The Republic of Guyana’s annual National Drama Festival (NDF) will take to the stage of the National Cultural Centre for the fourth time starting this Tuesday and running from October 14-22. As it has proven itself in the past year or two, this is a feast of plays demonstrating variety, with some very high standards, and what can be called national representation, with exhibits from stage professionals to amateur beginners and schools. This, and other characteristics, make it both unique and important among theatre festivals in the Caribbean.
This NDF, established in 2011, is presented by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport in collaboration with Digicel. It is a performance of dramatic plays of all types and different levels drawn from a range of geographical areas of Guyana, as well as a variety of dramatists. Plays and/or productions are coming from the leading professional companies and groups; other groups of players; individuals, some of whom are leading Guyanese actors and directors; the National School of Drama; various youth groups and secondary schools. It is an innovative stand-out among Caribbean festivals, and historically important.
Guyana can count its achievements in Caribbean theatre. The country tends to lag behind the regional leaders in many areas of theatrical trends and development. One such may be technological proficiency. Besides that, most of the crucial changes, the frontier advancements and Caribbean theatrical types reach Guyana several years after they have taken root elsewhere. Guyana’s theatre remains very conservative. While the world’s post-modernist practices and liberations are commonplace in other territories, Guyana is conventional, with static principles and notions of morality, in addition to which it is steeped in naturalism. However, Guyana’s Link Show is among the three top flagship productions that still survive in the strong Caribbean satirical tradition. After Trinidad’s NAPA, the National Cultural Centre is the largest and most versatile theatre house in the region. And its unique drama festival is at the top of the line in Caricom.
Kingston is the cultural capital of the Caribbean and Jamaican drama is a part of that. In the history of drama festivals, Jamaica is foremost. After the construction of the annual Jamaica Festival (popularly known as ‘Festival’) to celebrate Independence in 1962, a most intense and extensive drama festival developed within it. This intensified during the period between June and August with competitions, performances and awards. Now there are the annual Actor Boy Awards for dramatic plays. The name is taken from the junkanoo tradition in which one of the dancers / masks / characters is the “actor boy.” The awards are decided at the end of the year after the judging of the plays performed during the year.
In Guyana all the plays are performed during a short period when they are brought together in one place to be judged. This is the use of a different, but standard formula. There have been attempts at drama festivals in the country in recent history, but always on a smaller scale and more limited in scope. In the 1960s there was a large and flourishing Sugar Estates Drama Festival initiated by Frank Thomasson among the several Bookers sugar estates across the country, with the best of them brought to Georgetown for the finals. It survived until the mid-seventies, ended, then revived by GuySuCo Chairman Harold Davis on an even smaller scale with the GuySuCo Head Office Drama Group.
In the 1960s too, The Theatre Guild held festivals of amateur groups presenting one-act plays at the Playhouse, and this came the closest to a national event. More extensive than that was the national Guyfesta which adjudicated and brought in the best performers from far-flung areas of the country for the finals in the city. But Guyfesta was not for dramatic plays – it admitted variety group and individual items. More recent efforts have been the Theatre Guild’s Festival of One-Act Plays which ran for a few years between 2009 and 2012.
Jamaica’s deep tradition of inter-schools drama festivals dates back to colonial times and was at one time among the most prominent national events before the explosion of professional theatre in the 1970s. Guyana’s inter schools, of much more recent derivation, was never so prominent, but one of its significant gains has been the way many of the ‘junior’ and community high schools have emerged. They have come to dominate the festival and have decidedly displaced the more prestigious schools, consistently beating them in the festivals. On the ‘minus’ side, is the way those ‘top’ schools have declined in drama.
At the Caribbean level, there is a long-running Inter-secondary Schools Drama Festival. But Caricom has never managed any senior regional festivals. Carifesta has been the only stage for exhibitions of regional plays all in one event, but even that has not proved consistent or reliable. Apart from Carifesta’s sporadic and uncertain frequency, the appearance of the leading dramatic plays in that festival declined since 1995. Since then there was one strong year – 2008 in Guyana, when many territories sent their best, but none of that calibre reappeared in Suriname in 2013. Admittedly, however, the advancement and the complexities of the professional theatre in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, now make it more difficult to negotiate the leading plays representing their country at Carifesta, or any regional festival.
