Nicolette Bethel: “In the theatre, you never know what’s gonna happen”

Bahamian playwright Nicolette Bethel, co-founder of the Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival, on the unpredictable thrill of live performance

Nicolette Bethel. Photograph by Duke Wells

Theatre was all around me when I was growing up. Every place you went — church, school — had a performance component.

My mother Keva was the principal and then the president of the College of the Bahamas. And my father Clement was a concert pianist and a composer and a choral director. Then I had a grandmother who was the most amazing storyteller. So performance was always around me, and it was just a small step to get from that everyday involvement to the actual stage.

The very first time I remember being on stage, somebody picked me to play Mary in a school Christmas pageant. I might have been six or seven. I had no lines — I just had to stand there and look virginal.

When I was around eleven or twelve, I wrote stories all the time, and I discovered that my stories were coming out in play form. Not that I knew anything about how to write for the stage, but it was dialogue back and forth, and laid out like I’d seen plays laid out in books. When I was thirteen, fourteen, I wrote an adaptation of Cinderella for a class pageant. Nassau also had a very active theatre scene, and my parents, being the parents they were, took me to see some of the plays and musicals. I remember very clearly the day I went to see Oliver! I made up my mind that one day I was going to play the Artful Dodger. Never happened!

I did all this in high school, but when I went away to the University of Toronto, I just didn’t have the same mindset as the people I observed doing drama. It was a very Eurocentric, highly intellectualised, highly stylised approach to theatre, and it just did not resonate with me. I was always interested in storytelling.

Then I met a woman who produced plays in French, which was my minor. She recruited me into her theatre company, and made me stage manager. They were doing Molière, and classical French comedy, and I loved it.

That’s probably the closest thing I had to any formal training until I came back to the Bahamas and I got involved with the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts, which was the community theatre of the time. In the 1980s and 90s, the Dundas created a repertory season which ran for five or six months every year. Philip Burrows was the artistic director. That’s where anybody over forty who has real theatre credentials got their training.

Everybody did a bit of everything, and if you had an affinity for anything, you tended to take on that task. We improvised a lot. We couldn’t invest in the bells and whistles of a really professional grade theatre, but we made do. It was fun, and it gave us the sense that you can do pretty well anything.

In live theatre, you never know what’s gonna happen. But you know the show is going to go on. There’s an electricity there that’s totally addictive. Every night is different. I like that. I get bored easily.

I eventually married Philip Burrows, and we spent three years on the west coast of Canada. Every year we would go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which made a real impression on both of us. It’s held in a tiny town called Ashland, which has nothing else. It’s the major economic contributor to the town. I thought, if Ashland can do it, surely Nassau can do it.

We came back in 2000 and we formed Ringplay Productions, mostly with former members of the Dundas repertory company, and we concentrated on putting out a play or two a year. Then I went into the government to work as Director of Culture. I learned a lot more about what’s going on in the Caribbean, and how to interest people who are gatekeepers and sponsors. When I left government in December 2008, I took all of those contacts and put them into producing Shakespeare in Paradise, creating the festival we had imagined.

Every year we have one Shakespeare production, one Bahamian production, and three smaller plays. Shakespeare and the Caribbean, to me, are inextricably linked, by their time, by their philosophy. The same ideas that were moving Shakespeare were impelling people to come and colonise this so-called New World. And Shakespeare’s plays are very close to Caribbean sensibilities. Elizabethan society had a lot in common with Caribbean society.

We have a really strong school outreach — about two thirds of our audiences are school kids — and their responses to Shakespeare are pretty amazing. Part of it is the way we restage the plays. We don’t change the language that much, but we set the scenes in spaces they can recognise.

In last year’s Merchant of Venice we made Shylock into a Haitian Bahamian, as opposed to a Jew. His punishment at the end was exile — he had to go “back” to Haiti, even though he wasn’t born there. It inspired discussions among students of Haitian parentage who were born in the Bahamas and Bahamian students, as it addressed head-on issues we never talk about, but are nonetheless very real to young people — the fear that even though you were born and raised here, you are not accepted and feel always that someone wants to send you to a “home” you never knew.

Another year we did Julius Caesar, because that’s the play every Bahamian at some point has read, and every Bahamian politician quotes from, whether they know it or not. On the last night, all of the Julius Caesar fans came out and recited the play from top to bottom, along with the actors. These are things that make me feel I’m not wasting my time.

This year is the fortieth anniversary of Independence in the Bahamas, and the fifth year of the festival, so we’re reviving my father’s folk opera, The Legend of Sammie Swain. It’s based on a folk legend collected in Cat Island in the 1940s. My father took the bare bones and wrote first of all a ballet, and then this folk opera. He wrote it in what seems like a summer, when I was five years old. When I went to bed and when I woke up every morning I would hear him composing it at the piano.

We had to search for the score, and old videos of productions from the 1980s to recreate the choreography. We didn’t have an actual script. We had to watch the video and transcribe that. I feel very strongly that it needs to be passed on to the next generation.

There is one song that every Bahamian knows — it’s basically in the public domain now — but not where it comes from. “When the Road Seems Rough”: it’s from Sammie Swain, and it’s my father’s piece. It’s anthem-like and inspirational. People sing it at weddings and graduations. It’s that kind of song. When you’ve borne enough, don’t faint, don’t sigh, don’t cry, wonder why, just keep trying.