Ian Valz: Made a contribution to popular theatre

Sir Ian Valz may not be recorded in history as one of Guy-ana’s major dramatists, and was not among the most influential, but he certainly has a place in the dictionary of Guyanese drama and theatre for many reasons.  As an actor, director and playwright he was a participant in one of the most important movements in the rise of contemporary theatre in Guyana.

He seems to have made an impact in the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten where he settled in the 1980s after having been very active on the Guyanese stage.  The contributions he made to the cultural life there were sufficiently effective to have led to him being recognised and highly decorated by the authorities there.  The citation declares that he was knighted by the Order of Oranje Nassau, by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of Holland in 2006.  In that island he also went into film-making, producing a well received movie titled Pan Man.

Although he was not one of those with a long distinguished career at the Theatre Guild of Guyana, he did his first plays there and worked with a group out of St Stanislaus College.  Afterwards he was to join the noble company of actors and directors exported by the Theatre Guild to the rest of the Caribbean where they made significant contributions to regional theatre.

He was not a part of any of the major episodes of the Guild, but he was an active participant in the movement of actors from the Guild to the National Cultural Centre that began around 1981.  This was seen as a defection from the institution that was the protector of amateurism and of the best standards of theatre in the country, because the actors were seeking payment for their work, which was not a practice in Guyana before.  But this movement was important because it ushered in not just the commercialisation of theatre but the popularization of drama and the escalation of indigenous Guyanese drama.

Ian Valz

At that time Valz became involved in the kind of plays that had gained momentum on stage at the Playhouse in Kingston and had become popular in Guyana.  This was the murder mystery, the ‘whodunit’ of the order of Agatha Christie or Frederick Knott.  The likes of Shop at Sly Corner, Wait Until Dark or Dial M for Murder were performed, and he started off there.  But the play that had the most influence on Valz’s development was The Miser by French dramatist Molière.  He directed that play with his group and performed it at the Guild and it was the major influence on his first play House of Pressure.  The title also had the ring of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but there were some borrowings from Molière in its plot.

The important thing about the House of Pressure is that it made Valz’s name as a Guyanese dramatist, while contributing to the rise of local theatre and the popularization of drama among a wide audience in Guyana who did not previously frequent the theatre or go to the Playhouse.  These plays developed with the move from the Guild to the Cultural Centre, and other works involved were Leon Saul’s For Better For Worse and Ron Robinson’s Link Show.   House of Pressure (like For Better For Worse)  was made into a soap opera-type radio serial that attracted a large popular audience which followed it when it returned to the stage.

It joined a list of Guyana’s most popular plays so much in demand that they were often brought back and redone by different directors and groups.  Another popular play by Valz in this category is Two’s A Crowd, which, like House of Pressure, is a comedy which thrived on humour and popular reference points.  These plays were being brought back to the stage for years after the playwright left the country.  Other comic thrillers which, like these, have been the most in demand are Anybody See Brenda? and Jezebel  by Paloma Mohamed, and Till Ah Find    A Place by Ronald Hollingsworth.

Another movement in the rise of the Guyanese popular drama in which Valz had a role was the advance of local plays influenced by the contemporary Hollywood cinema.  In particular the influence came from the effects of cinematography in horror movies and most specifically, The Exorcist.  Playwrights imitated these and explored spirit possession and demonic manifestations as in Grace Chapman’s The Green Bottle and Michael Duff’s Kathy Ann’s Possessed.  Harold Bascom had a slightly deeper interest in obeah.  Ian Valz’s contribution to this development was Room to Let, his own venturing into spirit possession as a girl seeking residence rents a room in a house and finds herself drawn into the unholy invocations of the landlady.

It was in his later career that Valz began to develop an interest in tackling serious social concerns in his plays, when he began to develop dramas which attempted to delve into social issues affecting either Guyana or his adopted home, Sint Maarten.  His play Masquerade was on the shortlist for the Guyana Prize for Literature in the Drama category.  This went into the life of a fading, ageing hero of a fading tradition.  The main character is still haunted by memories of his glory days as a Guyanese masquerade dancer, even as his own personal life becomes a masquerade played out to a point where it mirrored his increasing failings as a masquerade performer.

In another play he goes into the issues surrounding Haitians who migrate illegally into the Bahamas.  This was Pathway to the Sun.  In a different island setting he dramatises the place of the steel band in the life of a country like St Maarten and focuses on the pan player.  This is in the play Rhythms of the Palms, which, according to one source, Valz described as taking 15 years of work and development to make a transition from the stage into film.  As a playscript Rhythms of  the Palms  took second place in a drama competition put on by The Theatre Company.  After reworking it was made into the film with the new title of Pan Man.   This film was highly regarded where it won an award at a film festival in the USA in 2008.  It also brought Valz back to Guyana for Carifesta X where Pan Man had an official launching, and Guyanese had a chance to see it.

In similar vein, Guyanese have always had an opportunity to see some of his major plays, although that has not continued in more recent years.  At any time one could expect to see a re-run of his two popular best-sellers, although in terms of reference points, Two’s A Crowd  is a bit dated.

What was noticeable the last time it was done was this datedness, since it is steeped in the times and issues of the year it was written and these topical references have not withstood time as is the case with good period plays.  One of his most recent dramas, The Peacock Dance, did not make it to the stage in Guyana in 2008 as promised.

Apart from the writing of a number of additional plays during his long residence in the Netherland Antilles, Sir Ian was the Director of the Cultural Centre in Philipsburg, and the Dutch expressed their appreciation for what he was doing by making him a knight.  A number of other products of the Theatre Guild have gone on to make significant impact on Caribbean theatre in Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Barbados and Trinidad.  Valz did not reach the heights of most of those, but his legacy in Guyana is his place in the popular movement towards commercial theatre, working at a time when it developed as a cultural industry and actors, directors and production teams began to earn fees from their work.  He was also working at the time when forms of the popular Guyanese drama were on the rise.  Those are reasonable contributions to the country’s contemporary theatre.

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