The National School of Drama continues the link between theatre and education

Arts on Sunday

This is an edited text of the Keynote Address by Al Creighton delivered at the Opening of the School of Drama and Theatre Arts on January 29, 2013.

My thesis this evening has to do with the very close historical connectedness between theatre and education, and the essential importance of this to human society.

The opening of this National School of Drama and Theatre Arts is a very significant event.  It brings together drama and training at this time and recalls that this is a replay of history where these two activities are concerned.  From the earliest ages in the development of theatre and drama there are some instructive parallels.  Traditional theatre was always tutored by the environment as primordial man learned to use theatrical ritual to assume some control over a hostile environment in order to sustain his existence. This was happening as people began to live in societies; as the human brain was developing, man learned to use language and to engage theatrical acts in the practice of magical religion. Therefore from the very outset, there was this dependence upon theatre for the very existence of man and the quality of human life.  Since then, over the centuries, in traditional societies, theatre was always used to teach them how to live.

20101114artsonsundayIn the beginning of Western theatre, another significant element was the factor of state sponsorship, which connects very well to what is happening at this very moment.  In the fifth century BC, in the city of Athens, Greek drama was sponsored by the government which paid the playwrights and the actors in drama festivals to perform plays publicly.  That direct contribution of the state to the theatre was done because of that very close connection between drama and education. Those plays, the great tragedies and comedies of Aeschylus and Aristophanes were performed to teach the population about how to live a perfect harmonious existence with the gods.  Drama thrived in that period – the Classical era – the first great period of Western theatre, because it was regarded as religious education (and ‘edutainment,’ if you like).

The next important period was the Middle Ages – mediaeval times.  At that time there was a rebirth of drama in the West, and that took place inside the Roman Catholic Church where once again the purpose of theatre was to teach the people about their life in religion. The church used it because the majority population under serfdom was illiterate, and so there was a need for that close connection between drama, teaching and living in a feudal society.

What is of further interest is that I have been talking about Western theatre on the formal stage.  But what happens if we go outside of that and visit the Far East.  What was happening to theatre in India?  Around that same time an Indian luminary named Tulsidas translated and re-fashioned one of the holy Hindu texts – The Ramayana originally written in the sacred language Sanskrit.  Tulsidas translated it from Sanskrit into a popular language so the people could understand it in a version of the Ramayana called Ramcharitamanasayana which became an important text for teaching the people the principles of Hinduism.  And this was done through theatre.

This form of theatre has a significant vestige in the Caribbean – that was the origin of the form of folk theatre called Ramlila in Guyana and Trinidad.  The Ramlila is yet another way of teaching the people through theatre.
I may ask again, what do we find if we journey across to the continent of Africa?  The similarities are remarkable.  In the African traditional society, theatre has always been a great teacher.  Like the Ramlila it has a function which used to be religious, and is now social.  In Guyana two forms which are based on the old African traditional theatre developed – one is known as kwe kwe, the other as nansi tori and both use theatrical performance as a teaching tool.

The opening of the National School of Drama and Theatre Arts (Gina photo)
The opening of the National School of Drama and Theatre Arts (Gina photo)

Very relevant to all of that, then, we can say that training in theatre in Guyana has always existed, but it has always been informal and sporadic. We are now witnessing the establishment of official formal training in drama, but unofficial informal training was taking place in both the traditional setting with Ramlila, Kwe Kwe and Nansi, and on stage in the mainstream theatre, though, as I have said, very sporadically.  On the formal Western stage the foundations were set by the visiting professional companies in colonial times. Minister of Culture Dr Frank Anthony made reference to them and to the opening of the first Theatre Royale in Guyana in 1810.  The work of the professionals was inherited by local residents called ‘Gentlemen Amateurs’ and considerably, by the Portuguese. Many other houses called Theatre Royal opened up during that century and interestingly, they were all destroyed by fire.  This theatre school is a Phoenix rising from those ashes.

Perhaps the greatest institution to have provided training was the Theatre Guild, founded in 1957 which organised training in drama from 1962 through to the 1970s.  During that time many very high-profile and famous actors, playwrights and theatre practitioners were trained at the Guild Playhouse, when Guyana began to export such expertise to the rest of the Caribbean.  Good examples have been Slade Hopkinson, Wilbert Holder, Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews, John Agard, Eugene Williams, Henry Moottoo, Michael Gilkes, Ian Valz and Clairmonte Taitt.  These persons who started their early training in Guyana have contributed at the very highest levels of theatre in the Caribbean and in the United Kingdom.

