The National Drama Festival has a promising future

Guyana’s second National Drama Festival (NDF) was held in September-October 2012 at the National Cultural Centre in Georgetown and Lichas Hall, Linden. It received a very good overall public response, and based on this, in addition to the many improvements over the first festival, inaugurated in 2011, this initiative has a very promising future. Observations of the outcomes on stage and related developments present very good grounds for concluding that this event has made significant gains. At the same time, several weaknesses have been inevitably revealed arising from a new, far-reaching and complex undertaking in only its second year.

This NDF is an ambitious cultural programme which has brought dramatic entertainment to a wide public audience and some amount of developmental benefit to the performers and producers. It was managed and produced by the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Culture with assistance from private sponsorship, and there can be reasonable satisfaction at the outcome. The relative achievements may be measured against the intentions of the ministry.

The first observation is that this year’s festival attracted the participation of as many as 40 plays. These were performed by several groups of different types and persuasions, both amateur and ‘professional,’ and several secondary schools. Many of them were Christian church groups and care centres as well as five brand new groups producing a play on the public stage for the first time. Others were new groups, but drawing on actors and theatre practitioners who were already in the business; they are, however, worth mentioning because they assembled for the specific purpose of producing an entry for the festival.

The second important factor is the origin of the groups. This was a marked improvement on the situation in 2011 because they came from various areas outside Georgetown, including Linden, New Amsterdam, Mahaica, Parika, the West Bank and East Coast of Demerara. The NDF succeeded in extending theatre in untrodden areas, breaking the Georgetown focus. Important within this is the fact that the oft neglected Lichas Hall in Linden was brought back into action as a venue for national theatre.

Also in this was the increased response from rural secondary schools which gave a creditable account of themselves. To go further, they outshone the major established and more prestigious senior secondary schools in Georgetown. Standing out were New Amsterdam Multilateral, Mahaica Secondary, West Demerara Secondary and Annandale Secondary Schools, as well as the Institute of Business Education and Wisburg Secondary.

Because of this widespread response it can be said that in 2012 the best of the country in dramatic theatre was on show. These included the range of dramatists, actors, actresses, directors and other practitioners normally engaged in productions at the top national level, such as The Theatre Company, Horizon Arts, The Theatre Guild, Merundoi, Leon Saul, Ron Robinson, Jennifer Thomas and even Ronald Hollingsworth and Mahadeo Shivraj, who are based in the USA.

The range of entries was so comprehensive that the NDF found it fitting to create as many as five different categories in which to divide the competition. These were Open Categories – Open Full-Length Plays, Open One-Act Plays, Junior Categories in two divisions – Junior, and Junior Debutantes, specially reserved for newcomers to the stage, and a Secondary Schools Category.

The Open Full-Length category attracted leading plays already in performance such as Hollingsworth’s 83 Million Gees, Horizon Arts’ Front Yard by Jennifer Thomas and the National Library’s version of To Sir With Love by Mosa Telford. This indicated that the productions from the top flight at the national level took an interest in the NDF. Such interest was missing last year.

Yet another significant factor was the amalgamation of the NDF with activities in schools who have been pioneering and brave enough to enter students in the CXC Theatre Arts programme. Both New Amsterdam and West Demerara were involved and were among the best entries in the schools category. At the same time, despite entries from the lower forms of Queens College and The Bishop’s High, there continued to be limited participation from the most established schools.

It has already been observed that the 2012 NDF attracted entries from approximately 40 productions and the great significant factor in this is that the vast majority of them were new plays. Very few old or existing plays were performed. These works were new scripts by already known dramatists, plays by persons already in theatre in other capacities but not well known as playwrights, brand new works created by debutante writers who had just been trained in playwriting, dramatisations wrought by group leaders or mentors, and plays composed by secondary school teachers.

One of the prizes being competed for in the NDF was for the Best Original Guyanese Play in each category, so there was a major incentive to encourage new plays. New works had also emerged because of other festivals and activities. The Merundoi Workshops in Playwriting and Directing culminated in the Merundoi Festival of Plays in which the creations of the newly trained playwrights were first performed.

This was followed by the annual Theatre Guild One-Act Festival which was another forum for the production of new plays.

Most of these were also entered in the NDF to add to the very large number of new dramas generated by the national festival.

When measured against the overall vision of the National Drama Festival most of the foregoing will have to be regarded as achievements.

There were aims similar to those of Merundoi when they held their workshops in several technical areas of theatre earlier this year. They were also complementary to the Theatre Guild’s One-Act Festival, and the NDF was certainly an advancement on those aims.

The Department of Culture built into the framework of the event, a modus operandi that went well beyond the public stage performances. It wanted something permanent to be left after the curtains closed.

Therefore there was an element of training and development and of the awareness of theatre arising from their extensive and intensive promotion. The NDF wanted increased theatrical involvement outside Georgetown and involving groups outside the regular theatrical circle in the city. They wished to enhance the study and practice of drama in schools and to encourage newcomers who were having the new experience of stage production and performance. These schools and newcomers were mentored and advised by the new directors trained in the Merundoi programme and others. The sub-division into categories was a strategy to protect the novices and the less experienced fringe groups.

A major part of the vision was realized in the massive creation of nearly 30 new plays. It saw the encouragement of the several religious, youth and other groups to approach drama as a problem solver. This included types of drama in education, plays and dramatisations which tackled social issues and attempted to instruct. These plays would then remain as permanent products of the festival.

More groups were exposed to the theatre and have turned to drama as a vehicle for messages and awareness. Not only additions to the corpus of Guyanese drama, but directors and production technicians emerged from an NDF that used entertainment as a whole developmental programme for training and awareness.

Since there were also several problematic issues and unrefined elements of festival planning and management, the training ground was for the NDF itself as well. It is expected that the NDF 2013 will have learnt from this and become even better equipped to realise the objectives of this important cultural experience.

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