There are several ways in which theatre education in Guyana in its widest context has been broadening its scope and attempting to achieve greater depth at a national level. The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama has become central to the delivery of this education. It has been doing this incrementally as it has developed since its inauguration in 2013 and has been realising responsibility for wider areas in an attempt to effect the dissemination of knowledge in this field as an agency of the Ministry of Culture.
This redefinition of the concept and scope of theatre education is, however, now being given greater emphasis and adds to many other activities associated with this endeavour. Included in the totality of this delivery is the significant and emphatic increase in the offer of drama as a CXC subject in secondary schools. This includes a deepening of the activities at the Theatre Guild which has now added the CAPE Performing Arts class to its decades of training. The Bishops’ High School and New Amsterdam Multilateral have also taken on the CAPE syllabus, while several secondary schools now offer Theatre Arts at CXC exams.
But other extensions of this concept of theatre education extend this network further into the realms of national education at extra-mural levels, including the tutoring of the national audience. It goes out to them through a range of institutions for which the National Drama School is now responsible, such as the very recent World Storytelling and World Poetry Days, the National Drama Festival, and the exposure of the local audience to the theatre of the world.
In collaboration with the Ministry the NSTAD was host to the visit of the Globe to Globe Hamlet, a world tour of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. A post-modern version of the tragedy of Hamlet was performed in Guyana by the travelling London company. Another similar project was the hosting by NSTAD in collaboration with the Ministry and GEMS Theatre Productions of the visit by Ingrid Griffith with her performance of Demerara Gold.
These are concepts of theatre education very new to the culture of theatre in Guyana and still not quite comfortably accommodated. Yet both were important contributions to the education of an audience. The contemporary revival of Shakespeare by the new Globe Theatre of London brought an exhibition to Guyana of a brand of drama well entrenched on the world stage but to which local audiences are under-exposed. Ingrid Griffith brought a more familiar drama, since her plot and characters are Guyanese, but still a brand of theatre well known to the local audience, if not often seen.
Griffith is a Guyanese living in the USA with a rich experience of performance in film and on the New York stage. She is an actress, playwright, and tutor in both fitness and the performing arts, a professional who, in Demerara Gold and a class held at the NSTAD, presented a drama of Guyanese migration to New York as well as some elements of the making of that drama, in the mode of a one-woman performance. The play is an extended dramatic monologue. Although it is Guyanese the style of solo performance would have been a novelty for most members of the audience accustomed to more conventional forms. It has been the practice of NSTAD so far to expose the local audience to new and uncharted forms, which it has done with its own performance pieces, and which it facilitates through hosting these visiting performers.
Demerara Gold is based on Ingrid Griffith’s own story of her childhood and her family’s migration to New York. After academic and professional training in the USA she developed a wealth of experience in several major plays around the country and in the Off-Broadway community. She then added her own creation of the autobiographical drama to that list of achievements. Her lecture/workshop at NSTAD was based on turning personal experience into drama – how does one go about creating stage characters out of real life. Demerara Gold did much of that, and brought those characters to life.
It is a dramatic monologue for a solo performer, telling the tale of a girl whose parents migrated from Demerara to the USA, but because of the visas that they were granted, had to leave their children behind. The heroine, who is also the narrator, dramatises her life at seven years old left along with her older sister in the care of two grandmothers until the parents were able to send for them. The story turns to disappointment when many years pass without the fulfilment of that promise, while the sisters grow up in the midst of colourful Guyanese life and characters. The hope that the narrator determinedly kept alive was eventually rewarded when they got their visas at last (with the help of the too ubiquitous contributions of bribery and sharp practice). But life changed utterly when she got to New York to confront not only changes, but a deterioration in the family unit, and a new unsettling teenage culture – an altered life fraught with challenges to which she had to adjust.
There are two things that Griffith had to overcome in this tale. She needed to turn this story into one that could interest a wide audience, since many with ambitions of being writers, too easily assume that their personal experiences told just as they happened, are stories worth telling in the context of creative writing. Next, she had to be able to hold the attention of an audience in a monologue always threatened by monotony and boredom.
Griffith’s performance opened in Guyana with the gaiety of the masquerade band to fix it in a time and a culture. But this was not strong enough to set it off with a memorable sense of place. The atmosphere was not recreated and the feel of Guyaneseness only came slowly in some sequences later on. Interestingly, her most telling achievements there included those pieces around the neighbourhood boy who became her friend and gave her the name ‘Buck-teeth.’ The American setting was more convincing than the Guyanese, and it is there that the actress made greater strides in her dramatisation of characters and situations.
Griffith’s success was much noted in the making of a story worth telling as she introduced very effective strategies for this. There was the symbolic thematic intrusion of the strange elegant “African woman” who appeared in dreams and who was associated with the slight motif of “Demerara gold.” Further, the “gold” played a vital role in the story that the narrator remembered when she and her sister were losing faith – fearing that their parents had abandoned them and they would never get to the USA. The grandmother told them the story of their grandfather who re-emerged with a fortune in gold from the Guyana interior where he had gone to prospect, after having been given up as lost. These symbols reappeared at the end when the now teenage narrator mustered the courage and the sense of pride and self-knowledge to take the bold step to defy her father and force him to stop the deterioration of the family through his violent domestic abuse. These would have spoken clearly to audiences anywhere.
Performing the monologue was quite a test from which the actress emerged as successful as her gold-hunting grandfather. It was a major undertaking. A great deal was made out of the fact that she had to play some 18 characters. She gave a seamless narrative in which it was hardly expected that she could go into them with any detail. She often made judicious choices of which individual characteristic(s) she would use to represent each one. They worked in most cases, while others made little impact and were hardly more than details mentioned in the plot.
The production can travel – one actress, a chair, video projections and a bare stage. But Griffith made the most out of those to put herself into several different ‘sets’ and locations such as a bedroom looking both up and down from a bunk bed, at a window looking out along the street, the scene of a fight, and the interior of a car. Some of these were believable and demanded much creativity from the actress. Her discipline was pronounced, as she delivered mime with precision and consistent demarcations to distinguish one character from another and easy recognition when she frequently returned to the same character.