The audience for theatre in Guyana exhibits certain characteristics and behaviours defined by history, colonialism, slavery, culture and tradition. It has taken its shape and attitudes from the interplay of these factors over centuries that have been similar in all the English Caribbean territories. It has been driven by traditions, both indigenous and imported, and by social class.
Today, the audience for theatre in Guyana, much like the rest of the Caribbean, lends itself easily to post-colonial study. This is the result of all the social factors which have survived the race and class divisions of a colonial history in the Caribbean – or have they survived? Those historical factors have hung over, in the eyes of the more radical commentators, to the point of neo-colonialism. Generally it can be compared to what distinguished critic Edward Baugh said about the West Indian literature – that it has developed its own character and independence, it has emerged out of a history, it has experienced definite decolonisation, but its colonial quality is not something to be outgrown.
Today, while the audience for theatre may in part be closely related to the types of theatre, for the greater part it is determined more by social attitudes than by art. Today it is still divided by social class. This is so to the point that in Guyana the audience is not determined so much by what is being performed on stage, but more by who is performing it.
Two decades ago a popular playwright who later advanced to be now one of the leading Guyanese dramatists made a very apposite comment. Harold Bascom in an interview with Desiree Wintz in the Stabroek News was making a point about how popular his plays were. When many other plays are being performed at the very large National Cultural Centre “the car park is full but the theatre is empty.” But when one of his plays was being performed there “the car park is empty but the theatre is full.” He was correct on many levels. His plays very often sold out. They appealed to a mass audience who could fill the large auditorium at the Cultural Centre. But Bascom was also hitting back at the middle class who scorned and were very critical of his plays which belonged to the popular genre. His audience was the grass-roots, the multitudes drawn mostly from the proletariat who did not own cars. The middle class who drove cars to the Cultural Centre did not go to see his plays. Bascom’s remark also draws attention to the class divisions among the contemporary audience.
How did that situation come about? The class elements and the divisions in this theatre have a very long history.
There have always been at least two theatres in the Caribbean. Each had its audience. There have been the traditional theatrical rituals and performances among the Amerindians in Guyana, whose audience has mostly been confined to those who practised them. What made more of an impact were the theatres that established themselves after colonisation and slavery. There emerged the transplanted theatre of the enslaved Africans, much of which formed the core of an indigenous traditional theatre which became very complex and interesting, but was never in the mainstream of the colonial stage. Its audiences were the enslaved; after emancipation the black population and the working class that evolved from among them.
Emancipation also saw the arrival of other groups under indentureship and the diversification of what became the indigenous traditional theatres. These had their constituent audiences and those that were public would interest others, including Europeans, some of whom took an anthropological interest in them. There was some difference in the theatre of the Portuguese which did find its way into the mainstream of Guyanese theatre.
The other theatre brought in by colonial settlement was the European, which was the mainstream – the formal drama performed inside Western theatres. The audience for this was segregated. It is recorded that there were separate performances for “people of colour” (see Richardson Wright), but for long history the audience was officially white. ‘Officially’ because, while they were not counted among the regular invited audiences many enslaved Africans saw these performances. The works of leading British playwrights were played on Caribbean stages and long after emancipation the mainstream European theatre that became the formal national theatre of the Caribbean was produced for white, near white and middle class audiences.
Colonial history therefore determined that there was a division in the theatre and the theatre audience. For a long time, well into the twentieth century – the fifties, into the sixties – theatre was a middle class affair. But during those years it was more than just class, it was race and colour. Drama developed as the practice of European expatriates living in the Caribbean and performing in amateur groups. The audience, as said above, was predominantly white residents, local white nationals, local persons of light complexion, and the middle class. Gradually, of course, especially after Independence, and by the 1970s, anyone of any class or colour who gained upward mobility and could gain entry, since there were no formal or deliberate restrictions. But that was not the final happy resolution.
What obtained in the rest of the Caribbean was also true for Guyana. Expatriate residents and members of the ‘high’ middle class professionals were responsible for the important drives to develop theatre in the 1950s. Ironically, there were two concerted efforts to advance local people on stage. One was by Norman E Cameron to elevate blacks in drama, and the other was led by the Singhs of the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS) to elevate Indians. But neither of them changed the face of the landscape, since Cameron’s plays were performed by the same middle class groups and the BGDS was exclusively Indian and very much middle class. Eventually neither forged a theatre and an audience that made any significantly different impact upon the society.
