The ruins of a great house
Arts on Sunday
June 13, 2004
Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House whose mothlike girls are mixed with candle dust, remain to file the lizard's dragonish claws
Derek Walcott Ruins of a Great House
This is a distress signal.
In his poem Ruins of A Great House, Derek Walcott's persona stands looking at the fractured remains of a plantation great house recalling the past grandeur of the age in which the plantations, their aristocracy and their architecture flourished. He finds himself able to admire this past glory, the achievement and what he could regard as the greatness of the fallen empire despite his knowledge that it was built on slavery, genocide and debauchery. What comes over above all in the poem is Walcott's acknowledgement that he is gazing at the decay that has overcome an institution that was once powerful. Although he should be angry because of its guilt, he cannot help viewing it with a sense of tragedy. He feels he ought to be angry, but
All in compassion ends
Quite differently from what the heart arranged.
Pass by the corner of Cowan and Parade Streets in the famous ward of Kingston in the north-western quarter of Georgetown and you might suffer a similar sense of tragedy, of regret and even of anger when you behold the ruins of the once great Theatre Guild Playhouse. Quite likely you will be overcome by a pall of profound sadness.
The historic building is in ruins. Sheets have fallen off the roof, the walls are peeling and there are holes everywhere. The yard is overgrown, the premises unkempt and the whole compound looks fit for habitation only by the ghosts of its past glory. The knowledge that it is quite likely to be allowed to fall to pieces, sink finally into total disuse and join other relics of the past is a source of anger. Efforts to raise the requisite funds and to secure grants have obviously failed, but why was the necessary routine maintenance not kept up over the years with such funds as they did manage to raise?
But what is at stake here? The Theatre Guild of Guyana is an institution that has done the state some service. It has been the major contributor to the development of contemporary Guyanese theatre because of the serious foundation work done in the 1960s. It was extremely prolific during that time and over a period of more than 30 years. It was the closest thing to a school of drama that Guyana has ever had outside of the drama programme at the University of Guyana, whose studentship was limited. It has been responsible for the development of most of the country's foremost theatre practitioners and has made a similar contribution to theatre in the wider Caribbean.
Despite the work of a few determined persons, including some members of the present managing committee, the strength, capacity and productivity of the Guild declined almost to nothing and at the moment it no longer has the ability to make that kind of contribution. But what makes its rescue such an urgent necessity is that it is collapsing with no other institution in place or in waiting to replace it or to do half of what it has done.
What is at stake is the health of theatre in Guyana and any real chance of improving it. In spite of its present state of inactivity, the Theatre Guild of Guyana Ltd, an amateur non-profit non-governmental organization, is still the only real formal specialized infrastructure for dramatic theatre in the country, threadbare as it is.
If it is allowed to collapse, nowhere else, outside of what is possible at UG, is sufficiently well placed to continue its work. The National Cultural Centre is another important part of the national infrastructure, but it is not equipped to perform the developmental function of training and education provided by the Guild of the past. The NCC was not designed to do it, has no personnel for that purpose, and furthermore, is commercially driven. The fall of the Guild will help to kill off any viable, worthwhile amateur theatre with a potential for structured developmental training.
What is at stake is some kind of insurance that there is present in Guyana, a place where artistic work has a home; an auditorium where top-class amateur theatre can be performed; and an institution with the potential for public education in drama. The likelihood of an improvement in the quality of drama in Guyana is very much at stake.
How is this so? Several actors, writers and other practitioners have received valuable experience by participating in plays at the Cultural Centre. This has provided them with a very small amount of training on the job. It has given them a basic competence, but not with any of the technical knowledge or any depth of understanding of the subject area. Many writers of plays have emerged who still know nothing of drama and are therefore limited in what they are able to write. A production at the NCC has no time for teaching anybody anything; no space for trials and artistic experimentation because it has to worry about not suffering losses at the box office. This has to be done within a different kind of organization. As long as there is no school of drama in Guyana, an institution with the potential of the Theatre Guild is needed.
Training at the University of Guyana played a part. Unfortunately, practically everyone who received that training has gone to work overseas and has not been replaced.
Then, unless it establishes an extra-mural programme in theatre and gets the staff to run it, it cannot provide the kind of public training that the Guild used to afford because it was limited to registered university students and special students with the qualifications for entry. The Guild catered for a much larger and wider clientele, and in its better days was more effective even though it could not offer the academic curriculum of a university.
However, as a small amateur establishment, the Guild's past record is exceptional. During its long prolific run, it produced several plays, Guyanese, Caribbean and international, exposing local audiences to the drama of the world.
For a long time, most of its plays were foreign, but during the same period, it was the primary contributor to the development of Guyanese drama. It enhanced the important Guyana Sugar Estates drama festival which led to the Guysuco Head Office Drama Group. It took over and provided leadership and a venue for the work of other older drama groups in Georgetown.
Out of the Guild's activities some of the most important local playwrights emerged, such as Frank Pilgrim, Sheik Sadeek and Francis Quamina Farrier. Pilgrim wrote Miriamy, one of the leading comedies in the Caribbean, and was instrumental in creating the satirical revue series, The Brink, forerunner of the ever popular Link Show.
Its informal training produced some of Guyana's best known actors, directors and designers, many of whom went on to become leading personalities in other parts of the Caribbean. Henry Mootoo, Ken Corsbie, Clairmonte Taitt, Wilbert Holder, Michael Gilkes, Robert Narain and Eugene Williams are numbered among those. Two of them, Mootoo and Williams, went on to become directors at the Jamaica School of Drama. In a more formal way, the Guild ensured that a few of its 'graduates' received formal training overseas with the intention that they would return to continue the training and development at home.
Of these scholarship awardees, Narain, who went to England, did, while Williams, who went to Jamaica, did not; but from his position at the School of Drama, he contributed to the training of several Caribbean students.
Two others, Lennox Foster (New Castle and UG) and John Rollins (USA), trained overseas through their own efforts, but returned to lead the Guild, while Rollins went on to lead the Drama programme at UG.
In addition, the vast majority of those who were at the forefront of the formation of commercial theatre at the Cultural Centre, including Ron Robinson, Gem Madhoo and Ian Valz, Desmond Clarke and Margaret Lawrence, served their apprenticeship at the Guild. Several others who became the leading actors throughout the existence of the NCC, causing the popular theatre to thrive, first set foot on stage in the same Playhouse that is now in grave danger.
The efforts made to save it by members of the Playhouse management team, including Desmond Clarke (who has since returned to the USA), Ulita Anthony, Daphne Rogers, Patricia Liverpool and Eze Luke, are unfinished and were clearly not enough.
Recent investigations revealed that Minister of Culture Gail Teixiera, who had approved an annual subvention to the Guild, most recently asked for a retreat involving the executive and other experts such as former Theatre Guild Chairman Frank Thomasson, to examine new strategies for resuscitation and productivity. It is not clear what came out of that.
What is now obvious is that immediate action is needed to prevent the final curtain from falling, taking the whole establishment with it.
Very able and influential intervention seems necessary, bringing with it an injection of funding. The once famous Theatre Guild of Guyana Ltd should not be left to bow out on its final curtain call. That would be a modern tragedy.
This is therefore a signal of distress. It demands the performance of an effective act to prevent the closure of the show after such a successful run.