to two “sad” ironies. They showcased “several indigenous jamette arts” yet it was only for “patrons who can afford the price of the ticket.” The real jamettes, of course, could not. Secondly, she wrote that at the annual carnival Panorama “the glittering NAPA was visible behind a high fence as pan side after pan side rolled by on filthy streets on the other side of the paling. Never was it clearer that the country has not resolved its issues about jamette culture: on the streets thousands of people massed for their festival, after their democratically elected government had poured money and resources into building a facility largely unsuitable for the majority of their indigenous arts. There will be no Panorama in the NAPA, no Ramleela, and no Hosay.”
The Express reporter Wayne Bowman (February 15) makes the same ironic remark about the carnival bands parading on the streets: “Tribe, Legends, Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra’s mas band and the Belmont Original Stylish Sailors passed by the well secured National Academy for the Performing Arts Centre.” Allen-Agostini put in the quip that the carnival revellers “will wine enthusiastically for the cameras but they will do so on the road, not in any legitimate venue.” The newspapers’ theme is that no proper facility has been built to accommodate the native performing arts of Trinidadians and furthermore they are shut out of the expensive but unsuitable structure built for the elite. The NAPA was the venue for none of the carnival shows and neither is it designed to host most of them; so if it is not going to be used for those purposes, for whom was it built?
Those are some of the questions raised in Trinidad about the National Academy, and indeed, the security is so forbidding that no one can venture onto the vast grounds on the periphery let alone get inside the building. The implications are that no ‘ordinary’ Trinidadian will have any use for the centre, and will not be allowed inside anyway.
To go further into these criticisms, one can review the details of the NAPA complex. There are several flaws in the theatrical plant. The main theatre auditorium is huge but vacuous; it is not the most efficient use of space. While larger than Guyana’s National Cultural Centre which seats 2,000, its capacity is only 1500 and there is a wide non-functional space between the first row of seats and the orchestra pit. When the auditorium is put together with the stage playing area it is too vast an expanse of space for most performances of drama. It seems a remote rather than effectively inclusive theatre experience, and is certainly unsuitable for any degree of intimacy. Furthermore, the orchestra pit is much too deep.
There are some three other multi-purpose lecture theatres which are supposed to serve as performance space. But they are unsuited for this since they have no lighting facilities built in and no backstage area. This is surprising for a state-of-the art facility, and those rooms will only accommodate lectures. Theatre will require a good deal of infrastructural work. Yet, they are not ideal auditoria for anything, since the floor is not graded and the sight-lines are not good. Those seated in the rear of the flat auditorium will be blocked by those in front, and there are, again very surprisingly, many blind seats.
For such a costly and magnificent structure the Academy is less than satisfactory for too many different types of theatrical performance. A delicate new building of that kind threatens to become a white elephant. It is tightly and zealously secured, closed to the public, may well be grossly under-utilised and surely not cost-effective. It cost millions to set up and will be very expensive to run, consuming a few more millions in electricity.
This time around the citizens are not poking fun and picong at their fellow West Indians about their oil-rich achievements because they gaze at the glittering, spectacular, imperial, imposing architectural work of art and feel that their money was not well spent. Those in the arts with technical knowledge are critical of the capabilities of the plant and wonder whether it would not have been possible to come up with a better facility if they were consulted on the design. Instead, after no consultation, they have been presented with the best performing arts complex in the greater part of the world, but quietly, they do not see it as a triumph. If they do not consider it an embarrassment, they recognise it as extravagant.
Here is a case of a government feeling assured that they have made great strides in ample provision for the arts, but have ended up with something far too excessive. It is unlikely that it will be sufficiently utilized at a rate that will justify the expenditure and cost of maintenance. Trinidadians can reasonably feel that a billion dollars could have built a less superfluous, less costly and more useful facility and also have generous funds left over for other useful projects for the development and support of the arts.