STAGE VETS: "I really appreciate the training I got; I honed my craft," says Samuels, pictured next to UWI's Brian Heap.
TO say that Mas Ran (né Ranny Williams) – folklorist, actor, writer, radio host – inspired a whole generation of Jamaican theatre practitioners would be an understatement. Next to Louise Bennett-Coverley, he has set the gold standard for how to build a successful career in theatre and the performing arts. Coincidentally, that was the very rousing panel-discussion topic that took centrestage at last week’s Ranny Williams Symposium, hosted by the Little Theatre in Kingston.
Dahlia Harris moderated the lively session (rich in insight, keen observations and success secrets) that featured contributions from an all-male panel comprised of Dr. Brian Heap, Fabian Thomas, Patrick Brown, Michael Holgate, Paul Beale and Oliver Samuels.
“I was born to do this thing. During my time at school I was always organizing penny concerts and those kinds of events,” said Samuels, whose rise to stardom as an actor-comedian was nothing short of meteoric. “I really appreciate the training I got. I honed my craft. I am successful but I don’t know if popularity equals success, but I do believe I am blessed.”
Individuals who want to build successful theatre careers, the panelists agreed, must have a thick skin and possess a willingness to learn and learn and learn. That’s why mentorship is key, adds Michael Holgate. “It’s extremely important. For me, there was always this quest to learn, and the longer you are in theatre the more you know that you don’t know,” shared the writer-director, who credits the likes of Cathy Levy and the late Joseph Robinson (Ashé) for helping him find his footing in the early days.
Samuels paid homage to Mas Ran, Miss Lou, Reggie Carter and other old-school icons who nurtured him as a fledgling talent. “I have worked with and learned from some of the best in the business on this long journey,” he said. “For those who want to pursue theatre, it’s a journey that comes with challenges. But if you have passion, nothing can stop you.”
Patrick Brown, the prolific playwright who’s penned some of the most memorable stage hits of the last decade, knows all about passion. It’s a huge part of his personal success story. “I made a choice that I wanted to put Jamaicans on stage. Going through everything we go through as Jamaicans, we have so many stories to tell,” he said. “And we can tell them our way ourselves.”
While Paul Beale spoke to the necessity of “having vision,” which led to the breakout success of his first play, Granny Rule (before he went on to create unforgettable characters like Delcita and Mas Big Pants), Fabian Thomas riffed on the art of truth-telling, a hallmark of his group Tribe Sankofa’s work that involves presenting “a mirror of truth” to the Jamaican public without resorting to stereotypical archetypes.
But money also matters in building a successful career in theatre. Theatre is not just performance; it’s business, and producers have to fill house seats. “We had to figure out how to get the audience to come out,” Brown said, alluding to the Jambiz experience. “We are not a big reading country, so you have to understand what your audience wants, who they are and how to reach them.”
Holgate says he has seen first-hand how effective ‘selling benefits’ can be for the bottom line when box-office receipts are dwindling. “Various models are working,” he tells producers, “so tap into them and expand them. And there are some untapped areas in the industry to explore.” Brian Heap cited the term “sustainable models” as the way forward.
But how do you know you’ve had a successful career in theatre? Heap considers Ranny Williams – the first ‘man of colour’ to become a member of the Little Theatre Movement (LTM) in 1942) – a sterling example of that kind of achievement. “If nearly 40 years after you’ve died people are still talking about you, then you’ve had a successful career,” he observed. Encouragement for the new and emerging generation of artists is crucial, he is convinced, drawing attention to the continued work of the JCDC, which organizes the annual Festival of the Performing Arts and brought the panelists together for the symposium.
“Students in theatre arts are often the high-achieving ones. It’s for us to provide the support and the mentorship,” he said. “The learning process never ends. As an artist you’re learning all the time.”