Saturday, 6 September 2014

MASTER CLASS: Trevor Nairne reflects on Jamaican theatre's past, present and hopeful future

STRENGTH OF CHARACTER: Actors in a scene from 2013's Glass Slippaz, directed by Nairne (inset).

With an amazing trajectory spanning the seventies to the present day (the School of Drama, JCDC, Jambiz, and so on), Trevor Nairne is undeniably one of Jamaican theatre's most enduring and distinguished practitioners in possession of a wealth of knowledge and expertise centred largely on art's ever-evolving role in the wider context of Jamaica society. TALLAWAH talks with this iconic thespian about his own personal journey in the performing arts, some of the highlights, what he calls the syndrome of compromise, and ultimately what keeps him going.

TALLAWAH: Of the myriad productions you've directed and co-produced over the years, which have proved the most memorable?
Trevor Nairne: I think one of the earliest productions that displayed the possibilities of the theatre for me was a play called Equus, which we did as a final-year production while I was at the School of Drama, then called the Cultural Training Centre. That was in the 70s, and it went on to sweep what was then the Professional and Semi-Professional Drama Competition and Awards run by the JCDC. It won awards for Best Production, Best Director, Best Set Design and Best Actor for Pablo Hoilett.

TALLAWAH: Equus is a very powerful and controversial drama about a boy and his beloved horse. Did Pablo perform any of those infamous nude scenes?
T.N.: Oh, you're familiar with the play! (Laughs). No, we didn't go there. It was a college production, which at some level is very conservative. Some very interesting themes are explored in the play though, including power and sexuality and endearment for animals.

TALLAWAH: Do any other standout productions spring to mind?
T.N.: It's very difficult to single out productions because as an artist I've never been satisfied with any of the work totally, in spite of the fact most of the performances of the works have been very well attended.

TALLAWAH: So many thespians can relate to that. Cate Blanchett said it best when she noted, "There's a kind of unrest that happens in any creative endeavour. You are endlessly disappointed. I mean, no artist worth their salt is ever pleased. And that is actually what keeps you moving forward creatively."
T.N.: Exactly. There's a kind of syndrome of compromise that affects art, where your vision of a piece of work begins at 100 percent and owing to a number of variables you could end up with a mere 40 percent as the final product. So there are many factors to consider, like casting and how you guide the actors to developing characters, and other discrepancies within the artistic process.

TALLAWAH: Local theatre's evolutionary curve has taken the industry through a wave of radical changes, especially in recent times. What's your conclusion?
T.N.: What I'm happy about is that Jamaican theatre is more truly Jamaican because most of the works, about 90 percent, are written by Jamaican playwrights, with Jamaican performers and Jamaican directors. So there is a distinct development of Jamaican theatre personnel. In the early days, much of the work included a lot of established work from overseas.

TALLAWAH: So you'd agree, as Oliver Mair suggested recently, that local theatre is still a work-in-progress.
T.N.: I think there is room for more playwrights to emerge and room for the ones who are practising to improve their craft. Too many of the current writers have not realized their potential, and they have the talent.

TALLAWAH: Any specific examples?
T.N.: I'll leave it at that. They all have the talent to produce great work in their genre, which is mainly comedy. I have a problem with some of the writing, especially with regards to the themes that are being avoided. One of the difficulties I have is that playwrights have refused to tackle some of the major sociopolitical tensions in the country. I think the directors also need to improve their skills and when they do they will be better able to challenge the playwrights.

TALLAWAH: And no doubt the actors as well.
T.N.: I think the pool of actors needs to be much wider. There are certain roles that cannot be cast here, especially in the middle-age to older age groups. There's also a lack of craft among the younger actors to play the more monumental roles. But there's still good work being done, and that will be supported. For work that lacks quality, people will simply show no interest.

TALLAWAH: It's been rumoured in recent times that Jambiz is actively seeking to diversify its offerings. Where do things currently stand in that regard?
T.N.: Things are progressing. Our core area is still the theatre, but we always have plans on the board for television projects, and we will do a film as soon as possible.

TALLAWAH: Mr. Nairne, after being in the performing arts for so long, do you still get that thrill? What's the ultimate reward?
T.N.: I'm still sustained by the audiences that I've seen grow with us [at Jambiz], and it's amazing the level of growth in art appreciation that's been accomplished over time. There are persons who have seen almost everything we've done here. As one patron said, 'Centrestage is the place to go on a Sunday evening.' And so for me, the impetus for continuing work and continuing the development, which is one of the hallmarks of the Jambiz team, is something that all of us are committed to. The intent is to be sustainable in terms of quality. 

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