The Theatre Guild was founded and developed very much along the same lines with the same predominantly middle class audience. For more than two decades the Guild offered Western drama, drawn from well-known British and American plays, and during this time the local theatre flourished with an active audience which always turned out to support it (or mainly foreign plays produced locally). Theatre was prominent in the society, although led by the middle class and for most of that period, the expatriates.
However, at the same time two very significant developments were taking place that made the Theatre Guild the most important cultural institution in the country. Guyanese drama written by local people began to be created at the Guild, mainly led by Frank Pilgrim, Sheik Sadeek and Francis Quamina Farrier. Secondly, the Guild set about training programmes for local people in drama, so that several theatre stars over successive generations first learnt their craft at the Guild. These were further fillips to upward mobility of any local person to move into the theatre. But while this helped to inject some diversity into the audience for theatre, it did not revolutionise it or change it in any significant way. It remained predominantly middle class.
The Theatre Guild, however, made a further contribution to the most drastic change to have taken place in Guyana’s theatre history. Several members of the Guild, locals who had received training and personal development there, decided to branch off on their own as dramatists to produce plays elsewhere. Among the leaders in this movement were Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo, who, in founding The Theatre Company in 1981 were actually pioneers in the professional/commercial theatre in Guyana. They virtually created it. They were followed by others such as Ian Valz and Leon Saul. At the same time others who were not members of the Guild escalated similar work starting in Linden. These were Harold Bascom and Grace Chapman. It was these groups which opened up the National Cultural Centre as a venue for drama and revolutionised the audience for theatre in Guyana.
Local plays began to be written about immediate local issues – a new wave of naturalism, of social realism in the theatre. At the same time these new groups continued the performance of a range of foreign thrillers – including the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and Frederick Knott, among others. The National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA) led by Desmond Clarke multiplied these activities. All tolled they created a large mass audience mostly from the working class population as patrons of the theatre. In Guyana multitudes from outside of the middle class were now regular theatre goers in the prime theatre venues of the country.
This new mass audience also influenced what was produced. They were first drawn to theatre by plays treating issues immediately familiar to them, but also by thrillers, so popular theatre developed in Guyana. In order to meet the demands of this audience and to attract more, playwrights, producers began churning out comedy, farce, thrillers and other popular fare. Mass production contributed to a fall in quality since theatre people could now make money from theatre and this attracted charlatans as well as those hurrying to get something popular on stage for the box office and offering bad work. To add to that, the most popular theatre at the present time in Guyana is stand-up comedy, which thrives on fairly explicit sexuality.
This kind of popular theatre also attracted many critics who deplored the fall in standards, and two things happened. The traditional, conventional middle class audience found this virtual take-over of the theatre by proletarian elements and this new popular audience very displeasing. The atmosphere was different and decidedly uncomfortable. Secondly, the middle class critics held out that the local theatre was poor in quality and not worth their attention. A combination of those factors has kept that audience away from the theatre.
What is unprogressive about this is that not all popular theatre is bad or without merit. The Link Show is the best example of popular theatre excellently done. The stand-up comedy annual Uncensored contains the usual sexual references but has grown to be professional. As evidenced by the best of the annual National Drama Festival, there is other theatre being produced that is of high quality and demonstrates creativity and innovation rarely seen in previous years. The work of the new National School of Theatre Arts and Drama has contributed significantly to this. Some Guyanese playwrights and directors have grown and occasionally produced solid work that ought not to be missed.
Good theatre suffers from poor houses because of the decline in the audience for plays that are not in the popular mode. The tragedy is that the middle class audience which now stays away would never know when something good has been produced or when an excellent play is about to hit the stage because they would never come out to support local work.
They have therefore missed quite a few. They have now developed an attitude to local theatre, writing it all off as worthless; worse than that, the attitude is that anything local is not worth their attention. These are the ones who will only come out when there is a foreign troupe visiting; they support nothing local.
There are some exceptions, however; they will come out to see chosen performers such as Dave Martins, Michael Gilkes or Ken Corsbie. This is not only because of their proven excellence, but because they are associated with a tradition. They came out to see ‘Globe to Globe Hamlet’. Yet, there is another tragedy: many seem to have lost the capacity to appreciate weighty performances that call on the intellect and some concentration.
The audience for theatre in Guyana has divided itself along the lines of class and social attitudes.