Reflections on the end of the drama festival

To end this series of comments on Guyana’s Third National Drama Festival held in November, 2013, we consider the way the festival closed with four new plays produced by students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama.  These plays added confirmation of the apparent emerging trends in local Guyanese drama and further demonstrated the truth of observations already made about the characteristics of the NDF 2013.

Those plays spoke to the impact and influence of the festival as well as the contribution of the new drama school.  The festival in 2013 was again characterised by the rise of several newly composed plays and a very pronounced focus on social realism.  Plays are now much preoccupied with commenting on social ills, personal and domestic issues and societal problems.  Many new groups which have never done drama before are now coming into it and choosing the theatre as a medium through which to address those problems.  This reflects a spread in public interest in the practice of drama.  Church groups are using theatre to promote the gospel and send messages.  In many productions they present the ills of society and offer Christianity as a solution.

20110807artsonsundayThe secondary schools entries show both the positive and the most disappointing elements.  New plays created in the schools also tackle issues and this year there was a focus on child labour as well as abuse and violence.  But it is a great weakness in the current system that this is coming only from schools outside Georgetown while the major ‘flagship’ institutions are showing no interest in cultural development.  No one should ever suggest any reduction in academic achievement, but it has become an obsession and there is a threat of narrowness and half-development in these schools.

The festival closed with the plays from the National School of Drama.  There were five new plays in all that came out of the courses in Directing and Playwriting.  The Directing interns who graduated in 2013 directed the plays written by the students in the Playwriting class.  All the students worked in the productions, putting into practice what they studied in courses in Design, Production, Dance, Acting, Voice and Movement.

The Playwriting course was a special one, run in collaboration with the Guyana Prize for Literature and the University of Guyana.  The NSTAD course was run together with the Guyana Prize Playwriting Workshop and the UG Department of Language and Cultural Studies Summer Course in Playwriting.

One of the five plays produced from these classes was Duplicity by Keron Bruce directed by Marissa Primo (both NSTAD graduates).  This work treated domestic as well as other public issues including abuse, rape, deceit and the mental disorientation these can cause.  It was a modern tragedy also commenting on police brutality, the way the public never believes the police reports, and how television news often gets it wrong.  The title Duplicity worked on three different levels: the TV version of the events, the police version, and the truth as seen by the audience in the play.  It also reveals the duplicity in the central character, the girl played by Melinda Stacy Harris who was both victim and villain in this modern tragedy.

A Twist of Faith by Taneka Caldeira and directed by Mark Luke-Edwards was another product of the class.  It also focuses on a domestic situation, looking into mother-daughter relations, a crisis of identity, self-knowledge and the family.  It shows how an interest in appearances, hidden secrets, and family separation can lead to near tragedy.  The drama had a twist at the end which ties in with its title.  It was also a punning title, playing on the name of the central character and on the way other family members are tested by Christian faith as well as faith and trust in each other.  These complications result from the desertion of a father and the mother’s unforgiving obsession with both hating him and creating in the daughter what she never achieved herself.

 Leonora Secondary perform at the drama festival (SN file photo)
Leonora Secondary perform at the drama festival (SN file photo)

Planned to Perfection written by Luke-Edwards and directed by Ayanna Waddell had a preoccupation with other areas of the domestic situation.  It contained a range of issues including an archetypal theme of the cruel stepmother, a staple motif in many fairytales and folktales.  It then incorporates another age-old theme of the woman scorned interplaying with corporate skullduggery, crime and lesbianism.  The drama ended with a major irony which also plays on the title of “planned to perfection.”

Deep Wound written by Melinda Primo-Solomon and directed by Marissa Primo and Melinda Primo-Solomon was a drama that rested on catharsis.  This is brought about in the life of a female detective played by Kimberly Fernandes who is purged of her racial anger and hatred when she risks her own life to save a president she hated.

Going against the popular grain, it dramatised police professional efficiency, courage and heroism. It shows how racism and racial conflict are fed by dishonesty, misunderstanding and false appearances.  The play had a deep treatment of politics, race and personal anger.  The detective is haunted by an error from a false report that cost her 15 years of rage.  The drama’s preoccupation also touches on terrorism and psychological trauma, but its satisfactory ending was in the catharsis.

The fifth play emerging from the Drama School’s directing and playwriting classes was quite a departure from the normal comfort zone.  This was Creative Burial Ground by Rae Wiltshire directed by fellow student Nickose Layne.  It was a bold production that exhibited many avante-garde features.  The play showed off elements of Theatre of the Absurd with traces of existentialism in its comment on war, art, creation, the nature of God and war versus art.  The style and techniques were post-modernist, set in a colourful and magical cemetery where artists go, and presents a group of artistic types who get caught up in a plot by the angels to find an artist to send on a mission to lead and heal the world.  These artists were killed by one of the ills of the world – viz war.  These illusive themes were staged in Absurdist theatre, well outside of the familiar forms of Realism.  The play suggests that art/the artist has the key to finding solutions for the flawed world – God’s flawed creation.

Interestingly, the festival also had two other plays demonstrating very different forms of theatre.  Both Dominion Generation of Parika and the Buxton Drama Group had performances of their own peculiar brand of village theatre, similar to a form popular in Linden.

Those factors ought to give the NDF a definite sense of achievement.  Most of the festival’s strategies have worked and its aims have been realised.  There was an overall better quality of plays in 2013.  There are still problems with the writing of scripts, and this was seen among the beginners and the more established playwrights alike.  Some works were still too lengthy, repetitive and in need of editing.  The festival deliberately encourages the creation of new plays, and that is good, but this push also produces bad scripts.  More is not necessarily better, or even good.  The production of new Guyanese plays should certainly happen (as it will), but there needs to be an equal emphasis on the exposure to the drama of the world, as well as the Guyanese drama that already exists.

Nevertheless, the NDF has a right to feel it has positively achieved. There were fewer unstructured, badly produced and superfluously lengthy productions, partly because the plays were generally better, period, and partly because some were weeded out in the Preliminaries.

On the other hand, both the NDF and the National Cultural Centre had serious concerns.  There were unflattering problems.  The most serious were the failure of the lighting, the sound and sound management, and the technical coordination.  Some of these were caused by equipment breakdown, but there were many other issues. Late starts and long waits in between plays resulted from the many complex and time-consuming set constructions.  These matters affected the fluency of productions and taxed the casts.  But it seemed that the adversities served to build character and discipline among them, judging from the way some plays handled the technical failures.

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