Maria Nunes and her Jab Molassie¹

Maria Nunes. Photo by Anthony Harris.
Maria Nunes. Photo by Anthony Harris.

In a small rehearsal room above the “toxic” and vacant Lord Kitchener Auditorium at NAPA, director Patricia Cumper is putting her small cast through its paces for the world première in a fortnight of Caitlyn Kamminga and Dominique Le Gendre’s Jab Molassie, an adaptation and re-working of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldiers Tale). This creation by this corps of internationals—a pair of London-based Caribbeans and a Trinidad-based American—spotlights the enhanced possibilities in music theatre here in the islands. Its production also signals new directions in private sector funding of local creative enterprises and the resulting commercial exploitation.

jab-logoFloating around the room this day taking rehearsal photographs is the quietly determined producer Maria Nunes, who has displayed humility beyond our native obsequiousness, but clearly handles a big stick. Nunes’ Calabash Foundation for the Arts, in line with its mission of “enabling the creation of new outstanding works of Trinidad and Tobago origin which will be performed on local and international stages,” commissioned the composition of new music by Le Gendre to go with Kamminga’s libretto. Nunes’ tenacity and passion has resulted in raising well over $1.5 million dollars for the creation, development and ultimate staging of this musical in Trinidad from the private sector, and engaging with critical players in the corporate world who saw a vision that had escaped a number of our theatrical and creative pioneers over the years.

History repeats itself

Jab Molassie in context: foreign source, local lore.
In 1974, Derek Walcott was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to translate Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla for the basis of a script. joker albumThat commission became the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s celebrated The Joker of Seville. It is noted that Walcott was “perhaps too successful in transforming what began as a translation of an old Spanish play into a West Indian theatrical experience, a local happening.”

Later, Geraldine Connor radically reinvented Handel’s Messiah to become Carnival Messiah marrying “the European classical tradition of oratorio with masquerade and musical inspiration from the African diaspora in an iconoclastic way.” Her ultimate development of a commercial arena production that she hoped would begin touring large-scale venues across the world was stymied.

History notes the efforts of Derek Walcott and his Trinidad Theatre Workshop producing the commissioned The Joker of Seville to local audiences in spite of minimal local funding. Gate receipts of the relatively successful play sustained it for weeks with corporate funding opportunities coming after months of performances, too little too late. In contrast, the modern England of Geraldine Connor offered her art council grants for her production of Carnival Messiah.

The similarities between Jab Molassie and past local productions born of commissions to re-imagine older European classical works for Trinidad sensibilities end at the creative line. The business model for the creation, development and staging of this new work—de facto on Broadway and the West End—speaks to the local notion of “who you know and who know you” relationships, but further, it speaks to a collected passion to elevate the art in the islands via products that are not dependent on the whims and vagaries of a financial patron. Nunes was clear that the principal patron, First Citizens allowed for her and the creators’ vision to take centre stage, so to speak, over a simple corporate quid quo pro where branding and CSR rules take precedence over art.

Public arts funding success?

gov failuresPrivate sector investment and funding of the creative industries always took cues from government. Recent public funded missteps from the $5M Going for Gold debacle, to the CreativeTT-funded Masquerade, touted at $3M to move local fashion to the pages of Vogue Italia, still absent, to the Ministry of Arts investments in T.I.M.E. and a still unreleased world music CD featuring Hugh Masakela have signalled to perceptive onlookers that a preferred investment route would be away from direct investment towards an arm’s length agency like an arts council.

Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, Senator Dr. the Honourable Bhoendradatt Tewarie
Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, Senator Dr. the Honourable Bhoendradatt Tewarie

That creature, as recommended by a High Level Expert Panel, was touted in 2011 by the Ministry of Planning as adopted as policy, yet the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, Senator Dr. the Honourable Bhoendradatt Tewarie in January 2013 signalled that it was not accepted by cabinet. These conflicting statements reinforce the failure of the establishment of an arts council at present.

The mechanics of production; the mundane administrative crawl of non-profit company registration, signing-up of the composer to the National Registry of Artists & Cultural Workers, the scripting of funding proposals that sell an idea still unfulfilled are the exercises that would be a template for wider consideration by a creative community weaned on the state teat of public funding. Innovations in state funding including the creation of creative industry state enterprises have not drawn successful results thus far. New engagements were necessary.  The Calabash Foundation sees its role as a kind of private arts council as a necessary fillip to the still incubating public version and is creating a Fund as “a preferred recipient of planned giving on a sustained annual basis by individuals, foundations, government and corporations.”

The happy circumstances of encounters with funders are stories in themselves: a Calabash Foundation board member fortuitously sitting next to an executive of a funding corporation on a long flight from Trinidad to North America allowed her enough time to do her “elevator pitch,” to spread the Jab Molassie message. Nunes and her team were able to get critical investments from First Citizens, the Neal & Massy Foundation, Methanex, Bermudez, and NH International before the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism would be convinced latterly. A number of other smaller investors have sealed their promise as the staging phase nears.

Jab Molassie rehearsals: (l-r) Natalia Dopwell, Roger Roberts, Germaine Wilson, Nickolai Salcedo, Wendell Manwarren
Jab Molassie rehearsals: (l-r) Natalia Dopwell, Roger Roberts, Germaine Wilson, Nickolai Salcedo, Wendell Manwarren. Photo by Maria Nunes

At a critical point in the rehearsal where actors Roger Roberts and Nickolai Salcedo are seesawing on a narrow plank engaged in an antagonistic All Fours card game, Nunes whispers that it was critical to understand how important the workshops were to the development of the production at those points in the production, January and May 2013. The workshops allowed for the cementing of financial relationships for the staging level while at the same time fine-tuning the artistic production.

jab cost chartA ratio of 20%-30%-50% for the proportion of funding for the three production phases—creation, development and staging—suggests that costs are staggered over long periods, and the returns are not direct. Despite the seemingly successful sponsor engagement, it is obvious that a four night run at the 200-seat Little Carib Theatre would not recoup expenses. The producers have negotiated a two-year window for the further international exploitation of the work. The subsidiaries of successful musicals: original cast recordings, both audio and video, and ancillary merchandise are part of the domain of commercial engagement down the road.

Another kind of Carnival mentality

The late Astor Johnson, dance pioneer and choreographer once described the Carnival mentality thus: “in a nutshell is creativity mixed with wastage and destruction.” In relating his difficulty with local audiences, Tapia newspaper reported him in 1974 saying, “How can an artist create something beautiful and then dump it to create something new? Our audiences constantly demand new things from all performers just as they expect new calypsos each Carnival.”

There are real costs in just having the principals on the ground here in Trinidad: the composer, director and musical director all reside in England. The financial limitations and venue unavailability cut short potential longer runs here. Our loss, and given the nature of Trinidadian audiences over time to vacillate between adulation and apathy for high art, it would seem that an initial effort at sizeable audience engagement of this production coupled with the recognition of the potential for excellence could engender greater corporate investment in the arts.

As the director, Cumper, winds up another seven-hour rehearsal day with cast and crew, one sees dedication to craft and enterprise. Nunes, Le Gendre and choreographer Dave Williams are deep in conversation still refining, still perfecting. The long journey from idea to stage is expensive and riddled with the possibilities of indifference or worse, failure. We await knowing that the impact of art is always special and Trinidad’s grand gesture will be forthcoming.

  1. 20141030An edited version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Maria and her Jab Molassie mission.”

© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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