Preparation intensifies for Shakespeare contest
Dr Brian Heap has been taking some very effective shots at what he calls "the elephant in the room".
He used the phrase while speaking recently at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, New Kingston, to an audience comprising mainly high-school students and their drama teachers. As chief mentor in the Shakespeare Schools' Championship, Heap assured them that the competition is definitely not an instance of "cultural imperialism".
For the contest, 17 schools across the island will produce half-hour versions of nine Shakespeare plays.
Theatre is "fundamental to a country's development", Heap said, adding that Shakespeare's plays have "universal relevance". He also reminded his audience that two of Jamaica's iconic actors, Louise Bennett-Coverley and Ranny Williams, were superb interpreters of both Little Theatre Movement (LTM) Pantomime characters and Shakespeare.
Participating in the Jamaica National Building Society-sponsored competition are Ardenne and Camperdown high schools and the American International School of Kingston - all mentored by playwright/producer Aston Cooke - and Glenmuir, Waterford and Papine high schools - mentored by actor and Jamaica Cultural Development Commission drama specialist Andrew Brodber.
Cumberland and Manchester high schools, as well as Wolmer's Boys' and Wolmer's Girls', are mentored by director/producer Rayon McLean. DeCarteret and Campion colleges, as well as Meadowbrook High School, are mentored by director Robert 'Bobby' Clarke. Munro and Kingston Colleges, along with St Hugh's High School, are mentored by actor Rooney Chambers.
Other mentors are actress Leonie Forbes and director Paul Issa. The judges will be actor Alwyn Scott, actress/director Fae Ellington, and director of Studies at the School of Drama, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Eugene Williams.
Two days after speaking at The Jamaica Pegasus, Heap was at the School of Drama leading a workshop for the mentors and drama teachers - making sure that the elephant he had shot was dead, no doubt. His main topics were Shakespeare's use of dialogue, interpreting a scene, delivering soliloquies, the importance of close reading of a scene and blocking.
The workshop ended with Heap answering questions about boys playing girls' parts (done in Shakespeare's day and which is permitted), the use of costumes (be creative, not extravagant, Heap said), the doubling up on roles by actors (it's allowed), technical theatre (light and sound) and the importance of sticking to the allotted performance time (directors may have to edit the scripts).
Williams was another speaker at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel function and I later asked him to expand on some points he had made. In summary, he said:
- The championship should help to "encourage and develop more variety in our theatre, which would be good for the students involved, candidates for the School of Drama and audiences generally". Unfortunately, that variety, the result of Jamaica's rich cultural history which was evident until the 1970s, has been "radically drained from our contemporary fare".
- Unlike the theatre in countries "where art and culture are truly invested in as mandatory agents of education and development, the local theatre is now relegated to being an attractive palliative service for the local and foreign marketplace". This is despite the thrust towards developing our cultural industries.
- While the competition does not offer the "glitz and reciprocity of immediate mass appeal", it does offer "an opportunity for humanistic development and the expansion of the creative imagination".
- The competition's requirement that the participating schools locate the production in Jamaica, without changing Shakespeare's language, points to the original two tracks of Jamaican theatre. One leads to the "Theatre of the Great House"(Western theatre), the other to the "Theatre of the Slave Plot"..
- Early local productions of Shakespeare were staged as "colonial museum pieces, without a conceptual sea change that sought to locate the play's concerns within the immediate reality of its performers and audience". However, the two tracks came to intersect in the works of LTM Pantomime in the 1940s and later in those of directors like Carroll Dawes, Noel Vaz and Dennis Scott. (For example, Dawes, in the 1960s, gave Macbeth regional and political immediacy in her production at the Ward Theatre by setting it amidst the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Later, Scott's production of Romeo and Juliet was set in the Caribbean.)
- The competition makes Shakespeare's "compelling treatment of the human condition and timeless existential, social and political themes by way of complex characters, exquisite poetic language and supremely crafted dramatic situations accessible to Jamaican students".
n Through research, students can "break through the barrier of the strangeness of the language of the play and explore the relationships and events, using their own cultural texts of physical and linguistic nuances and analogous situations".
Williams concluded with a reminder to the teacher/directors that their task is essentially educational and that the process is as important as the product. In rehearsals, Williams said, "Students will discover new ways of seeing their world and, in the process of using their bodies, emotions and movement in space, they will find new ways of knowing. It is part of an ongoing process of self-discovery."
The plays to be performed in the competition are The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Elimination rounds will be held at the School of Drama from July 1-4 and the top six schools will advance to finals in September at The Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue.
Productions will be adjudicated on interpretation (demonstration of understanding of material/themes), language and expression (use of language, clarity, diction), visual impact (set design, props, costume, make-up) and staging (use of stage, performance energy, style, use of music).
Group awards will be given for Best Interpretation of Drama, Best Costume Design and Best Set Design. Individual awards will be given for Best Director, Most Outstanding Actor and Most Outstanding Actress.
The main prize is a trip to the United Kingdom and the winning cast will perform at schools in London, Birmingham and Manchester. They will go to Stratford-upon Avon in Warwickshire (Shakespeare's birthplace) and London's Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were originally staged. That cast will also perform with students from around the world in the 2016 International Shakespeare Festival.
The Jamaican championship was conceived and is being piloted by Dr Tony Sewell, under the auspices of the British charity Generating Genius, which he heads.