Shakespeare Finds a Home in Nassau

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - September 30, 2011

Above: a production of The Tempest in 2009, the festival’s first year (Photo: Shakespeare in Paradise)

A piece set on an island, sometimes prone to storms. It’s not The Tempest, but the work of husband-and-wife team Nicolette Bethel and Philip Burrows, who have been on a mission to bring Shakespeare to the Bahamas. The Shakespeare in Paradise festival, as it’s known, premiered in 2009, and is now in its third year of production. Bethel, the festival’s creative director, along with Artistic Director Burrows, who trained at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts (and is regarded as one of the builders of Bahamian theatre) have sought to revive the dramatic culture in the Bahamas and in the Caribbean and create a hub for Caribbean theatre. Caribbean Journal talked to Bethel about her inspiration for the festival and the challenges of producing Shakespeare in the Bahamas.

How did you first come up with the idea for Shakespeare in Paradise?

Well, it started when my husband and I were living on the West Coast of Canada, and we discovered the Oregon Shakespeare Fesetival, which is held in Ashland, Oregon, which is a very small town, but it’s a huge Shakespeare festival. And we thought, well, why can’t we do this in the Bahamas. And so after we came back to the Bahamas, when we got the opportunity, we decided to establish it.

How has the festival been received in the first few years?

The reception has been pretty good. We have a lot of interest, and there are a lot of people who attend locally. We’ve got good reception from people from abroad — we’ve had Caribbean people from the diaspora and from the Caribbean at our last two festivals, and, yeah, they like it very much.

What is the biggest challenge in producing Shakespeare in the Bahamas?

I guess the main challenge would be that people start off being unfamiliar. But we’re now in our third year, and the Shakespeare is really taking off. We really put in a lot of time into investing into student and school groups, so that we can build an audience, and it’s starting to pay off.

How would you describe the theatre tradition in the Bahamas?

Well, we have a really strong theatre tradition in the Bahamas, but in the last 10 years or so, since the turn of the century, it’s been in decline. And that’s another reason we wanted to start the festival, because we wanted to make sure that the new generation would get a chance to experience the kind of theatre that I grew up with and was involved in.

Talk the breadth of the festival.

Shakespeare in Paradise is a festival, so it’s not just Shakespeare. We do an anchor production that is Shakespeare, an anchor production that is Bahamian and then we have international productions. This year the biggest challenge we’ve had is funding, and being able to afford the festival. The first year was a good size — we had six productions, and a seventh production that was privately contracted by one of the ministries, and went to another family island. In the second year, we had eight productions in total, three local and five visiting productions. But this year we scaled back, so we’ve got five productions in total. One is a student exchange to introduce people to Shakespeare, by a group coming in from Michigan. They’re here for three days, and go to three high schools and perform a 50-minute introductory show to the works of Shakespeare, We have a play coming in from Florida, Mariah Brown, which is about the Bahamian-Floridian connection. And we have a folklore show, which is for family audiences, and the Shakespeare we’re doing is Julius Caesar. It’s not just Shakespeare, so the idea is to celebrate the best in Caribbean, African and Diaspora theatre. So our Shakespeare is produced from a Caribbean viewpoint.

How would you describe that style?

It all depends. Each director is different. Last year we had a director from Trinidad, Patti-Anne Ali, who came in and directed The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Tempest was set in a Bahamian island, and we did some adjustments to the flora and fauna. But we didn’t change any of the language other than that. This year, we’re doing Julius Caesar, and it’s a lot more traditionally produced. It’s being done in modern dress, but it is the pure story of Julius Caesar set in 44 BC. So we try to make the plays accessible to Bahamian audiences — because Shakespeare is studied in school, but not necessarily something that everybody is wholly familiar with at the moment. One of the advantages we have is we tried to produce plays that have been studied in school — so we know Julius Caesar has been studied by many, many students over many years. Macbeth was another we did before we started Shakespeare in Paradise, and we have standards like The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet on our radar, for exactly that reason.

What kind of impact do you hope to have on Bahamian culture?

Well, I want it to be a little more than having an impact on the culture of the Bahamas. The first goal is to reinvigorate Bahamian theatre, and to create a new age of people interested in producing, not just sort of skit-type commentary, but theatre, and to see the possibility of theatre. We also want to create a hub for Caribbean theatre, because there really isn’t anything like that. And so we are sort of modeling ourselves a little bit on Carifesta [the Caribbean Festival of Arts], and we’re trying to keep connections with the Caribbean. Probably our biggest challenge, besides being able to afford the productions every year, and especially in this economic climate. We didn’t get as much support [this year] as the last two years — it’s very expensive to bring people from the rest of the Caribbean, because there isn’t any real connection. There are no cheap flights from the Bahamas to anywhere in the Caribbean, so it’s very hard to bring in regional productions. Most of our regional productions have been out of the Diaspora, so from Britain, from New York and Miami. We brought in people from the Cayman Islands the first year, but it’s just very difficult to be able to afford to bring in anything from the Caribbean. So that’s a major difficulty that we have to try and overcome.

–CJ

Shakespeare in Paradise opens tonight at 8PM in the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts in Nassau, running until Oct. 8.

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