Much ado behind the scenes as festival, competition loom on theatre agenda

Students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama on stage during a production earlier this year

While the theatre agenda in Guyana is currently quite busy, the production of plays on the public stage is at a low ebb – a condition that is expected to be only temporary and is not unrelated to the business of the agenda.

High up on the agenda, the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) is opening its doors for the new academic year 2015/2016 and is currently receiving applications. Invitations are still open for new students and there is to be an orientation exercise on October 5 at 5 pm in the Drama School at the National Cultural Centre. This is at the core of the business of the agenda for a number of reasons.

al creightonThe Institute of Creative Arts which brings the National Drama School together with three others – the National School of Dance, the Burrowes School of Art and the National School of Music – held its Second Convocation just over a week ago. The output of some of those graduating was very visible in the foyer of the NCC where the final year art school students mounted their exhibition. On show was a wide, varied and very impressive display of work in the various disciplines pursued by students at the school. These include painting, sculpture, drawing, graphics, ceramics, textiles, leathercraft and photography.

The exhibition demonstrated that there is keen interest in these various branches of the visual arts and the kinds of studies to which the students put their minds. There was a feast of good work to add to the fact that there was so much of it; a great volume of art is being produced. These are the graduates who will move into the national arena as trained practicing artists to add to the splendour of national Guyanese art.

There was the production of art – paintings, sculpture and much else of value as works of art. But there was also the obvious expressions of the commercial potential of the work. This stood out in some of the works in fabric and textiles, as well as ceramics and the many products like shoes, bags, bedspreads, vases, jars and commodities very often seen in shops around the city. While they are artistic products, they are commodities both for show and for everyday use.

The activities of the National School of Drama are not very far removed from this. Training is provided for the performing arts, for academia and for the industry. However, the NSTAD is also preparing groups and individuals for the National Drama Festival. The most recent activity with this in mind came to an end a week ago. A 30-hour programme in three courses was held – the virtual summer programme of the NSTAD meant for ‘extra-mural’ students and even for graduates looking for extra expertise in technical areas. There were courses in Elements of Stagecraft – Technical, including the construction of sets; Directing Actors – fo-cusing on stage work for those having to prepare actors for plays; and the Production of A Play aimed at the various stages of producing a play for the stage, including a few higher forms of performing styles.

Students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama on stage during a production earlier this year
Students of the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama on stage during a production earlier this year

These were conducted by Andrew Kendall, a lecturer at the NSTAD and Godfrey Naughton, veteran dramatist and actor who conducts workshops at the Theatre Guild. The courses were a part of the outreach activities of the NSTAD in which there is an attempt to provide training for persons in different areas in the far-flung regions of Guyana who have an interest in theatre and who might wish to enter plays in the National Drama Festival (NDF). The NSTAD is also visiting some of these areas in order to effect such training and to prepare for the deployment of the corps of persons who have already been trained as ‘mentors’ – practitioners who can visit groups to give them technical assistance in the production of plays and the management of newcomers to the theatre.

As the NSTAD invites persons to join it as students, it is of interest what it has produced since it was founded some three years ago. Graduates of the institution continue, as several of them have been doing, to perform on the national stage in professional and amateur plays and varied productions. Many of them are teachers running private classes in dance and theatre as well as teaching in public secondary schools. They have introduced classes in drama in these schools, multiplied the number of schools offering Drama in CXC and have had excellent results from students writing the CXC exams.

Graduates of the NSTAD have also created the Na-tional Drama Company – the professional arm of the National School. Members of this company strengthen theatre at the national level since they are not solely driven by commerce and have a vested interest in producing new and different forms of theatre.

They have represented Guyana at Carifesta in 2013 and 2015 and provide trained persons for the public theatre in stage management, props and make-up. However, the commercial theatre is very much a part of their interests. They work in the professional theatre and make themselves available to work in any productions both onstage and backstage.

Linked to this has been the work of NSTAD students and graduates in the NDF where they have an excellent record in enhancing the quality of the festival and in earning several of the awards and prizes. Not only that, but they have also produced many new plays, some of which have been entered in the NDF, since playwriting is a part of their training and the production of new plays is a requirement for passing the course. Similarly, those interested in becoming directors need to successfully direct pieces for public performance in order to pass.

The link between these activities and the NDF is therefore very strong and is not entirely unconnected to the low ebb of productivity in the commercial theatre at this time. This period follows a flurry of activity in the commercial theatre. There was the renewal of “Nothing To Laugh About,” and the mood and climate prompted the unprecedented step of a “Link Show” in the middle of the year. “Link Show 32” was staged to add to the post-election laughs and what seemed to have been the mood in the popular theatre at the time. There was also the hosting of the visiting company from Jamaica famous for “Bashment Granny 3” who met the ongoing demand for farce and comic theatre.

Following those was the production of Cock Fight by Mike Bartlett produced and directed by Godfrey Naughton, which had two runs at the NCC, but this was a fairly isolated offering in the popular theatre during the ‘midsummer’ period. At the same time, “Nothing To Laugh About” continued with the fairly new trend in Guyanese popular theatre – that is, tours to other parts of the country. A number of theories have been advanced as to why activity in the popular and commercial theatre is not quite so prolific at this time.

But what is known, is that many of the groups and companies might have gone into recess in order to prepare for the NDF 2015 which has its finals in November. At this time the NDF has invited groups to signal their intentions by submitting Expressions of Interest forms. This allows the NSTAD, which is responsible for the administration of the festival, to gauge the number of plays that might have to be catered for, and to gather information as to where these groups are located.

The NSTAD will then be in a position to put the mentorship scheme into operation and plan for the holding of preliminaries for the NDF. This year the NDF will take the opportunity to view plays that have been entered at their various locations and to select the best ones for the finals at the NCC. The Secondary Schools Category of the NDF is in 2015 integrated into the usual Schools Drama Festival and coordinated by the Unit of Allied Arts.

The NDF prizes continue to be attractive and the Digicel Group continues to partner with the Department of Culture in providing sponsorship for the festival. Digicel has remained faithful to this project over the years. A significant incentive is the first prize of $1 million in the Open Full-Length Play category as a part of prize purse of some $6 million.

The Theatre Guild has also tailored its activities at this time to accommodate upcoming competition. Partly responsible for the cooling off of productions at this time is the Theatre Guild Festival of Plays planned for the end of October 2015. This might be a revival for the Guild since it held a Festival of One-Act Plays which was an annual event for a few years. Such competition at the Playhouse is thus resuscitated and coordinated by Simone Dowding.

It is hoped that plays entered into this festival, which are now being prepared, will also come over to compete in the NDF which takes place just after the festival in Kingston.

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