Art in the Bahamas has been undergoing a revival for some time, the likes of which are seen in the artistdriven efforts to create festivals, galleries and events to create an exciting creative economy in the country. One such effort is the annual theater festival Shakespeare in Paradise, founded by Nicolette Bethel and Philip Burrows, which will kick off on September 30th and run until October 8th.
Though only in its third year, the seeds for such a festival were sown when the pair visited the Oregon Shakespeare Theatre Festival in the 1990s. “I thought, ‘Can’t we do this in The Bahamas? It would be such a great addition to our tourism industry,” Festival Director Nicolette Bethel says.
Not only that, but she saw the festival filling the void of a rich theater culture that had so unfortunately fallen by the wayside in The Bahamas, encouraging all artists involved in theater to come together and rebuild an industry that she knows the country has the capability to sustain. “I felt that because there was no theater happening, young Bahamians were going back to square one, not building on what we had done and trying to build a theater industry but not having any ground on which to stand and no connection with the generation above,” she says.
The result was a theater festival with a wide range of productions by local groups and visiting groups—yet every year they offer a signature Bahamian production and a signature Shakespeare production. This year’s Bahamian production, “Dis We Tings” echoes the sentiments of disconnect between generations expressed by Bethel above. Originally produced two decades ago by a group of performers and cultural thinkers, “Dis We Tings” was a musical written in response to the need in the 1980s for young Bahamians to learn about their country and culture in a rapidly-changing world.
This time around, the production has been revived and re-imagined into a 2011 version covering even up to date historical changes—like the recent formation of the DNA party and the current Dengue outbreak—that addresses issues both serious and frivolous but undoubtedly Bahamian through fun songs and witty banter.
“It’s updated completely, it’s a completely new script. It’s the 21st century ‘Dis We Tings’,” says Bethel, who is directing the production. “It’s about Bahamian heritage, but it’s also about Bahamian history because we found a lot of people don’t know enough about history—history is not taught in schools.”
“So we really wanted to give a sense of Bahamian history, also perhaps to jog decision makers to help them understand that, you know, we do need history in schools,” she continues.
Another local production offered by the festival will be “Pat Rahming, alias Pat Rahming”, where the poet, playwright and singer will perform during a low-key evening in the beautiful setting of Nirvana.
A visiting production with a Bahamian history plot-line will also aim to educate viewers. “Mariah Brown”, a one-woman play by Sandra Riley, will recount the story of the Bahamian pioneer who settled in Florida to establish Key West.
Meanwhile, high drama will be offered through the festival’s signature Shakespeare production—the dark and scandalous “Julius Caesar”, directed by Philip Burrows, Artistic Director of Shakespeare in Paradise.
What makes Shakespeare so appropriate again and again no matter the time period are his overarching themes, and this year it’s no different with 2012 elections looming at home and in our neighboring U.S. and with the world facing political turmoil.
Indeed, the production will take place in a stark minimalist set and modern dress, putting the play’s very issues of rhetoric and power on full display. Though the script was abridged, it was not heavily ‘Bahamianized’, though Burrows does admit to taking an interesting musical direction that audiences may enjoy.
In the end though, he points out, making a Shakespearean production accessible to the public and especially to schools and setting it in this way allows for audiences to relate to the brilliant literature. “As a student, when I did English and literature in school, Shakespeare was very boring,” he says. “It was very boring because my teacher didn’t know how to teach it. The next year it was incredibly exciting because I had a teacher who was incredibly excited to get into it.”
“Had I been able to go and see people doing productions and see it in a different sort of way, a modern way, I would have totally been more appreciative of all that’s going on,” he continues. “It gives you an opportunity to see Shakespeare, some of the best literature ever written, and hope people have a better understanding and appreciation.”
This is especially true for students who have Shakespearean plays on their BGCSE examinations—and in this vein, as part of their festival, Shakespeare in Paradise offers cheaper matinee tickets for classes from local schools to attend the different productions in the three days leading up to its official opening.
“We are determined to have people grow up seeing theatre and understanding what it’s all about,” says Burrows. “Supporting the arts from that age—students are very important, it’s an important part of what we do in Shakespeare in Paradise and we will be doing it again this year.”
This is all part of their student outreach—a valuable component to the festival for building cultural appreciation among the student population. Last year, Burrows says they exposed 3,000 students in The Bahamas to components of their festival.
In addition to providing students with tickets to three of their stage productions, they also have a special production available to students only—Bard to Go. This small troupe of college students from the Grand Valley State University travels worldwide enacting noteworthy scenes from Shakespeare’s many scripts, tweaked through a 21st century lens, to introduce student groups to his work. This year their production is “Lovestruck”, which takes a tour of some of
Shakespeare’s famous love scenes with a reality television “Bachelor” twist.
In addition, they provide Saturday morning workshops for up-and-coming playwrights, where participants in the festival give feedback to these scripts to help build a critical language and framework in the industry.
“The idea untimely is we want to get from our play reading series new plays that we can introduce into the festival so that there will always be a Bahamian play, a Shakespeare play, and a brand-new Bahamian play that was discovered through play reading series,” explains Bethel.
They even reach out to student artists in their Young Artists Program, appealing to them to create uniquely designed posters for each production, which will also be available on limited edition t-shirts with the artist’s contact information. This year, participating artists are Khia Poitier (“Julius Caesar”); Kachelle Knowles (“Mariah Brown”); Charlthorn Strachan (“Pat Rahming, Alias Pat Rahming”); Reuno Pratt (“Bard to Go”); and Rashad Ferguson (“Dis We Tings”).
Indeed, the festival offers an exciting array of both local and international productions which will all give audiences something to think about and build upon what’s proving to become—three years later—a rich theatre industry.
“What we really want to do is to expose young people to a range of theatre—not just Bahamian-style but all different kinds of styles—and to inspire different kinds of writing, different kinds of performance,” explains Bethel.
“I think that is happening, I think that there is something like that going on—I don’t think Shakespeare in Paradise can take all the credit, but there seems to be a new buzz in theatre.”
The full schedule of events for Shakespeare in Paradise, which runs September 30th-October 8th, can be found on their website at http://www.shakespeareinparadise.org.
Tickets are $25 per performance. Advance ticket sales begin on Monday, September 12th through online bookings at their website above, and they will offer a special discount for early birds (4 tickets for $80).
Regular ticket sales begin on the 19th through the Dundas box office.