ARTS: The rise and rise of professional theatre in Guyana – By Al Creighton

One of the important cultural developments was the rise of professional theatre in the Caribbean.  This started in Jamaica roughly around 1970 and gradually moved southward across the region to Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, eventually reaching to Guyana in 1981.

But even this neat outline requires qualification, because professionalism in stage performance and an industry in show business had been thriving for several decades before that. Furthermore, the history of theatre in the region will show two major streams that coexisted in segregated fashion throughout the centuries of colonialism. One was the performance of dramatic plays on the western/European stage, while the other was the theatre of the folk that developed during slavery.           

There was professional theatre during that history. One was entirely foreign and was performed by visiting professional companies from Britain and America right up to the nineteenth century.  The other was the thriving vaudeville industry and stage shows held in cinema houses from the early twentieth century to just after 1970, off the mainstream theatre and patronised by the working class.

The focus here, then, is spotlighted only on the performance of drama on the mainstream western stage. In Guyana, this was led and dominated by drama at the Theatre Guild Playhouse, the main force in amateur theatre in Guyana from independence to the 1980s.

Modern Guyanese drama – the production of plays on the mainstream (western) stage can be said to have developed in the 1930s, since the efforts by Norman E Cameron and the East Indian dramatic clubs in the 1940s. There were amateur groups in the bauxite company at Wismar-Mackenzie, around Georgetown, and in the sugar industry organised by Bookers from the 1950s into the 60s. Since the building of its playhouse in 1962, the Theatre Guild dominated and was the centre of national theatre and the strong bastion of amateurism that persisted while professional theatre became strong in the Caribbean and was beginning to threaten the status quo in Guyana.

The playhouse in Kingston was the cultural capital of the nation and the guild was the superior institution for theatre, serving also as the unofficial school of drama for the country. Many “graduates” of that school went on to become leaders in the professional theatre in other parts of the Caribbean. These included Eugene Williams who became head of the highly prestigious Jamaica School of Drama, and Henry Mootoo, who became head of the theatre and cultural institution in the Cayman Islands (a post also once held by another Guyanese – Dave Martins).

This was ironic because while Guyana was making this kind of contribution to theatre in the region, including the export of talent, the local policy from the “capital” (the Theatre Guild Playhouse) on theatre in Guyana was insistent on amateurism. The currents of the Atlantic Ocean were bringing the waves of professional theatre to the shores of Guyana, but these were largely resisted by the local policy directions. There was a clear preference for theatre in Guyana to remain on an amateur basis. That was the position of the Theatre Guild, enshrined in its constitution, and that institution was dominant and largely directed what happened in theatre in the country.

Most of the leading theatre practitioners were members of the guild, and even where they were not, there was no other institution sufficiently large and organised enough to have an impact on policy and practice. The University of Guyana produced drama, but had no role or influence, while the Government of Guyana’s Department of Culture might have had the authority to direct policy, but neither exercised it nor showed any inclination to disturb the amateur status.

Members of the guild might have raised the matter of payments and there were certainly debates about whether the dramatists, the actors and actresses, the technicians were worthy of their hire, but none of these prevailed. The institution did make minor overtures to various refunds and expenses, but as an avowed non-profit organisation remained opposed to the payment of fees.  Besides, amateurism was a philosophical policy.

It was around 1981 that a few individuals began to move away from the Theatre Guild to venture into theatre for profit, commercial productions and the payment of individuals. They remained members of the guild but exercised their options to also act individually to stage private productions in their own names. Notable among them was Ian Valz, who moved from St Stanislaus College to the guild, rising to be quite a prolific member before branching out on his own as playwright, producer and director. One of his major productions was the French classic comedy The Miser by Molière, a play that capitalises on the old Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, which was a popular pantomime in Europe. He started with an adaptation of this drama, which he later developed into one of Guyana’s early plays in the new commercial theatre – a full length comedy titled The House of Pressure.

Another notable protagonist in the commercialization of theatre was Leon Saul. He grew significantly in the guild as an actor, appearing in major lead roles on the playhouse stage. Saul initially branched out into radio drama. He produced a radio soap opera series called For Better, For Worse, which had a popular run on one of the local radio stations and in which a number of characters captured the imagination of the public. Saul also turned to the commercial stage to produce For Better, For Worse as a full-length play, another of the earliest plays in Guyana’s commercial theatre.

By this time, the National Cultural Centre (NCC) was the chosen venue for these plays, and Saul was among the first to stage plays there. This was a theatre much more suited for commerce. It is huge, seating 2,000 as against the 300 capacity of the Theatre Guild Playhouse and much better placed for the sale of tickets. Until the building of the NAPA in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the NCC in Georgetown, Guyana was the largest theatre building and auditorium in the Caribbean. It rapidly moved popular theatre out of Kingston to a place that began to attract a much larger, much different audience and introduced the working class and the lower middle class to the Guyanese stage.

At that time, the most impactful and significant development in the rise of Guyana’s professional theatre was the founding of The Theatre Company (TTC) in 1981. This was Guyana’s first professional theatre company with wide recognition and popular acknowledgement as a company. It was founded by Ron Robinson, Gem Madhoo and Ian McDonald as the three company directors. Robinson has served more than once as Chairman of the Theatre Guild and Madhoo also started her training at the playhouse. They were both guild members at the time of the shift to the commercial NCC. McDonald was a director at GuySuCo and a national poet, novelist and playwright.

What helped to magnify the impact of TTC on the new development was that it announced itself with the launching a new fixture in the theatre – the satirical production called The Link Show.   This was an adapted version of the satirical review led largely by Frank Pilgrim at the guild known as The Brink.  In 1981 this was defunct. The Link Show rapidly and emphatically became the most popular production in Guyana and sustained an annual production that (despite a few short gaps) is still running.

Furthermore, TTC was a company that helped to start off and fund professional theatre, setting examples with the payment of fees and the employment of performers and practitioners. It was a true companion to the development of commercialism. It also pioneered tours, taking plays to other countries such as the USA, Canada, Antigua, Dominica, and Sint Maarten. Robinson had the distinction of becoming Guyana’s Best Actor and Best Director, while Madhoo (who today has her own company – GEMS Theatre Productions) developed to be the undisputed most successful and proficient theatre producer and manager in Guyana. In the early years, too, there were two practitioners who came out of Linden. Grace Chapman contributed a horror thriller called The Green Bottle to the earliest commercial plays. After a run at Lichas Hall, it was brought to the NCC for another very popular run. Harold Bascom was the other Lindener who by that time was already developing in Georgetown as one of the country’s most popular dramatists.

One of his pioneer plays on the professional stage was The Barrel, a comment on the new and significant social phenomenon of Guyanese who moved to the USA sending barrels filled with gifts and staple items home to their families and friends in Guyana.  Bascom went on to become one of Guyana’s foremost playwrights.

That, then, gives some insight into how professional theatre developed in Guyana. Since those years around 1981, there have been several other protagonists in the industry. Among the most successful were Paloma Mohamed, who held her position as one of the most popular while also producing serious studies; Ken Danns, who had a good run of popular drama; Ronald Hollingsworth, who has made one of the greatest impacts with popular and memorable plays; as well as Sheron Cadogan and Sonia Yarde and others too numerous to list here.

But one factor is that most of them have a background at the Theatre Guild. That institution remains the launching pad for the nation’s professional theatre, while still continuing as a steadfast bastion of amateurism.
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