Several routes to Broadway
A tourist on the streets of New York City (NYC) asks a passer-by, "Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?", referring to the renowned performance centre. The answer is concise.
I remembered the joke while chatting with three Jamaican residents of New York (NY) last week. The three have performed on various stages in NYC, the acknowledged theatre capital of the world.
So I asked, "How do you get to Broadway?"
Answering the question in terms of their early steps toward the drama-packed street were actor/director/playwright and theatre lecturer Karl Williams, actor Shayne Powell, and my daughter Kitt Reckord Mabicka.
Karl went there "seriously" in 2008 to study at New York University (NYU) for a Master's Degree in Education and then teach. He had previously gone there in 2003 and 2004, for six months on each occasion, to perform.
During the first stay, a friend took Karl to a play and introduced him to the director, who got him into another play, Fashion, at the Metropolitan Playhouse on East 4th Street. "I followed up on that connection when I returned to New York in '04," Karl said, "and the director offered me another project but said I had to write it as well as perform it. I got a good review. I still have it."
The writing of the piece marked Karl's debut as an author in New York. Recently, he produced his play, Not About Eve, there, which had premiered in Jamaica.
He returned to New York in 2008 as a teacher. This was to present the work that he was doing with Shakespeare in a Jamaican high school at the NYU Shakespeare Forum. He stayed on to study at the university.
Karl identified the several ways he has travelled onto New York stages as "through connections, through education, as an actor and as a writer", but said the teacher in him would recommend the education route as best for aspiring young Jamaicans theatre practitioners.
"Here, they do value education," he said "and though they favour their own (in terms of acceptance to colleges), let's face it - they do make a lot of money off international students."
Cautioning that the best theatre schools only accept the very talented, Karl also pointed out the importance of self-confidence. "If you don't believe in yourself don't take that plane here, because what you're going to meet is hardships. New York is a tough city, even for people living here," he said.
He said it would also suit the aspirant to get experience at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts' School of Drama, perhaps, or in a local production. His start was with the Little Theatre Movement's (LTM) annual pantomime.
Shayne's first steps into performing were taken, he said, at St Jago High School, where he entered the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) competitions. Then, after six years with Ashe, Shayne enrolled at the School of Drama, where he did the Drama in Education programme.
"I had Karl as my Textual Studies lecturer," Shayne said, laughing, "and I remember I used to fall asleep in every class."
Karl's interest in his progress at the school and later showing him around New York strengthened Shayne's desire to act in the Big Apple. He got his wish when he migrated to the US with his family.
"I got here June 8, 2013. I'll never forget that date. I auditioned for a show Karl told me about, Flambeaux, a Trinidad musical, and got cast as an extra. But I was excited about it. It was my debut on a NY stage." Karl predicted that Shayne would soon get a lead role. The lead actor in Flambeaux got stuck in Canada and Shayne got bounced into the part.
"So I debuted in New York in a lead role," Shayne laughed.
Recently he finished acting in a film, Respect the Jux, shot in Jamaica and New York. Produced by Frank C Matthews, who also wrote the novel and screenplay, it is scheduled to open next year.
Kitt first performed in New York with Ashe at Lincoln Centre. She had migrated and, when the company went to New York, Kitt joined them and reprised a role she had performed in Jamaica while with Ashe. "It was awesome. I really enjoyed it," she said.
Introducing yet another way to the stage, Kitt said "I was working in the office of a restaurant/lounge in New Rochelle, where they had just created a dinner theatre programme with dancers performing on certain nights. I performed with that group for a while."
She, too, spoke of the benefit of connections. "One of the dancers I met was with a musical theatre company based in the Bronx. She said they had auditions coming up for a musical and I auditioned and got the part of dancer and understudy of the lead in a play called Over the Edge. It was staged at the National Black Theatre Company in Harlem and downtown (Manhattan)."
After studying at the School of Visual Arts for her second degree (a BFA in Graphic Design), Kitt started working at Simon and Schuster. The company turned out to be another source for a performing opportunity.
"Through them I heard about a not-for-profit community theatre based on 42nd Street, which is really off Broadway. I volunteered in the costume department for a while and then auditioned for a musical called Tom and Sally, about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings," Kitt said.
"I was dancer/ensemble/stage hand," she said. "We even had an official Broadway playbill with our profiles in the back. That was kinda cool."
Karl repeated his advice about having self-confidence. "Fear prevents a lot of us from taking the first step," he said.
Shayne went further: "Fear can stop you from even dreaming."