A new storm is brewing at the NCC Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
Stabroek News
February 2, 2003

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The state of Guyanese theatre has again become a topical issue in the midst of a new storm brewing over the increased payments for use of the National Cultural Centre (NCC). The problem has assumed really serious proportions as may be revealed in the following statistics. In the year 2002 there were only three full-length plays performed at the Cultural Centre and only six dramatic productions of any kind including the annual satirical revue, Link Show, the annual Awe Society and a production by the organisation against AIDS, Artists in Direct Support. Dance theatre continued with the usual seasons of the National Dance Company and School, Nrityageet and Naya Zamana. There were also the Woodside Choir in concert and Young Musicians on Stage as well as a severely reduced number of the regular musical varieties including the very popular Tribute to Mothers. For the most part, the NCC thrived on beauty pageants and church productions. As always, the churches had several services there in addition to productions which used to be highly theatrical, Gospel Touchdown being among the few notable survivors of this type.

The marked downfall in drama is shocking. During 2001, the production of dramatic plays was carried mainly on the shoulders of rank newcomers Fitzroy and Jianna Tyrrell, who first appeared as playwrights, directors and producers in 2000. That by 2002 they were up there on par with the established companies, behaving like veterans themselves, is a very significant statement. They were joined by a re-run of a Michael Duff play and a one-man show produced by G.E.M.S. theatre company to add to the usual Link Show and Awe Society.

In 2002, for new plays, it was entirely Tyrrell. Fitzroy, who has had a long career as an actor, directed his first play in 2000 and recently turned to writing, produced his Is We Big People in 2002. G.E.M.S. revived Old King Creole, a children's Christmas production and the Guyana Teachers' Union staged Rhone's School's Out. That made up the grand total of three plays at the NCC with only one that was new. Ken Danns, however, always includes a play in Awe Society. Also in 2002, theatre made use of alternative venues, notably the 'dessert theatre' performance of Women, Places, Pieces at the Cara Inn, and the Korokwa folk group's Ole People Say at the unconventional Kirkpatrick establishment better known for catering.

With the dawning of the Year of the Sheep, 2003, there is promise of no better. It appears that even fewer plays will see the light of day anywhere and perhaps none at the Cultural Centre. One factor is the departure of quite a few of the writers/directors/producers and very little activity from those who remain. The only thing expected to be really dramatic is the further plunge in the number of plays. The trend over the past five years has already been especially dramatic. From a regular average in excess of 20 in recent years, productivity sank to 9 in one year at the turn of the century and the beginning of the new millennium to 3 in 2002. In the 1990s the treading of the boards in Guyana rose to a pitch that was far busier than thespian activity in both Trinidad and Barbados. But then came the dramatic fall-off in audiences, the new wave of violence and the greater reign of terror imposed by crime, bringing further real threats to audienceship.

According to strong hints coming from the Theatre Company, the most popular stage tradition in Guyana has fallen under this new threat. There might be no Link Show this year. Ron Robinson cited the current wave of violent crime and the accompanying mood of the times as causes of severe discomfort. His team hesitates to satirize this terrifying state of affairs through their normal strategies of laughter. In addition, there is the possibility of audiences staying away, particularly since the show's marked popularity could make it a target, according to Robinson.

The producers' revolt
But there is a stronger reason than that. The show might not make it to the stage because of the renewed feud with the National Cultural Centre. Both the Theatre Company and the Tyrrells are again unwilling to return to the NCC. Fitzroy Tyrrell is now arranging to stage his new play in a dinner theatre affair at the Georgetown Club. This is because the producers are at this moment involved in meetings called to discuss their dissatisfaction with the Cultural Centre and the new charges for its use. A little more than a year ago, there was a similar stand-off because of many problems with the Cultural Centre manageress and the poor quality of what was offered there. Now there is a new manager with whom there is no dissatisfaction, but the uproar is over the increased costs imposed for rental and other charges.

A recent letter by Mr Tyrrell (Sunday Stabroek 12.01.03) points out that producers are opposing the unpopular surcharge through which the NCC takes 20% of their gross ticket sales. The quarrel is that this deduction from their gross proceeds is "the most unkindest cut of all" after all the other charges that they now have to pay. They first have to pay a rental of $40,000 per night; then there is a deposit of $5,000 and extra charges for ushers, use of the bars, painting of the billboard, printing of tickets, construction of set and materials, for videotaping the show, and $1,000 for each security guard.

These amount to total payment to the NCC of over $80,000 per night for the theatre (the 'small theatre' or 'recital hall' costs less). Then, after that, the institution takes 20% of their gross takings despite the fact that production expenses run to over $300,000. This wipes away their profits and when they have a poor house, leaves them with severe losses. It is a disincentive for production. Mr Robinson recalls that previously there was a 'buffer' because the surcharge used to be imposed only on tickets above a fixed minimum price. At today's equivalent, this should be $500, so that the 20% should be paid only on each ticket priced above $500. With the removal of this 'buffer,' there is no encouragement for offering special low ticket prices such as for schools' performances where ticket prices need to be kept low to suit schoolchildren. The producers ask what are they paying for since they will have already paid for all the facilities in the theatre in addition to the rental.

