Jamaican theatre – a closer look

by Dahlia Harris and Carole Beckford
September 21, 2014

The Jamaican theatre has emerged from the days of post slavery when the methods of expression were purely dance, drama and some song. In 1912 when the doors of the Ward Theatre were opened in downtown Kingston, it has in its over 100 years provided a stage for hundreds of performers from Jamaica, the Caribbean and all across the world. http://www.wardtheatrefoundation.com/

The plays at the time were performances at a variety of places across the island, primarily in Kingston. However in 1941 Greta Fowler and a small team founded the Little Theatre Movement (LTM) and eventually got a home later at Tom Redcam Avenue 20 years later in 1961 where the Little Theatre and Little Little Theatre are now located. http://www.ltmpantomime.com/pages/pantohist.html

The Pantomime remains the longest running “play” in the Jamaican theatre space and from Jack and the Beanstalk in 1941, for 72 years this presentation has moved from the British-inspired to the Jamaicanisation of the script using its own song, dance and culture to highlight the change. The LTM’s website states that the change was evident “with dialogue in patois and humour reflecting the robust sense of comedy of these “islands in the sun”.

The LTM has also produced a raft of other productions since 1941 http://www.ltmpantomime.com/pages/History/otltmproductions.html Among them are classics such as William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Merchant of Venice; and Roger Mais’ Brother Man.

While the Pantomime has remained a staple in the theatre diet of the Jamaican people, there are some other productions that have done well to host record-breaking performances in recent years. As recently as 2009/2010 Bashment Granny 2, ran for more than two years playing to an estimated audience of 300,000. Note too that the plays that tour have an opportunity to reach a much wider audience.

Theatre the last five years

The last five years – 2009 to 2013, there has been a total of 171 productions earning close to approximately J$593 million. The shows combined had a high of 1,500 showings to a low of 1,070. Jamaica 50 (2012) seem to have inspired bigger audiences as it showcased the highest estimated earnings, showings and the highest number of plays produced. The table below will show the breakdown:

YEARS #plays Showings Earnings – all estimated based on figures collected through (JADA) – Scarlett Beharie
2013 33 1,070 $111,280,000
2012 42 1,500 $156,000,000
2011 34 1,000 $96,000,000
2010 32 1,400 $134,400,000
2009 30 1,200 $96,000 000

How can theatre makes our lives better?

The question remains though, is how Jamaican theatre can make our lives better? Dahlia and I put together some ideas and we would like to share with you:
1. Philosophically theatre puts a lot of our lives in perspective; how we view others; how we view ourselves. It really puts in clear – Does art imitate life or vice versa. The attempt here is not to answer true or false here, but to have us consider ways and means in which the theatre has really influenced us a people. We cited early the influence of the British on our theatre system and how as the Pantomime and other productions emerged, the use of language, colours, music and dialogue changed
2. The theatre provides an opportunity for artistic expressions to be embedded in our culture. While the argument can be made about appropriateness of productions…we are more concerned with going to the theatre becoming a habit of groups, families and individuals. The theatre season in Jamaica though intermittently running throughout the year, is concentrated in the December to April timeframe.
3. The theatre brings people together from all age groups – social inclusion plays a very significant role in development of a people and the theatre as a tool should be a focus for development of its space, physically and culturally to be able to deliver on its potential. This means that the space must have proper accessories for its users, employees and patrons alike
4. Theatre can aid in education and literacy. Its re-enactment of books used in schools along with those written to highlight glaring issues are just two ways in which students at all levels are able to have a better understanding of what is already written. The interpretations of the work of a Shakespeare for example, which is still used in a lot of schools, should be encouraged. Television is also a great tool as those interpretations have also been done on screen.
5. Theatre contributes to the economy by providing jobs and an opportunity for wealth creation. The figures for the last five years shown above are just an estimate, where if the theatre system is properly organised can boost the Creative Industry. There are several categories of jobs all of which are keys to a successful production. The research done identifies gate receipts and sponsorship as the top earners for the current set up. Sponsorship though is way behind
Jamaica’s cultural offer rests within the theatre, music, film, fine art, food and dance sectors, all of which have set its own parameters. All are related but separate – but with support from the private and public sectors can be the industry of choice for Jamaica.

Special Thanks to Scarlett Beharie

COMING SOON

Dahlia-Harris1

Carole 2013June:

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Gwyneth says:

    Thank you for the blog. Our tradition of theatre has enriched our culture in innumerable ways. Congratulations to JADA for being able to provide financial data. In 2013, my YA novel Bad Girls in School was made into a stage play by Balfour Anderson, then working at the Waterford High School drama department and used to raise funds to help defray the cost of CSEC examinations for deserving children.

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