It’s widely acknowledged among those who know that trying to make a living locally in the arts is financial suicide. Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s years at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop were reportedly lean, and many of our artistic heroes like Beryl McBurnie, Lord Kitchener, George Bailey and Ras Shorty I, died at the top of their professional game but without the financial security that should have come as a result of their talent. But since the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus (UWI STA) Department of Creative and Festival Arts and the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Academy of the Performing Arts started churning out scores of talented performing arts graduates, the dearth of a local arts industry is becoming more glaring. Those people who earn degrees in musical arts, or theatre design or film production may have good reason to ask themselves, “Where am I going to work after graduation?” Twenty-five-year-old Adafih Padmore played Tracy Turnblad in a production of Hairspray, staged by Must Come See Productions in July at Queens Hall. But although cast and crew members receive a small stipend for the show, the production company only does shows annually. And the talented soprano’s “real job” is as a temporary clerk with the Police Band while she finishes her degree in Musical Arts at UWI. “Sometimes it feels that performers are abandoned by the powers that be after they’ve gained their degree in the arts,” Padmore said. “There seems to be less and less development in providing further education, performance opportunities and career options for us.”
For the 2011 to 2012 academic year, UWI STA had 51 students registered for dance; 67 for film, film production or film studies; 92 in theatre studies and over 100 students in both the musical and visual arts programmes. If UTT has similar student statistics in their performing arts programmes, a small but steady stream of trained artists are being released into the work world without an established industry to absorb them. Andrew Seepersad is the founder of the nearly two-year-old Proscenium Theatre Company, which produced the comedic Little Shop of Horrors (LSH) at Queen’s Hall in June this year. The few production companies that do exist locally tend to use the same people over and over again, he said, and up-and-comers don’t always have a chance to show their skills. “LSH, we had students from UTT come and work backstage, and in our live band. But right now, with UTT, the students don’t have many productions to work on. So I worry for students coming out.” Michael Cherrie, an award-winning local actor and full-time lecturer in UTT’s acting progamme, agrees that the local arts industry is not where he would like it to be. But it’s not without hope, either.
“I think that we can and will get established. But a large part of getting there has to be due to the work of these graduates. What serious students of the performing arts have to realise is that working in the performing arts is in a large part entrepreneurial. You have to create your own work,” Cherrie said. Many recent graduates are taking Cherrie’s advice. Inge Schlüer works at the International School of Port of Spain but she’s also a successful freelance musician who markets herself well on Facebook and is in demand as a violinist at weddings and corporate events. “I joined both the National Sinfonia Orchestra and St August Chamber Orchestra six years ago. After getting exposure through the orchestras, I would be asked to play solo violin at events and my ‘freelance’ career took off.,” she explained.
But Schlüer is also very concerned with the lack of a formal industry for musicians to tap into. A dearth of proper sound engineering, and the lack of local access to quality music equipment are some of the challenges musicians face. “There are a few spots where musicians try to showcase what they do, like La Casa de Ibiza, Woodford Cafe and Drink Wine Bar, but there needs to be more,” she said. “There should also be regular information on the business of the industry available. Often, artists operate in an ad-hoc way without proper guidance. And we need some more support from the private sector.” Seepersad agreed that the industry needs corporate sponsorship. Big community theatres in the US are usually underwritten by individual and corporate sponsors, they provide the financial buffer while the production companies build an audience base. He said musicals can cost between TT$350,000 to $500,000 to produce and just breaking even through ticket sales is not guaranteed. “My frustration is that big companies will sponsor a fete. Are you sponsoring for branding or are you sponsoring for community development?” Seepersad asked. Government support also counts for a lot. Trinidad and Tobago Film Company (TTFC) marketing manager Rudolph Hanamji said that since the TTFC’s establishment in 2006, the local film industry moved from a fragmented environment to a systematic industry with processes, rules and regulations to help it grow.
The TTFC provides funding opportunities for local productions and is instrumental is getting international production companies to come here to film medium and large-scale productions, like the recently concluded, Home Again, starring Tatyana Ali. These international and local productions usually have job opportunities for film students and graduates, Hanamji said. “And what we’ve observed is that persons not only remain here but have been able to work abroad,” he added. Locally trained filmmaker Shaun Escayg worked on the animation for the character Bumblebee in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, and also produced an excellent short film called, Fish, which has been entered in international film festivals. “We’ve already received requests to assist with the placement of interns and full-fledged crew. So more opportunities will be coming shortly,” Hanamji said. A career in the arts should be able to sustain its devotees, Cherrie said: help them pay the rent and bills and send their children to school. So the solution to T&T’s lack of a performing arts industry isn’t to downplay the university performing arts programmes, but to create more spaces in the public and private sector graduates to fuel a more vibrant and settled industry. “There are young people here who are ready; they are starting to produce their own work. And young people who are serious about their talent need a space to learn, hone their craft. Because anywhere in the world, whether or not there is an industry to absorb your work, you have to be good,” Cherrie said musingly.