Big award for Small
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Tomorrow evening, Jean Small will walk onstage at the 20th Actor Boy Awards to accept her due honour for 50 years' work in theatre. The presentation at the Courtleigh Auditorium, New Kingston, will unfold predictably - introduction, applause, a citation, applause, a reply, more applause.
But very little about Small's half a century in theatre has progressed according to a script. When The Sunday Gleaner spoke to her last Thursday, she had just finished a rehearsal of Sidonie, the UWI, Mona, entry in this year's Inter-Campus Foreign Language Theatre Festival. Small has been directing the Mona entry for 10 years and said, "I like to do something they are studying. They understand the character and they become better".
Then she leaned forward and said intently: "I am using theatre as a vehicle for internalising the message, because I think theatre penetrates. And we have to find ways to show it onstage so the message becomes very clear. And when they see it themselves, it's the best way of studying the text. That is what I believe. That is what I am promoting."
"I don't do the popular theatre. I do the symbolic thing," she added.
And she is very clear about becoming a character. "When I become a character, I have to go back in time to understand the whole character's life, the past. Maybe I am understanding myself also through another character," she said. Small added that if you are a "serious actor", then you have to
study your own body language to see what you can use to portray a character. "Even your external experiences," she said. So if an actor is doing a part in which the character experiences betrayal, "you may have experienced betrayal in another way and you have to transfer that".
"When I did Hot Flashes (for which she received an Actor Boy Award), John Maxwell from CARIMAC called and said there is a woman who lives near to me. I know you do not know her, but you are exactly her. I felt pleased. It meant I had come out of myself."
The Sunday Gleaner asked if it is possible for someone doing four or five productions a year to take that approach and Small pauses. Then she said, "If you are doing nothing else". And laughed. "It depends on how you manage your time. And not only chronological time, but emotional time."
Directing the French plays with the students is also the clasping of the necklace of UWI involvement for Small; she was in the first full-length French play staged on the campus, Antigone, and told The Sunday Gleaner that when she came on campus in 1954 "I immediately joined the drama society". She ended up in the presence of persons such as Slade Hopkinson, Errol Hill, Derek Walcott, Hugh Wynter and Ancil Gloudon. "I call it the golden age of theatre," Small said.
She was not a stranger to the stage, though, having done major productions and French plays from "school days. I have pictures of myself in French folk tales. I did French folk tales with the students here two years ago. I did some of the plays I did in school."
"I think I found from an early age it was something I could do, liked to do and wanted to do," Small said of theatre. After her first degree at UWI, though, theatre took a back seat ("marriage and theatre don't go too well") and it was not until 1977, when Lloyd Reckord asked Small to perform in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, she returned. Dennis Scott was in the audience and asked Small if she wanted to teach at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. That was the start of 11 years there. There was also 20 years teaching French at Immaculate Conception High. "I have always been an educator. I have done nothing but teach," she said.
Small returned to her land of birth, Guyana, to teach at the University of Guyana and remounted For Coloured Girls "with six fabulous women I discovered in Guyana. It was put up for six awards and I got the award for Best Director". But she was also locked out of the theatre circle for her troubles, so Small developed a one-woman show. "I performed it at an art gallery. I had my fans," she said, adding that she also did the diplomatic circuit.
"It is very powerful. It is you alone onstage. You have to command the audience and you have to play several roles. It really stretches you. I love the power of taking command of the space and taking command of the audience," she said. Plus, "I rehearse myself when I am ready to rehearse."
It is also at UWI that Small started directing, debuting in 1984. As a director, she said "the satisfaction is seeing a concept you have realised". She notes that being directed in Hot Flashes was very difficult, as "I was used to directing myself and being alone".
"I spoilt myself working alone," she said.
Small has just finished her PhD thesis, Creativity and the use of Theatre Techniques and said "I am at a nice time in my life, when my theatre blends with my teaching and my writing. It is a happy harmony".
The Sunday Gleaner asked Jean Small who are some of those she will thank tomorrow night.
"I would have to give thanks to the students. I learn so much working with my students. Slade Hopkinson and the people in the early days. I have to thank the International Theatre Institute for recognising me, because I am not onstage É I am not as visible as other people have been visible. But it means there is value in good work. I teach and work with good people and they see the value in that," she said.
Big award for Small
MARCH 28, 2010
If you are a "serious actor", then you have to study your own body language to see what you can use to portray a character. Even your external experiences.
PLEASE SEE SMALL, D7