Save the Theatre Guild
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
November 26, 2006
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The Sunday Stabroek editorial of November 12, 2006 commented on 'The old New Amsterdam Hospital,' a building which is deteriorating. Lloyd Kandasammy of the University of the National Trust wrote on the history of that same building in History This Week (Stabroek News, October 12, 2006) under the title 'A brief history of Berbice architectural gems - The Old New Amsterdam Public Hospital.' Both pieces evoked a tragic sense of the possible, yet avoidable, loss of a famous building important to Guyana's heritage. They also served as reminders of another important threatened building in Georgetown. This one was not designed by the great Cesar Castellani, and cannot claim the visual majesty of any of his buildings or any special architectural magnificence at all. It will not win national heritage or National Trust protection on those grounds. But it can claim to be a house of considerable importance to the nation's cultural heritage. It has a history as proud as that of any of Castellani's edifices, and a contribution to national and regional service that will not easily be measured and may require more than another half a century to reproduce.
Information on various aspects of the history of theatre in Guyana may be found in publications by Richardson Wright, Prof Sister Mary Noel Menezes, Joel Benjamin, Jeremy Poynting, Lloyd Kandasammy and Frank Thomasson. One striking recurring factor in these histories is the deciduous nature of the epochs of vibrant theatre in colonial British Guiana. Benjamin, in particular, treats the history of the sometime famous and legendary theatres of previous centuries, underscoring this ephemeral quality with the fact that all those houses have been destroyed. What has not been accounted for by fire like the Assembly Rooms and the Theatres Royal has been undone by neglect and decay like Tipperary Hall.
The building to which I now refer is the Theatre Guild Playhouse with its two adjoining sections, the Annex and the stores. This structure still stands at the corner of Parade and Cowan Streets in Kingston, Georgetown, but it might not be doing that much longer. It has so far not been touched by fire, although given the state it is in, that remains a grim possibility. But if left to follow its present fortunes, it seems destined to follow the fate of Tipperary Hall.
The Theatre Guild is in an advanced state of disrepair and decrepitude with some of its infrastructure already atrophied or dysfunctional. Surprisingly, sporadic events are still held there, such as the recent inter-schools drama competition and a School of the Nations musical. However, the Playhouse as a building, a performance venue and as an institution has declined in its appearance, capacity and function in every way and, left as it is, will collapse. Its physical presence gone like the Assembly Rooms and Theatre Royal, the Theatre Guild of Guyana Ltd, will then fade into history to become another subject for the historical researchers. Already, the Annex, which once housed the office and the library, hardly exists as such any more and the researchers will find that the 'library,' such as it is, has gone to ruin and will be seriously challenged locating the documents of valuable archival interest it used to stock.
This is another distress signal. It is a repeat of an appeal for help for the Guild made in Arts on Sunday about two years ago; a call for another systematic effort to be made to save the theatre. Saving the theatre at this time means rescuing the buildings and resurrecting a strong capable team of management to restore it to its place in the service of Guyanese theatre. It is worth saving because its history takes us back to the middle of the twentieth century and the most important period in the development of theatre in Guyana. From the time of its founding in 1957 before the Playhouse was built in 1960, through high and low periods right up to the 1990s when it began to wane, it was the major contributor to that development.
The history of this contribution involves not only the Playhouse as a theatre auditorium and stage, but the Theatre Guild of Guyana as an institution that was incorporated years before the building was constructed. It pulled together and mobilized under one umbrella the activities of other smaller dramatic societies engaged in the production of plays. The activities soon expanded to include dance and training at both the practical and the formal levels. It was responsible for the development, training and education of actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, stage practitioners and some of the foremost Guyanese playwrights. This was achieved through workshops, productions, competitions, particularly playwriting competitions, and scholarships during its strong years in the 1960s and up to, perhaps, circa 1984. There was a brief attempt at revival led by Desmond Clarke between 1994 and 1996.
Without doubt the Guild has had a glorious past. Lloyd Searwar, Frank Thomasson, Bertie Martin and Arthur Hemstock were among the founders of what became the biggest, most powerful and most important amateur theatre movement in Guyana's history. For more than twenty years it brought major selections from the world's stage to a wider and increasing local audience, becoming gradually more popular and more indigenous following an early identity of being an ex-patriate and middle class club with an interest in foreign drama. Yet as early as the 1960s major Guyanese playwrights emerged from among its members, including Frank Pilgrim, Francis Quamina Farrier and the most celebrated winner of its playwriting competitions, Sheik Sadiek. It was therefore responsible for the emergence of several established Guyanese plays. This was to continue even among much later generations of dramatists who first learnt their drama in the Guild workshops and wrote their first play there. Numbered among those are leading contemporaries Paloma Mohamed, Ian Valz and Ronald Hollingsworth.
The activities of the Guild further created what was to become the most popular form of comic theatre in Guyana - the brand of annual satirical revue (now known as The Link Show) which began as The Brink series for which Pilgrim was mainly responsible. In addition to dramatists, drama, and informal training, the plan of formal education was to select worthy candidates for Theatre Guild scholarships. In this scheme, actors, dancers, directors were sponsored and sent overseas to study theatre in order to return and contribute to further training and development of the art in Guyana. One outstanding example of the beneficiaries was director, dancer and choreographer Robert Narain, who studied in England, while another is one of the examples of theatre practitioners trained by the Guild who became major personalities in theatre in the wider Caribbean.
Eugene Williams, actor and director, who went to study at the Jamaica School of Drama, eventually became Director at that School and the director of one of its by-products, a theatre-in-education performance group, and a prominent theatre director in Jamaica. Many others who started out as products of the Guild have been major contributors and leaders in Caribbean theatre such as Ken Corsbie and Henry Moottoo. Several others of the leading national personalities such as John Rollins and Lennox Foster were Directors of the Guild or one of its main choreographers like Malcolm Hall. Many other such personalities including the vast majority of those who were to become the country's most prominent actors, directors and managers at the National Cultural Centre developed their careers at the Playhouse. Gem Madhoo-Nascimento, Margaret Kellman, Ron Robinson, Richard Narine, Desiree Edghill, Andre Sobryan and Fitzroy Tyrrell along with many others belong to that list.
The construction of the Playhouse called upon the services of a number of highly placed personalities like Thomasson, a Fund Raising Committee chaired by Sir Lionel Luckhoo and a Building Committee chaired by James I Ramphal. The site on Parade Street was identified. What became the Annex was a house occupied by a senior army officer, Col Stuart and his family, while the other buildings were used by the military during the Second World War and afterwards. The government agreed to lease the property to the Theatre Guild and the Playhouse was built out of the existing structures.
One of the famous productions staged there in 1971 was Advance to the Brink. That satire is now ironically turned back at the theatre itself, because those buildings are now advancing to the brink of collapse. If the final curtain falls at the property on Parade and Cowan Streets it will take with it the most important and influential theatrical institution Guyana has ever known. It is now necessary to marshal the combined efforts of a team as strategically placed and as influential as the group that founded the institution and built the Playhouse, to tackle the task of preventing that fall and restoring the buildings. It will also require as much public support as the team received at that time, and is surely worth the effort.