Dark clouds are gathering over theatre
Arts On Sunday With Al Creighton
January 7, 2000
During the year 2000 the dark clouds of gloom thickened over the theatre in Guyana. Although the atmosphere was already quite bleak, this gathering occlusion signalled a further threat to not only the hoped for improvement of quality but to the continuance of the theatre itself. This did not come from any further plunge in the standards, but, ironically, from the state of an institution whose function is to provide for, nurture and advance theatrical production.
The year ended with problems at the National Cultural Centre. For a long time there were difficulties concerning the physical plant, the capacity and quality of lighting, sound, rehearsal time, space and other facilities.
But compounding these, was a protest by producers and actors who use the centre and who issued a release itemizing their grievances. They listed some 14 serious concerns about the management, attitudes, and what they regard as unreasonable and high-handed impositions and restrictions at the nation's leading performance venue.
These included the usual complaints about maintenance and facilities, despite the fact that a new generator was installed and commissioned and there was upgrading of sound and light provided by a multi-million dollar vote through the Ministry of Culture. The facilities are, nevertheless, still ailing and the local theatre practitioners cited arbitrary and unjustified increases in rentals as well as the imposition of additional fees and charges atop the demand of 25 per cent of the gross takings for each show. They claimed that in spite of the increases, there was drastic reduction of technical rehearsal time. These, and serious difficulties with the management, they say, are driving producers away from the NCC and making it impossible for producers to even recover their costs.
Indeed, already there was a notable problem since audiences continued to fall off in 2000.
There were small and discouraging houses for most plays and disappointing box office losses for producers. The number of plays staged amounted to no more than nine, a significant drop from a previous annual average which was in excess of 20 in the very recent past. This must be a signal that something is wrong. It might be a warning that the audience has grown tired of the kind of offerings, or that other new interests are competing with the theatre, but on the whole, it cannot be a welcome development even for those who have been complaining about the general quality. While they might have lost interest in the offerings, it is certainly not a good thing that there seems to be a general falling away of theatre in Guyana.
On the one hand, the market forces have been coming into play, audience demand or rejection has been contributing to the elimination of trash; the poor houses at some performances indicate that the process of natural selection continues and the principle of the survival of the fittest is in operation.
But these are also ominous signs of the inability of producers to meet the increasing costs of production and the inability of the Cultural Centre to provide for them.
As for the actual dramatic selections staged, the tradition of re-runs continued in that many plays previously mounted are brought back. Normally in the theatre this is a good thing, but in 2000 in Guyana, it was not supported by audience demand. This has been the economic principle which keeps productions running for several years at a time on Broadway and the London West End as well as in Kingston, Jamaica, the only place in the Caribbean where these long runs happen.
Another reason for re-runs is the intention of the artist to re-work and improve the play.
This might not have been the Theatre Company's motivation for bringing back the English farce It Runs in the Family since it was re-staged for charity, but the 2000 version was a decidedly better production.
Among the year's plays, it was outstanding with a much more satisfactory understanding of the theatrical type style by director Andre Sobryan and cast, much more competent management and memorable performances by Ron Robinson and Gordon Marshall in particular. Yet, not even the charitable cause could fill the seats in the auditorium.
Since the It Runs in the Family repeat was very good, it suggests that excellence alone is not the criterion for audience support and that other factors are killing the theatre in Guyana.
Still in the tradition, Ken Danns chose to repeat two one-act plays as the main focus in Awe Society for 2000. The Village Ram, a robust, spirited drama, was brought back without any amendment to the script. Yet it had its flaws including the absence of a properly handled message and a mismatch of realism with attempted surrealistic styles.
The other Danns repeat, The Fair Picker, was a more serious work in which there was a more effective statement, some stylistic stagecraft that did not jar and reasonable work from Desiree Edghill. But it still contained some prosaic platitudes from an intrusive author and there was no necessary reworking of the script.
There were very few new works of note by the regular playwrights and these included Michael Duff's latest, Country Girl with a creditable lead performance by newcomer Judy Fitzpatrick. It was the usual story of a work that betrayed hints of the playwright's talent but a larger pandering to popular appeal, no doubt coming from the survival instinct which remained necessary for the local dramatist to secure some revenue. Still, the play contained some relevant commentary on the survival and existence of elements of the African ethos, including some social and family customs, in Guyana. This recommended the play even if the dramatist himself, laughs at them for the sake of cheap jokes, popular tastes and box office inducement. The other regular dramatist with a new work was Vivian Williams who continued his inclination to leap at the opportunity to make hay with a hot topical issue. But it was too tepid and the sun did not shine. It was flat and undramatic, made no impact and again exhibited the playwright's inability to make art out of a contemporary news item. It was a mere tame recounting of events which were still fresh in the memory of the audience and did not generate sufficient dramatic interest. Williams made no artistic statement and the play had no effect on the ongoing local issue of the burning migration push, the continuing visa rackets and the sensational exposure of corruption and collusion from identified persons inside the US consular system. Despite these impediments, there was a creditable effort from Kim Lucas as the lead with supporting moments from John Phillips, Rajin Tiwari and Sonia Yarde.
There was only one new playwright and, as it happened, a promising one. Jianna Tyrrell produced Forgive Me, Lord, For I Have Sinned directed by actor Fitzroy Tyrrell. It displayed a good idea of plot complication, dramatic irony and the use of a supporting sub-plot. There was competent handling of cause and effect in the behaviour of characters coupled with entertaining audience appeal.
But while a didactic theme was well managed in this first effort by Dr Tyrrell, the common weakness in the communication of message surfaced in the sequel.
The second play which sought to continue the story of a corrupt lawyer destroyed by his greed, was less successful as a script. It attempted merely to show a human reality and succeeded in making no artistic statement. But the year has produced a new dramatist who deserves to be encouraged.
Another good sign came from the experienced establishment. As if it had not happened before, the strength of the Theatre Company's Link Show directed by Ron Robinson and managed by Gem Madhoo, was exhibited in 2000. It demonstrated its growth to a now settled, professional unit with form, with an established tradition and with an audience. It was almost singular in the attainment of outstanding box office success, suggesting that the principle of natural selection is working. But while the Link Show is now a firm Guyanese theatrical tradition, it should realize that its status as the most popular dramatic event gives it the weight of responsibility. It cannot be fully effective as satire if it is partisan. It will not eradicate divisionism and prejudice from the society if it practices and entrenches popular partisan political prejudices itself. But while the Link takes its place as one of the few remaining satirical revues in Caribbean theatre, another production gave an idea of other directions being taken by the contemporary theatre. There was a visiting production from Canada brought in by Leon Saul who was one of those who helped to build the National Cultural Centre as a popular venue for theatre at a time when it was hardly in use. But the play, Two for Two, was a reflection of a somewhat reduced state of Caribbean theatre. It demonstrated the ascendancy of slapstick farce and the raciness of the dance hall roots theatre. There have been complaints about the displacement of more serious drama by this variety in other parts of the region. But is it just another signal of the fittest surviving? Clearly the emphasis on laughter and entertainment which appeals to the audience typifies the theatre of the present.
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