Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Sex, sensitivity on stage in T&T

Published:Friday | September 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dahlia Harris
Michael Holgate
Nadia Roxburgh (left) and Dr Brian Heap. photo by Michael Reckord
Rawle Gibbons Photo by michael Reckord
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Theatre practitioner Rawle Gibbons speaks about contemporary theatre in his native Trinidad & Tobago to conclude this two-part article.

The theatre, staged at the Central Bank, a popular venue for commercial productions in Trinidad and Tobago, consists largely of sex comedies, Gibbons told me. "Some of it is locally written, a lot of it is foreign," he said. "They're a cut above Jamaican 'roots' theatre."

Elaborating on the non-commercial theatre available, Gibbons said, "One of our young, interesting playwrights is Davlin Thomas, who has his own company. He's non-realistic, highly poetic and is always taking risks."

Additionally, "the UWI Creative Arts Centre does productions every year and there's the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, who have been more into educational theatre for a while now." The Workshop's new artistic director, a young woman just back from studies in the US, recently directed Dennis Scott's An Echo in the Bone, and a Shakespeare play.

He also said that veteran educator-playwright Zeno Constance, who has been working through the School's Drama Festival, has his own theatre group of high school graduates. He retired from teaching recently.

I asked Gibbons to say more on the efforts of the Creative Arts Centre, which he leads artistically, though not administratively. "For the past several years," he said, "we've been building theatre through work based on historical research, collective creation, improvisation and embedding the work in communities. It's a process that started a couple of decades ago with the Indian community.

"We've taken local myths and local history and built plays. They just weren't there before; people hadn't written their stories. The students themselves now do the research, going to the areas. When they come back, we work on the material, building scripts through improvisation."

One of the plays (they remain the property of the communities, Gibbons stressed) is Shango Tales of the Orisha, which Gibbons brought to Jamaica in 2007 and staged at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. Another is the Black Power play March to Caroni, a production created in 2010 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Black Power Movement in Trinidad and Tobago.

Gibbons called it "a memorable production", explaining that the creators used a Zeno Constance script, The Roaring 70s, as a "base-script" and extended it.

Caribbean identity

Looking back a half-century or so, Gibbons said that even before Independence, the region began producing plays with a strong Caribbean identity. He cited Errol John's award-winning Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, the work of Jamaican historian Carey Robinson, plays published by the UWI's Extra-Mural Department and plays by Derek Walcott.

Then, he said, came the movement away from realism. "There was experimentation as we tried to create a Caribbean form. To do that, people went back to traditional forms, performing dub poetry, mixing elements, creating a sort of total theatre and unabashedly using Caribbean creoles," Gibbons said.

It's noteworthy, he said, that some of the most interesting work advancing Caribbean theatre is now coming from the Diaspora. He mentioned Tony Hall, a Trinidadian living outside the region, and the late Geraldine Connor, whose Carnival Messiah was based on Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.

In an email to me a fortnight ago, Gibbons expressed the view that "the developments in theatre in the present century relate more to the applied status of its practice than to the art itself." For example, he wrote that "the inclusion of Theatre Arts on the secondary school curriculum by CXC will continue to have tremendous impact on the social and professional acceptance of theatre within the cultural economy."

Also taking theatre in an interesting direction is "the application of interactive theatre methods to discourses on social issues" by groups like Jamaica's Sistren Theatre Collective and the Arts-in-Action (AiA) team at the UWI in Trinidad and Tobago.

AiA is a programme which extends the work and mission of the UWI's Department of Creative & Festival Arts into communities and institutions throughout the twin islands and the wider Caribbean. Believing that "the arts have an indispensable role to play in the process of social and attitudinal change and development", the team uses creative and performing arts disciplines (theatre, dance, music, visual arts, storytelling, the spoken word, etc.) to develop educational content.

To date, according to its website, "AiA has completed well over 3,000 interactive performance workshops across the country, the Caribbean, the USA and the UK, dealing with pertinent societal issues to over half a million participants."

Eight x Ten

The Eight by Ten theatre festival, created by Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts (PSCCA) head, Dr Brian Heap, opens its three-night run tonight at the centre.

The festival got its name some years ago when Heap asked seven other directors to join him in staging 10-minute theatre pieces for one show. Last September, the festival was expanded to three nights.

In the current festival, Heap told me last week, there are 24 directors among the 86 participants, comprising actors, stage managers and musicians, among others. Included in the backstage crew will be PSCCA's technical director Nadia Roxburgh, who has her hands full designing lighting for the productions.

Without the financial assistance he is getting from the CHASE Fund this year, Heap said that the production would not have been viable. "Up to last year the directors sponsored themselves," he explained.

Heap said he was happy with the mix of experienced and young directors, for the latter will learn from the former. And he is particularly pleased with the many female directors this year. Among the 11 of them are Dahlia Harris, Jean Small, Fae Ellington, Barbara Gloudon and Nadean Rawlins.

The male directors include Trevor Nairne, Patrick Brown, Pierre Lemaire, Fabian Thomas, Michael Holgate, Michael Daley and Jean-Paul Menou. Performers include Sakina Deer, Hilary Nicholson, Jean-Paul Menou, Barbara McCalla, Maylyn Lowe, Andrew Brodber, Shanique Brown and Carl Samuels.

Heap is also pleased that the Eight by Ten festival offers an opportunity for so many members of the theatre community to work together in one show. "The creative economy benefits by the collaborative effort," he said.