Drama school students show range in ‘The Performance’

– Guyana plays catch up with Caricom neighbours

Formal training in the performing arts is developing in Guyana, and indeed around the Caribbean. In fact it is now quite advanced in other parts of the region – Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago especially, as well as Barbados. In Guyana this new level of formal training is attempting to influence what happens on stage, which is one of its ambitions. This was in evidence in the recent presentation of ‘The Performance’ at the National Cultural Centre by the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) on April 27.

20140126ALAround the Caribbean, increasing emphasis is placed on the performing arts and the industries arising from them. Guyana has been at the helm in this although the country itself is only now trying to catch up with some of its Caricom partners. Activities at an official level have gone well beyond the ring of truth in Derek Walcott’s Naipaulian statement that Carifesta is a waste of time and money – it is a grand fete; after each Carifesta the artists return home to poverty and the Caribbean governments put no money into their real development (see Interview with Walcott, Arts on Sunday in the Sunday Stabroek 1989).

At Carifesta 2003 in Suriname, an attempt was made at deep analysis, change and development when the symposia turned attention to restructuring the festival to address its faults, make it more effective and improve its economic viability. Close attention was paid to the cultural industries in the region. This was the initiative of Guyana’s Dr Carole Bishop then a Caricom officer who led the process of reformation that followed with increased attention being paid by several meetings of the Regional Directors of Culture which have continued right up to 2013. Carifesta X in Guyana in 2008 had another panel discussing ‘Are We There Yet? Defining and Refining Our Cultural Industries.’Walcott was to feature again at the opening symposium when he challenged Guyana’s then President Bharrat Jagdeo to put more resources into the arts.

The first batch of graduates of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama pose with President Donald Ramotar (centre) last October. (Stabroek News file photo/Arian Browne)
The first batch of graduates of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama pose with President Donald Ramotar (centre) last October. (Stabroek News file photo/Arian Browne)

There have been several other developments and action by governments which have helped to change the situation addressed by Walcott so many years ago. The new term “creative industries” is now gaining currency and there has been much attention paid to them in recent times. Concurrent with those has been the tremendous strides made in the area of formal training. Jamaica pioneered this with the creation of the School of Drama which served the whole region right up to the 1990s. There followed the creation of the Edna Manley Cultural Training Centre and training to the level of degrees and higher degrees.

Trinidad and Tobago also began rapid development in the 1990s at the UWI with the advancement of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts. The name of the department took cognizance of drama as well as the other elements of theatre that include the persuasive presence of carnival as an art form. Training has thus advanced there to post-graduate levels. Barbados was the next to develop in these areas with not only the Barbados Community College’s programme in theatre, but the creation at the UWI of the Errol Barrow Centre where further training in drama takes place.

In response to these developments another regional institution moved into action. CXC developed the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Exam (CAPE) syllabus in Performing Arts to add to the Theatre Arts at Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level. The CAPE exams will include film and business management and these reflect the thinking into industries and practical enterprise. This is a part of the new network which involves great expansion into the existence of theatre, film and music as generators of economic wealth. It is also a part of the training that has become necessary in order to produce persons to run the programmes in schools and beyond. The symposia in Caricom XI in 2013 was devoted to professional development in music for young performers in a project devised by Dr Hilary Browne of Caricom.

Guyana is now entering this network. A significant irony was earlier observed – that though Guyana has been at the helm of these advancements, it is only now joining the race. Cases in point are the leadership of the theatre activities and development in the Cayman Islands. At one time musician Dave Martins was responsible for this, now it is designer and director Henry Muttoo who is in charge of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. Additionally, Eugene Williams who went there as a student, rose to leadership of the Jamaica School of Drama.

The further irony is that Williams was sent to Jamaica on scholarship by the Theatre Guild so that he could return to help develop the training being offered by that institution. Instead he stayed to help develop Jamaica. In Guyana before formal training in drama developed, it was the Theatre Guild that carried this from 1960 till possibly beyond 2000 (with many inactive years in between). In fact the Guild even exported talent to the Caribbean, Williams himself, and Muttoo being examples. Many ‘graduates’ of the Theatre Guild have helped to build drama in other countries and are now involved in Guyana’s attempts to build it at home.

These attempts include the carrying forward of formal certified training in the field. The University of Guyana did much of this when it ran a minor in drama as part of its programme and graduated many students with this qualification. It would call for a very powerful magnifying glass to search for two of those still in Guyana today. Chairman of the Theatre Guild John Rollins was a lecturer and department head on this programme. More recently and up to the present time, the university has a final year drama option for students of English, some of whom have gone on to make contributions after graduation.

This contribution was in evidence in ‘The Performance’ by the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama. This school is Guyana’s latest move to get in line with the leading territories of the Caribbean (Guyana, however, is ahead of the Eastern Caribbean). It is expected that the country will eventually be able to offer degree programmes. But the school is a major step forward and ‘The Performance’ was designed to show publicly some of the work being done. It was described as a lecture in theatre because it studiously wanted to show to the public different areas of performance that students have researched and techniques they are learning.

The university students have studied modern drama, starting with those dramatists who initiated it in the late 1870s. They therefore showed the work of Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian author of A Doll’s House, one of the most progressive ‘drawing room’ plays of social realism. Plays of other periods are rarely seen in Guyana, so this was important, especially since the most dominant dramatic type done in Guyana today is the contemporary version of this ‘drawing room drama’ of social realism. Without knowing it, the vast majority of new and contemporary Guyanese playwrights are working in this genre. Yet seeing a nineteenth century version of this type is strange on the local stage. Further, the play had immediate relevance because it tackled domestic suppression of women and their struggle for self-worth.

The NSTAD students have studied Greek theatre and presented forms of it on stage in this production. They recreated a Greek stage on which they performed an excerpt from the comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Their study of the period included a simulation of the costuming and masks of the ancient Greeks. It was another part of the students’ investigation into period theatre, showing the local audience some of the dramatic conventions of the time.

Another area of exploration was ritualistic theatre, another form of performance not commonly done on the local stage. The students created improvisation based on the theatre of ritual and myth. It drew on the storytelling performance that reflects the beliefs of peoples transmitted through theatrical performance. In this case the improv was The Sirens, based on a group of irresistible women, femme fatales of Greek mythology. It dramatised the Greek belief in the sirens, mythical creatures who lived on islands and lured sailors or men at sea with their hypnotic singing and seductive beauty, drawing them to shipwreck and destruction.

Avant-garde, modernist or post-modernist theatre is an interesting study in drama school in which performance takes interesting experimental forms. For Guyana it is quite different from the realistic plays of social realism to which audiences are accustomed. Theatre of this variety was explored in the dramatisation of Wordsworth McAndrew’s poem “Ol Higue” performed by the NSTAD students. This also arose from their study of ritualistic theatre and myth, but this time it was Guyanese mythology and folk belief. The ‘Ol Higue’ is well known as a malevolent supernatural being into which certain persons have the power to transform themselves.

The pieces of Greek theatre were examples of work taken from the classics and to complement them, pieces of classical music were added. It was also an opportunity for the students to show off talent and training in other areas of the performing arts as classical songs were performed in operatic style. One of the lecturers at NSTAD also presented students from the Bishops’ High School as guests who did performance poetry in the production.

This range of presentations provided the drama students with a very appropriate opportunity to put into practice what they have been learning in design and production of costumes, make-up, masks, music, movement and dance. Some of them were demanding test pieces for which they were evaluated while at the same time instructing and entertaining an audience.

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