There are factors which make Guyana’s NDF a unique event in Caricom and make it stand out among the rest of the region. First is the opportunity it provides for the further ascendancy of schools. Unlike any other festival of this type around the Caribbean, Guyana has a section for secondary schools in the national festival. This is in addition to the national Inter-Schools Festival mounted every two years by the Ministry of Education.
Again, it has been observed, that it is the schools outside Georgetown, like New Amster-dam Multilateral, West Demerara, Mahaicony and Dora (Demerara River) that have seized this opportunity and continue to outstrip the likes of Queen’s College and Bishops’. The concept of a national festival here is that all of the country and all levels are showcased. A national festival may also be expected to see the best that the country has to offer, and the NDF soon began to attract some of the best local plays and the leading professional companies. Additionally in 2013 some plays exhibited the highest level of artistry in design, lighting and costuming.
Sometimes this is the main or only focus of a national festival – a competition among the best in the country. But this very division of entries into different categories is another unique feature of Guyana’s festival. There are 5 categories: The Open Full Length Play; The Open One-Act or Short Play; The Junior Category; The Debutantes or Beginners; and the Secondary Schools. No other contest of this kind does this. This widens participation, multiplies opportunities and increases audience interest as well as the variety of plays on show. A new concept and a new dimension are given to national festivals by this kind of innovation in Guyana, and it has paid dividends, particularly when combined with another new feature.
There is an award for the Best New Guyanese Play, which has resulted in significant development in local drama. Most of the entries in 2013 and 2014 were new plays written by both the established local playwrights and new ones, including newcomers to the theatre. The quality of some of these was good enough to have added worthy new plays to the corpus of Guyanese drama and contributed to the long term lasting and developmental outcomes of a festival that adds something to the national cultural archives after its curtains close.
Yet in 2014 the entries show a mixture of newly created plays and already established ones. Audiences will be able to see a few of the more successful plays that have had public performances earlier in the year or in previous years. Some of them have been among the very popular productions that have been box office winners in the past. These include an old popular box office favourite Till Ah Find A Place Part III by foremost Guyanese dramatist Ronald Hollingsworth and Shattered Dreamz, a new play by Sheron Cadogan that was also a popular success on the national stage earlier this year.
Two other plays of differing backgrounds further demonstrate the mix and the variety. The Colour of Race is a full-length version of a previous award-winning Guyanese drama by Sonia Yarde treating the country’s volatile racial conflicts. The other is quite different and a novel kind of entry into the festival. It is an old classic, regarded as one of the best plays in modern drama, A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, celebrated Norwegian dramatist. Plays like this one are rare on the Guyanese stage.
Another point of interest among the new plays is that for the second time this year new plays were written by students in the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama. Some of these are directed by others in the Directing class who have just graduated from the school and will be contesting in the festival. They are in the same category as other groups such as the Surmounting Thespians who won prizes last year when they first entered the NDF in the Debutantes category. They have now graduated in 2014 to a higher category.
President’s College is a significant newcomer in the Secondary Schools category. It will at least represent the so called ‘top’ schools in the NDF, which will again be dominated by out-of-town and so called ‘junior’ schools. Last year the emphasis was on social realism among the schools entries, and this year there is a variety. Drama seeking to make comments on burning social issues continue, but there are also many entries doing old and existing plays, especially a few written for schools by dramatist Paloma Mohamed who seems to be about to compete against herself through different schools doing her different plays.
The Guyanese NDF then occupies an important place in the Caribbean theatre with its unique features, historical and typological significance. Not least among these is its emphasis on developmental dimensions. Unlike any other regional festival of this type, it has incorporated a training component. In addition to other features already mentioned, the NDF has appointed drama instructors trained by the National School of Drama to go out to groups and schools to work with them and bring them up to a level where their productions will be competent and competitive, so that the NDF is not only seeking excellence in the performances but has taken steps to try to produce it. In all of this, the audiences expected to come out to see the plays will be the beneficiaries.