So Guyana has trained for local performance and for other parts of the world.  But the intensity of this training was sporadic.  It faded away and re-started many times up until the latest new re-beginning in 2008 within Carifesta and in the renovated Theatre Guild Playhouse.  Since the 1990s, there has been very limited training at the University of Guyana.  This was limited because it was largely confined to registered students studying English Literature and those doing a Minor in Drama. There was, however, a small number of Special Students.
Then in around 2009 schools began very slowly to prepare students for the CXC Theatre Arts Programme – by now there are four schools doing the subject − but none of them are in Georgetown.  The Guyana government was involved in Carifesta, and they made another effort when the Ministry of Culture established the National Drama Festival in 2011.  There has been a studied effort to build in an element of training into this festival.

This energy has continued to flow to the point where a National School of Drama is now being established.  One can see a possible networking emerging – a networking that evolved in Guyana after the late 1970s when the National School of Dance was founded.  The history of that started with meetings of regional artists in Georgetown in 1966 and again in 1970 at the invitation of the Guyana government when the idea of Carifesta was generated. When the regional festival actually took place in 1972, Guyana forged strong ties with both Haiti and Cuba who were generous with their own strengths in dance, sending such experts as Lavinia Williams, Geraldo Lastra and Eduardo to Guyana.  Out of this, the National School of Dance began, followed by the formation of the National Dance Company.

There were a number of significant factors contributing to the development and sustainability of dance in Guyana at that time, such as the Hindu religion, the Indian Cultural Centre and scholarships offered by the Indian Government, from which some of the country’s best dancers such as Philip McLintock benefited.  But it was easy to see that the local facility for the formal training of dancers in Guyana was a great contributor and catalyst for the considerable growth of dance theatre.  As a result today there are several private dance companies and dance schools in Guyana.  Dance is the local performing art form with the most trained persons and is the most lively and prolific.

The prognosis for drama may therefore be regarded as good.  There is potential and promise for a kind of networking as there is in dance.  The potential for networking includes the wider Caribbean where these developments have already taken place and an establishment exists.  For a long time there was tertiary training only at the Jamaica School of Drama, which eventually forged a networking with UWI at Mona.  Since then, theatre training developed at the UWI St Augustine in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts, and most recently at the Errol Barrow Centre on the UWI Cave Hill Campus.

The networking within Guyana will be necessary to widen the scope of formal training.  There must first of all be an articulation with the University of Guyana for development to the level of the Associate of Arts Degree with further projection towards the Bachelor of Arts Degree.  Then the Drama School should take advantage of resources that already exist and programmes that are already developing in other local institutions.  These include the Theatre Guild – the citadel of informal training for decades;  the recent outthrusts into CineGuyana and the UG centre for Communication Studies for film;  Merundoi whose achievements, especially in 2012, have been impressive;  the Burrowes School of Art; and the School of Dance.  This takes into account a broadening into a range of cultural industries including film, art, dance and music and the outlook for a possible overarching Institute of the Arts resembling the amalgamation of different schools into the Edna Manley Cultural Training Centre in Jamaica.

This kind of networking will also help to address the question – what happens to the graduates?  The School’s Director of Drama Collette Jones-Chin has already provided a list of possible careers, but I must add the following.  The developments taking place in the region are directly relevant to the placement of theatre graduates.  The CXC Theatre Arts programme is expanding;  an examination in CAPE Performing Arts has just been developed; both include dance and CAPE includes film.  Further openings are hereby created as these programmes in Guyana will be in need of instruction and there are other geometric outgrowths.

The historical link between theatre and education is as much alive at the moment as it was in pre-historic epochs, as it is in traditional societies, and as it has been in terms of the advantage taken of it in Western drama.  The opening of a School of Drama in Guyana thus claims a place in history and continues these links.  For primitive man, theatre was a matter of basic but crucial existence.  Today it is a factor in a symbiotic existence with an advanced technological age.  The drama school is further justified by the contribution it will make to the improvement in the quality of life.

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