What's happening on the theatrical front in Guyana?

Arts On Sunday
With Al Creighton
Stabroek News
July 15, 2001

Dear Arts Editor,

In my desperation to keep abreast with what's happening on the arts scene in Guyana - especially on the theatrical front, I would log onto Stabroek News online to read Al Creighton or Alim Hosein. At first there were a quite a few reviews on play billings at the National Cultural Centre and the Theatre Guild. Recently, however, there seems to be a dramatic falling off judging from the fact that for the longest while I have not come across any reviews of new dramatic productions.

What are the facts on the above score? Is it that Al has been out and has been missing the most recent new plays? I have been speaking to my good friend Ronald Hollingsworth over in Texas about this. It couldn't be because there are so many of us (who could have been called the prolific local producers in the most popular sense) over here that local theatre seems to be faltering. I know for a fact that there are lots of very capable playwright/dramatists back home. Off of my head I can name regulars like Paloma Mohammed, Michael Duff, Vivian Williams and Brian Thornton.

The National Cultural Centre

Ronald had told me that he read an article written by one of our at-home playwrights who was lamenting that local theatre was being marginalized - whatever that meant. Of course I doubted this. For me, the presentation of plays had always been a transaction between the playwright and the local audience, and to hell with the critic. I do not believe theatre can be truly marginalized once there exists just one serious playwright who dares to make creative statements on ever-present and overwhelming social and

economic issues that affect the Guyanese society today. When I began in theatre I could have cried that I was being marginalized, not wanted by the elite of the so-called established theatre of that period. But what was my recourse? I ignored those who didn't care for the likes of my work or believed in my conviction and continued writing, producing, directing. Bottom line is I knew the people would care and went directly to them with my offering. Forgive the cliche, but, the rest is history.

That I have not been picking up much as far as new plays are concerned probably only means that a lot of it has been in a process of deep gestation, and the sound that has been nagging me all the way over here is not the strains of a dirge from the vicinity of the National Cultural Centre or the Theatre Guild, but the muted, teeth-clenched screaming of a new theatrical birthing destined to keep Al Creighton on his review game for years to come.

Yours faithfully,
Harold A. Bascom

The Arts Editor replies:

Dear Mr Bascom,

The Stabroek Arts on Sunday theatre critic was out of the country for a prolonged period earlier this year and might have missed a production; but still, there was very little theatrical activity in Guyana during his long absence. Since the beginning of 2001 there have only been three real major productions of plays - The Link Show, one new play in Awe Society (The Mango Tree by Ken Danns) and one re-run of a Michael Duff play, Crabs in A Barrel, first staged in 1999. As Mr Bascom suggests, local theatre is faltering. In 2000 there were only about 9 major plays performed at the National Cultural Centre (NCC), a drastic reduction from a peak of more than 20 which was the norm for a 12-month period in previous years.

Since his return to Guyana, the critic has seen two plays. Perhaps his silence has to do with the problem that he has found in them, nothing new to say. There is a strong minority opinion that valuable space should not be wasted reviewing unworthy material which is only symptomatic of a larger malaise. But perhaps we owe it to those dramatists who have the courage and determination to persist, and to those members of the public who want to know, to notice these plays and that will be remedied. Ironically, at least one local playwright has accused the critic of killing theatre in Guyana through harsh, negative and discouraging criticism. But most other local dramatists, like Mr Bascom, have not been discouraged by the critic whom they, too, have condemned to the inferno. There are more important reasons for this significant fall-off in production.

First, recent emigration from Guyana has included some of the better prolific dramatists. Bascom himself who, with two Guyana Prizes, is among the very best, left for the USA in 1996. He was largely responsible for the immense popularity that developed in local plays since the late 1980s. He was followed by Ronald Hollingsworth who left in 1999 and Paloma Mohamed at the end of 2000.

Secondly, there has been a drastic drop in audiences at the NCC and this has no doubt discouraged production. The newness of entertaining dramatizations of local, familiar, identifiable situations, issues and characters that appealed to mass audiences has long since worn off. Many became disaffected with the sameness and the indifferent quality in several of the plays and there have been increases in ticket prices. Other interests began to compete for audience attention, including American cable television which is free in Guyana.

However, what must have been regarded as 'the most unkindest cut of all' by local producers was the attitude at the Cultural Centre which changed management in 1999. Producers and actors staged a protest in 2000 against the imposition of a number of new and increased fees for use of the theatre. They complained about continuing deterioration in sound and lighting, quality of service and further reductions in the already inadequate technical rehearsal time, the virtual abolition of full dress rehearsals and a discordant management style.

The new fee structure created hardships and contributed to box office losses for most productions. Only the Link Show gets full houses these days and many actors, producers and writers seem to have been driven out of work. We have already commented on these developments. The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Culture has defended the theatre charges, pleading high operational costs. But when one adds these and a steep advertising bill to the other payments, the cost of producing a play has become practically prohibitive.

It is not a bad thing if writers, directors, actors and other practitioners feel that they can earn income from theatre. A climate in which this can happen has been largely responsible for development in many countries where the theatre is a success. Rather than demanding that the producers meet the costs of running the NCC, the Ministry should be prepared to subsidize theatre at this time when it badly needs financing to get on its feet. It is well known that Minister Gail Teixeira, who has a personal interest in the arts, has been very dissatisfied with the quality of plays. She feels that bad work should not be entertained at the NCC. One can therefore understand that persuading her to fund what she considers unworthy might be a task to rival the labours of Hercules. But the current hardships are driving away not only the worst of the lot, but also those who are good enough to benefit from the assistance. In the meantime it appears that a recently lively local theatre is on the pyre, not about to be reborn like the Phoenix as Mr Bascom hopes, but in grave danger of dwindling to ash.