A report from Jamaica’s Gleaner.
After more than 20 years as staff tutor in drama and head of the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Dr Brian Heap will be retiring from the post at the end of July. He will also be stepping down as artistic director of the highly successful University Players.
Heap revived the group 15 years ago after a prolonged hiatus. During that time, he has maintained the highest quality of performance and staging, with scores of Jamaican and Caribbean actors appearing in more than 25 major theatrical productions. “I started making a list of all the actors and very quickly reached over a 100 names, with many more still to be added,” says Heap, looking back on his accomplishments.
Since 2003, the university Players have brought artistic distinction to the University. Each year, without fail, the Players’ productions have been featured, often as multiple nominees, in Jamaica’s annual International Theatre Institute Actor Boy Awards, which recognises the country’s highest achievements in theatre.
“I think over the past 15 years, we must have been nominated in just about every category and won awards in most of them. During that time, we have presented everything from Aime Cesare’s A Tempest and European classics like Moliere’s Tartuffe to comedies such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce and classic Jamaican dramas like Ginger Knight’s Whiplash and Samuel Hilary’s Departure in the Dark.”
The University Players have also enjoyed enormous success with the staging of original musicals – most notably with Michael Holgate’s Garvey – The Musical and Aston Cooke’s Jonkonoo Jamboree – and with other original works, including Karl O’Brian Williams’ The Black that I am and Heap’s own Catherine Mulgrave – An African Odyssey.
“It’s never been easy for our audiences to know what the University Players will do next,” Heap observes. “I remember when we staged Polly Teale’s wonderful play, After Mrs Rochester, a play about the life of the Dominican writer Jean Rhys. Nobody had heard of it, so hardly anyone came to see it on the opening weekend. But by the second weekend, word had begun to spread, and crowds turned up. By the third weekend, we were turning people away and had to remount the production before taking it on tour to Barbados.”
Heap, who is a seven-time Actor Boy winner for directing, has, to date, staged all but a handful of the University Players’ productions, and Jamaican audiences can certainly look back fondly on some remarkable productions. Most recently, in May, Heap and the Players produced their Graduate Playwright’s Series (GPS) 2018, which featured three staged readings of plays by UWI graduates as part of the institution’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
Award-winning actor Nadean Rawlins, who has been involved with the University Players since its revival, says, “Working with Brian has always been so exciting for me because I never know what he’s going to challenge me with next.” Nadean is part of a pool of distinguished actors who have appeared in multiple University Players’ productions over the years. This pool also includes Jean-Paul Menou, Hilary Nicholson, Paul Issa, Canute Fagan, Alwyn Scott, Melward Morris, Nadia Khan, Maylynne Lowe, Michael-Sean Harris, Christopher McFarlane, Rooney Chambers and a host of others.
During his tenure at the Philip Sherlock Centre, Dr Heap has overseen significant improvements to the facility’s physical plant and programming. “Like so many arts institutions, we remain seriously underfunded and find it difficult to attract private-sector sponsorship,” says Heap.
Also, a great deal of imaginative and innovative developments in the programming of the centre have taken place under his watch. These include the introduction of new elective theatre and drama courses, and the very popular Eight by Ten Festivals, which featured eight directors each staging a 10-minute play in one evening. Heap is also co-founder, along with colleague Michael Holgate, of the Jamaica Dance Umbrella, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
As for the future of the University Players? When questioned about his plans, Dr Heap indicated that he has some research and other projects that he is hoping to develop, so hopefully, more good things are yet to come.