Trinidad Theatre Workshop: still searching

The Trinidad Theatre Workshop is in its 40th year of experience, yet it still finds itself without a home of its own. Donna Yawching reports

  • Errol Jones. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Albert Laveau. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Derek Walcott. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Forty years, in any enterprise, should spell security. In the case of a theatre, a roof over one’s head perhaps, and a sense of knowing where the next meal is coming from. Even more so for a theatre that has produced a Nobel prizewinner along the way.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the Trinidad Theatre Workshop is still a species of nomad. Founded by Derek Walcott, a fiery young expatriate from St Lucia who in 1992 would win the Nobel Prize for literature, the TTW represents a seminal influence in Trinidad’s theatre history. Previously, the dramatic arts existed within the somewhat dilettante realm of colonial entertainment: apart from sporadic workshops, there was no institutionalised form of training for either actors or writers. Local themes, style or dialect in the theatre were virtually unheard of.

Walcott changed all that. Born in 1930, he arrived in Trinidad in 1959, after studying theatre in New York on a Rockefeller grant, harbouring, according to Bruce King’s Derek Walcott and West Indian Drama (Clarendon Press, 1995), “a vision of creating his own theatre company of international standards, with its own West Indian acting style.”

Basing himself at Beryl McBurnie’s Little Carib Theatre, Walcott accumulated a group of aspiring young actors for workshops and training. By 1964, after five years of weekly workshops, he had a solid core of trained and loyal thespians, ready to form a “real” repertory  company.

One of these was Albert Laveau, a movie-star-handsome young actor who, after years of amateur productions in San Fernando, had moved to Port of Spain in 1961. Some chastening reviews of his acting skills persuaded him to join Walcott’s fledgling Workshop, where “I did three years of training before I got on a stage again.” Today, Laveau is The Theatre Workshop’s Artistic Director, the man who continues to try, against the odds, to keep the organisation together.

Walcott’s main focus, in those early days, was to instil the hitherto unheard-of idea of theatre as a professional occupation. “I was the first to conceive of paying actors,” he muses. “I remember paying Albert $10 to act in Zoo Story. That was a big deal.” Until then, however good the talent, theatre budgets somehow never managed to stretch to such extravagance.

It wasn’t long before the  opinionated young Walcott came into conflict with the strong-willed McBurnie. The Workshop decamped from the Little Carib’s premises in 1965, changing its name from the Little Carib Theatre Workshop to Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW). Its new pied-à-terre was in the basement of Bretton Hall Hotel where, according to Laveau, it was “work, work work: learning our craft, reading plays, trying to find the works that we would get involved with.”

Despite the ongoing financial struggle, the 1960s was a rich and fertile period. The Workshop launched bravely into avant-garde international theatre: Genet’s The Blacks; Albee’s  Zoo Story; Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape; Wole Soyinka’s The Road. Not to mention the works of homegrown writers such as Eric Roach’s Belle Fanto and Errol John’s award-winning Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.

But perhaps most significantly, it was the period in which Walcott himself began to bring forth his prodigious oeuvre. Early one-act works like Jourmard, Batai and The Sea at Dauphin are now barely remembered, but then in 1967 came his first real classic, Dream on  Monkey Mountain, which premiered in Toronto, Canada, and was subsequently filmed in Trinidad by the NBC television network.

During this stimulating period, the company toured regularly in Guyana, Jamaica and “up the islands”, subsisting on private sponsorships and (if they were lucky) free BWIA airline tickets. “There was never any money to be made on any of these tours,” says Laveau, “but they were valuable for bonding the company together, giving a feeling of solidarity.”

If it all seemed too good to last, it was. Finally established, respected, and gaining international renown, the Workshop suddenly found itself turned out of Bretton Hall in 1970, entering upon its first (but not last) gypsy phase. “Nomadism,” says Walcott bitterly, “seems to be the ‘punishment’ for being a theatre in Trinidad.” The playwright believes the company has never been accorded the respect it so richly deserves. “In another country,” he points out, “maybe even another island, the TTW would long have been recognised for what it is, a national theatre company; and that would be supported.”

Even in this difficult period, the Workshop managed, somehow, to mount some of Walcott’s best-known plays, such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers and The Joker of Seville, and to incorporate a dance company into its operations. However, wandering in the wilderness for seven years after its Bretton Hall expulsion did take its toll, with actors falling away and skipping rehearsals, much to Walcott’s frustration. By 1976, an angry rift had developed between Walcott and the company, ending with the playwright’s departure to take up an academic post at Boston University.

In the 12 years between 1977 and 1989, the TTW barely survived. From being an actors’ workshop it became an itinerant production company, using its by-now-respected name to mount or sponsor occasional productions. It was a theatre company in search of a theatre; and despite its historic role in developing the genre nationally, nobody came to TTW’s rescue. Derek Walcott still cannot come to terms with this. “You can’t separate the growth of a national theatre and the politics of a country,” he insists. “If the politicians recognise the value of a national theatre or dance company, they will create a climate in which these will flourish . . . If you have this indifference, how can you survive?”

In 1989, the Workshop’s luck changed dramatically when a new government granted them a five-year lease on a derelict government building in downtown Port of Spain. There was a vague verbal promise of ownership somewhere down the line. The company paid no rent, but spent several hundred thousand dollars converting the building into a viable space for offices, rehearsal rooms, a school for the arts and, of course, a small theatre.

Space was made available to other arts groups for music and dance. The TTW launched its landmark Theatre-in-Education (T.I.E.) programme, taking drama into the nation’s high schools. The site began to evolve into a nascent Arts Centre. “It was a period that marked the resurgence of the TTW,” recalls Laveau, who in 1989 was wooed back from his “civilian” life to become the rejuvenated theatre group’s new artistic director. “We had our own place.” This, at last, was what Walcott had envisioned almost 30 years earlier.

It was a bright period in other ways as well. Walcott won his Nobel Prize in 1992. Over the years, he had effected a rapprochement with the Workshop, and now donated TT$100,000 of his prize money to the company, and negotiated further financial support from Boston University.

The party ended (again) in 1997 when the TTW was given notice to vacate the building it occupied. Its board of directors  stonewalled for as long as they could, but on 12 July 1999, on the eve of celebrating its 40th anniversary, the company was handed a TT$300,000 payoff, and once more found itself homeless.

“The eviction,” says Albert Laveau, “has almost killed us.” The company was forced to shut down most of its education workshops for lack of space; the T.I.E. suffered lengthy hibernation. Not surprisingly, its productions have been sparse: Walcott’s Remembrance in September 1999, and Yasmina Reza’s Art in December 1999. The year 2000 was barren, as the theatre struggled to survive. Without Boston University, it probably wouldn’t have.

And yet, there is something in the TTW — some sense of divine purpose or manifest destiny, perhaps — that refuses to accept defeat. This company has risen from the dead so many times, it’s a wonder no one has formed a religion around it. Hibernation, in the past, has led to re-birth; why should this time be any different.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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