While in many parts of the world theatre practitioners can live off their talents, it is not so in Guyana. Our actors and actresses cannot immerse themselves in roles and method act their way to the bank every month. The playwright cannot escape to some remote location for an indefinite period to focus on writing the next best Guyanese play. The director is not arriving in a limousine at the National Cultural Centre or Theatre Guild knowing they would have created a masterpiece and would be adequately rewarded. And the producer is not confident that he or she will make a small fortune off any play invested in.
But why does theatre continue to suffer? Why, when playwrights sometimes spend years working on their plays, is there no assurance that there will be any satisfying rewards from our works?
We write because we are inspired. But it is not that playwrights want to write only because it is our calling; many of us wish that we can make a living off our work. We wish that we can spend our lives developing every idea, but we are Guyanese living in Guyana and must find other professions to survive.
Many actors wish they can spend weeks living as the characters they play. They wish that they can focus on one role at a time knowing that at the end of the production their bills would be paid, and the next audition would not be months or years away, but ongoing opportunities would exist for them to grow and excel. But no actor or actress can live off acting in Guyana. There are no directors or producers becoming millionaires from one brilliant production. Most of us involved in theatre productions will never think of it as a career. Many must wait for the next National Drama Festival to showcase their work and compete for a pittance.
Theatre is just one of the many art forms that continues to suffer in Guyana. Generally, all are undervalued and poorly rewarded.
However, when it comes to theatre, there are several reasons why it continues to suffer. One reason is the lack of support from sponsors and the people. Many producers have stated that sponsors offer a number of excuses when they are approached as to why they cannot offer sponsorship. They believe it benefits them in no way or they have already often allocated funds to other activities. But when one examines the attendance records of plays over the years, one could understand why sponsors may not be too eager to support. Many would rather sponsor foreign artistes than small productions. However, there are those who do offer sponsorship and they must be acknowledged.
The theatre practitioners are also themselves responsible for the state of affairs. They need to do the work to encourage folks to return to the theatre. Advertising is often poor. Again, because of the lack of support from sponsors and the fact that many producers are not wealthy enough to invest much of their own funds, many must utilise mainly social media to advertise. Often, they cannot afford to advertise on television. They will utilise free spots offered on television shows and radio programmes, but still it is not enough to fill all of the seats.
Content is another reason why many are staying away from theatre. There is a new generation of writers who are mostly writing tragedies. The depressing tales often leave audiences craving one light moment in the play where they can have a laugh – relief. The harsh realities in Guyana are being dramatised over and over again and for many who would have previously been theatregoers, it is too difficult to sit through the painful dramatisations. People want to go to the theatre for stress relief. They want to laugh and escape for a time from what they see daily in the news, in their communities or what they experience in their lives. It is a major part of the reason why the only shows at the National Cultural Centre that are sold out in these times are ‘Nothing to Laugh About’ and ‘Uncensored.’ In previous years, the long running Link Show and the short-lived Mori J’von Comedy Jam also managed to attract sold out audiences.
But many of the new writers have lived through the tragedies they are writing about or witnessed them. And our country is plagued with many social ills. How can they not write about what is constantly happening around them?
Writers, however, must find ways to create balance in what they are offering the audience.
Still, the fact that theatre is suffering continues to worry practitioners. The Theatre Guild just wrapped up a three-day festival of plays and the attendance was poor. This was not unexpected for many have grown to accept that in this time expecting a sold-out audience is almost impossible. But when one hears about what is happening in other parts of the world and not necessarily only in places like Europe or North America, it reinforces how undervalued creatives are here.
A few years ago, a colleague of mine spent some time in Trinidad. When he returned to Guyana, he talked about how dancers like himself were living comfortable lives off of just dancing in Trinidad. Another colleague spent some time in Jamaica and talked about how every weekend there were plays to attend on the island. It sounded like paradise to me.
At Carifesta in Haiti in 2015, I witnessed one of the most beautiful and inspiring stage productions that I will never forget.
There is no venue where Guyanese can go every weekend to enjoy a good play. There are no productions running for weeks at a time. The fact is that many creatives in Guyana will have empty bank accounts or be homeless if they had to rely solely on their art.
Every now and again, when someone asks me about my profession and I reveal that I am a writer, the next question is usually whether writing pays in Guyana. There are not many people living off writing alone in Guyana. As with many other professions, one often must have several sources of income to survive. And, again, for many it is not lack of talent, but lack of opportunity. But for the love of the arts, theatre will continue to exist, even in an environment where it is not widely appreciated.
In the early 90s, when I was not yet ten years old, I sat in awe looking at what was happening before me. What often keeps me going is recalling that memory when I sat front row at the National Cultural Centre watching a play my uncle had directed. The voice of the universe was telling me that I had found my calling.