The Cultural Centre management's case
The Cultural Centre manager argues that other venues charge more than $40,000; the theatre has very high operational costs for staff, maintenance, lights, air-conditioning and other equipment and facilities; producers are not asked to pay the economic costs of running the Centre; there is already a high government subsidy; producers pay only a small percentage of real costs and the institution receives only a minute portion of its budget from rentals.

The producers, on their part, dispute some of the figures quoted by the manager, Mr Saul, and say they have yet another grievance. They have a problem with the way the dress code is enforced.

It is felt that the letter of the code is taken literally to a ridiculous degree. More attention should be paid to neatness and the elegance that is always a part of some casual wear. For example, while the code outlaws denim, there are many styles in high fashion that include denim, and while there is a ban on three-quarter pants, some traditional formal wear includes this garment. Many very well-dressed patrons are therefore turned away. (To be continued)

A new storm is brewing at the NCC
(Part 2)

There are many dimensions to this dispute, including the role carved out for the National Cultural Centre. Has it fulfilled its mandate to Guyanese culture? Certainly, since it came into common use, there has been a remarkable rise in theatrical activity in Guyana. There have been increases in audienceship and the positive popularisation of theatre among a population previously focused on the cinema and other forms of entertainment. The NCC has created a popular, rather than an exclusive place to go for the larger population rather than for the elite of social class. It has overseen the rapid development of commercial theatre in Guyana. This has included the formation of a corps of experienced actors, directors and other practitioners now versed in aspects of theatrical production. Through these developments, the Centre has helped to make theatre a part of national activity.

What is extremely important, however, is that it has not presided over any honing and encouragement of good quality theatre.

That is another issue beyond the scope of this discussion, except to say that even with the generation of the great volume of bad work, there are still advantages to be extracted from what has developed.

That apart, the wave of popular support for the theatre, like most other ephemeral phenomena, has drastically subsided. There is now a decline in theatrical activity and audienceship leaving many box office failures. All drama is now under threat, including the existence of a corps of actors and practitioners.

While there is a justifiable quarrel with mediocrity, the commercial theatre must be left to continue as has been the case in Jamaica. The market, not any official intervention, must be allowed to eliminate the truly bad work. It is indeed a good thing if an industry exists in which writers, actors, directors and other practitioners can earn an income, whether on a full-time or part-time basis. The absence of this opportunity is one of the reasons for the exile of so many writers and persons who wish to take theatre seriously.

The problem of good quality
Yet, there is a role for the official establishment. The country needs to invest in an infrastructure for theatrical development. Allow the theatre people to earn money while ensuring serious development by sustaining subsidies around this infrastructure which must include a properly maintained National Cultural Centre.

Producers should not be expected to meet the economic costs of running it. What the country is facing now is the likelihood of no financial returns for producers/practitioners and no theatre as a result.

Although it is not the intention to thrash out the problem of quality in this intervention, there are ways in which it can be addressed by the official authorities. A culture of good theatre has to begin with education and the place where it may be grounded into a sizeable proportion of the population in a painless way. Put greater and more serious emphasis on the teaching and studying of literature in secondary schools. Do the same for drama and the appreciation of the arts. Introduce music, dance and the fine arts in all the curricula. Attitudes to these subjects must change on the part of parents and the community as well as on the part of government so that literature is taken as seriously as chemistry.

The creation of the Unit of Allied Arts was a move in the right direction. This unit must now be provided with trained personnel and put into effect. Assist in the rebuilding of the Theatre Guild as much as possible since it has a role in training.

Improve the Inter-Schools Drama Festival and do whatever is necessary to get all the leading secondary schools to send their senior students to participate. The Children’s Mashramani dramatic poetry and dance competitions are also very valuable avenues, although at the moment they are very poorly organized. Teachers of drama, dance and music should also be trained.

But what is to be done right now about the producers’ flight from the NCC? they are asking for a meeting with the Minister of Culture, and that should by all means be granted. The Minister is without doubt aware of some of the measures necessary in the schools as she has already expressed an interest in them. She has also complained about the quality of plays at the Cultural Centre, and even went as far as to set up a ‘reading committee’ to vet poor quality plays. It was not a good idea and, thankfully, seems to have fallen into deserved disuse.

The producers have their own proposals to make including their willingness to pay a flat rental of up to $100,000-$120,000 per night for the theatre. They, of course, want the removal of the 20% surcharge. There is also a useful alternative: if there has to be a surcharge, it could either be applied to tickets above a fixed price, as in the case of the ‘buffer’, or it could be imposed not on the gross income, but on the net, after the deduction of costs. The producers also want another look to be taken at the way the dress code is enforced.

The Minister should meet with the practitioners. This threatened revolt can be a productive impetus for creative programmes to keep the theatre alive in Guyana.

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