The National Drama Festival (NDF) of 2016 begins at the National Cultural Centre (NCC) today with the staging of plays in the preliminary round. These preliminaries continue until November 14, after which the festival moves into the finals which take off with the official opening on November 18 at the NCC.
This festival is unique in the Caribbean in that it is the only one with a concentration of so many dramatic plays at one venue for a period of more than three weeks. It is a national event, produced and administered by the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD), which is the responsible institution for training and promotion of theatre at a national level throughout the country. The NSTAD joins with the Unit of Allied Arts of the Ministry of Education for the participation of secondary schools in the NDF. For the second year, the biennial Schools Drama Festival has been incorporated into the NDF to merge with the Secondary Schools Category of the NDF so that there is now one annual competition and not two separate ones for schools as obtained up to 2014.
This NDF is sponsored by the Department of Culture along with longstanding private sector partner Digicel. The cellular phone company has been providing part sponsorship for the festival since its inauguration in 2011. In that year, all plays competed against each other in a single contest. Since then the NDF has grown to what it is today five different categories competing for prizes in cash and trophies amounting to some $7 million.
There is a grand first prize of $1 million for the Best Production in the Open Full-Length category, along with more prize money for the other categories. The Open Category has two sub-divisions – Open Full-Length Plays and Open Short or One-Act Plays; then there are the Junior, Debutantes and Secondary Schools categories.
There is a cash prize for Best Production, as well as for second and third places. There is also a monetary prize for the Best New Guyanese Play in each category. Other prizes are given for the best actors and actresses, directors, the best use of set, costuming, lighting, and sound. Added to those are special sub-categories for Secondary Schools: Dance Drama and Story Telling.
With all of those, it promises to be a grand festival of the best drama produced from all around the country.
This year there are approximately 75 entries overall across the five categories, with 16 of them from secondary schools. These figures show a considerable increase over the numbers that came forward in 2015 and they come from regions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 10.
Another important feature of the festival this year is that the preliminaries are being held at several different venues, in addition to the National Cultural Centre. Within Georgetown, these include the Theatre Guild, which will host all the schools’ plays, dance and stories as well as, for the second year preliminaries for the adult competitions. A significant development is that preliminaries will be held in the city community of Sophia for the first time. Residents of that area will be able to welcome public theatre at the Community Centre in ‘B’ Field, Sophia on Wednesday November 9 starting at 6 pm.
Preliminaries continue at the Bishops’ High School as well as other rarely used venues outside the capital city. For the second year there will be plays at Kuru Kuru on the Soesdyke-Linden Highway where a large and vibrant audience turned out for a play produced by the training centre there for last year’s NDF. Other venues will include places not utilised before in Parika.
This virtual decentralisation is part of a plan to reintroduce theatre at venues that might have gone out of use and to draw into service other new and unconventional venues. It is a vision of the NSTAD to develop theatre within communities. The idea is that plays will be produced there for the NDF and performed right there for the communities to see. Hopefully this will lead to other productions and get the communities accustomed to having plays performed there on a more regular basis. High ranking theatre personalities will visit to judge these preliminaries and simultaneously create a sense of a special occasion and give a boost to the idea of theatre in those communities.
Where the competition is concerned, the best plays will be drawn from these various preliminaries and perform in the finals at the NCC. Then there will be a focused spotlight on the best drama in the country on show in 2016. The NDF normally attracts a cross section of the leading performers, producing companies and playwrights in the country, so that the finals will truly be a showcase of the foremost talents that the country has to offer.
Interestingly, there was a very busy and well-subscribed festival of plays staged at the Theatre Guild Playhouse for the Golden Jubilee celebrations. This series brought back a number of longstanding Guyanese plays, some written and produced a very long time ago. These were added to more recent dramas staged in previous years and recommitted to the stage. That festival was not guided by any appreciable theme or definition of any sort, and was just a general re-staging of Guyanese plays. But the significant thing is that most of those have entered the NDF 2016.
What they will bring to the festival is some amount of variety. It will also mean that a number of old plays that have had a long history of popular support will come into the festival, making it more of a national contest among outstanding dramas of the nation. These also included many of the more seasoned actors, actresses and directors of the country.
None of them are new plays, so they will increase the number of established Guyanese dramas in the NDF and provide diversification since there has been an abundance of new and newly written plays.
Actually, the creation of new plays has been a major highlight of the drama festival. The impression has been that the NDF drives the writing of plays. Several dramatists write for the festival each year. There is a prize for the best new play, and that might have been a stimulus, but certainly most persons entering sought to do so with new work.
This has been a strength and an achievement of the NDF over the past recent years. This trend multiplied since the opening of the National Drama School. Each year the new sets of graduates have entered some of the plays they created as students of the drama school where there are classes in playwriting, directing and production. Added to that, the members of the recently formed National Drama Company, an off-shoot of the school, have consistently entered their new works in the festival.
Also of interest is the fact that from the inception, plays from the Theatre Guild have been a mainstay in the NDF. The numbers from that institution have dwindled, but the Guild has also made its mark upon the NDF, especially when it held their own festivals.
What can be said of the NDF 2016 is that it will be a virtual study of Guyanese theatre old and new. This year there are perhaps more old existing Guyanese plays than in previous years. Some are vintage works stretching back to previous decades and even from the early years in the development of local Guyanese drama. Others are popular favourites that have proven themselves among audiences over many years.
However, there will be the usual very generous overflow of new plays that have always decorated the NDF. Several in the Debutante, Junior and Open Categories are of this description, showing that a growing number of new groups and writers have been turning to theatre to express their concerns over the troubling issues that plague their society.
What is more, many of them are interrogating the society, its ills, its morals, its history and its various qualities of humanity in interesting and new and sometimes experimental brands of theatre. It is this range of preoccupations and interests that make the NDF a rich and rewarding study of Guyanese theatre. It is something that one has to visit the NCC for the rest of this month to witness.