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For the Reckord - Women continue to move up in theatre

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
From left: Dawn Bennett, Pauline Stone-Myrie, Carolyn Allen, and Terri Salmon share a hug at The Pantry Playhouse last weekend. - Contributed-

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

"You've come a long way, baby."

That famous slogan congratulating women for choosing a certain brand of cigarette is being used here to congratulate certain Jamaican women for a far more worthy achievement.

In Elizabethan England, though Queen Elizabeth 1 was on the throne for decades, nevertheless, ironically, women were prohibited from acting on stage, and, apparently, from having any other major input in theatre.

Jump forward to Jamaica in 1941, when a woman, Greta Bourke (later Fowler), co-founded the Little Theatre Movement (LTM), the most enduring of our theatre producers. Now chaired by another woman, Honourable Barbara Gloudon - who long ago became our most prolific playwright - the LTM is still going strong at 72.

The latest of Mrs Gloudon's pantomimes, Skoolaz, is now on at Little Theatre, and several other women contributed to theatre in important ways other than as actresses last year. In no special order, this article looks at those contributions.

The grande dame of Jamaican theatre, Leonie Forbes, produced (along with writer Mervyn Morris) an autobiography. In an easy, conversational tone, it whisks us through her decades-long theatre career which has taken her to several countries. The mere list of her work in drama - for stage, radio, television and film - runs for several pages.

The versatile Dahlia Harris is now a playwright, producer and director as well as the actress she started off as a few years ago. Last year, she produced, directed and acted in her third play, God's Way: Carlton's Redemption (after writing and producing Judgement and God's Way in 2010 and 2011, respectively).

But not satisfied with all that work, she also directed Aston Cooke's revue Jamaica 50 2 Rahtid.

Actress and producer Dawn Bennett, founder of Eagles Christian Theatre Company, revived Jamaica Alive, a 15-year-old (approximately) musical, which she retrieved from her large repertoire of productions over the last 25 years or so. Bennett said she made no money on the production, which was staged for only one night at St Andrew High School in November, but she plans to remount a sanitised version of it (without the disturbing slavery scenes) in hotels.

Talented comedienne Andrea 'Delcita Coldwater' Wright, who had tens of thousands of people continually cracking up with laughter during the many years she was with Stages Productions, last year separated from that high-flying production house. She is currently acting in the Big Stage Entertainment production of Paul O. Beale's Court House Drama, which she also directed.

Pauline Stone-Myrie, best known as an actress, took another plunge as a co-producer (along with Marjorie Whylie) with a revival of Gloria Lannaman's classic play Stanley, Fay, Pularchie and P.

Arguably the best production of 2012, it nevertheless failed to draw the audiences that inferior productions garnered.

Stone-Myrie estimates that she lost between $2.5 and $3 million on the production. She gave me a rough breakdown of some of her production costs.

Nightly expenses for the show — $60,000; newspaper ads —$50,000 weekly; television ads — $100,000. The total production tab between June and August while the show was running was approximately $4 million.

"I wanted to sell it not as a laugh-a-minute comedy, but as a piece of Jamaican history," she said of the drama which has as its central theme, the labour unrest of 1938. She admitted that she may have made a mistake in her marketing strategy, but artistically she is proud of the production.

Another actress-turned-producer was Terri Salmon, who launched her production house, Goddess Theatre, with Trevor Rhone's Two Can Play. She and the director Carolyn Allen selected the play, a wise choice, as the excellent script has only two characters.

The production, now running at The Pantry Playhouse, marks Allen's first venture into commercial directing, though she has been directing within educational institutions, mainly the University of the West Indies, for about six years.

Asked about the new venture, Allen confessed to feeling more comfortable directing students.

The last set of students she directed were School of Drama students in Bellywoman Bangarang staged last October at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Originally created by Sistren Theatre Collective through improvisations based on their own experiences and first staged in 1978, it was, states Allen, "in some ways shocking for the audience then. Sex and childbirth, menstruation and rape were not topics for public discussion."

Not surprisingly, since the adult women in Sistren were telling their own stories, their portrayals were convincing - and this even though the gritty drama was their first production.

"How would the much younger first and second-year School of Drama students, who lacked the life experiences of the original creator/performers, handle the roles?" was a question that faced Allen when she began rehearsals back in September. It turned out they handled it well.

That was the consensus among the School of Drama staff and the public, and Allen said that one major reason for this was that the all-female cast members were able to identify with the characters.

None of them had been pregnant but they all knew someone close who had been; the language of the play was Patois, which all the actresses spoke, the relationships of the characters -who, in Allen's production - lived in a big yard, were familiar ones; and the stories were real and recognisable.

In addition, Allen employed an unusual strategy: she invited the actresses to lunch once a week. That helped them to bond with each other, she said.

It also probably helped them to bond with Allen, who told me that the cast was the easiest she had ever worked with.

"I had no disciplinary problems, not even with punctuality," she said.

Directors (and teachers), who do have those challenges, should take note.