October 2017

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In 1948, Beryl McBurnie, a fire sign, created the Little Carib Theatre. Already a renowned performer in New York, she had chosen to return to Trinidad a few years earlier. McBurnie was a dancer but she was also very much a teacher and an innovator. She had grand designs for Caribbean art. The Little Carib, the first of its kind space for dance and theatre in the region, was integral to her plans. And though the theatre suffered setbacks, it remains today a centre for the performing arts. Its stewards understand what McBurnie did—to thrive, the arts need a home.

On August 28, another home, a centre for teaching and innovation in the arts, was opened. UWI St. Augustine's Department of Creative and Festival Arts (DCFA), after many years, has its new headquarters.

“The time has come to have a pre-professional space,” says Jessel Murray, Head of the DCFA.

Like the artists and thinkers of the colonial era, Mr. Murray views culture not only as a means of self-actualisation, but also as a resource for the development of the country and region. But where their focus was on Caribbean identity, his is more material.

“We are training professionals here. Not only for themselves, but in the current climate we have to add to the country itself. We have to create our own kinds of employment. I encourage young people to do what you love. But my message to young people is that you have to be able to love it but it also has to be economically viable. This is the best part of the job we are all in. You can like it and you can make a living from it,” he says.

Off-campus housing

It's early days in the new semester and early days at the new DCFA building. Sharing a space with the UWI Open Campus on Gordon Street, the new building has its own entrance on Cheeseman Avenue. Its lines are gentle, colours warm, and lecture rooms expansive. The hallways are, for the most, bare, except for the occasional student wandering through, taking in the new space.

“My great stress reliever is watching the students on the first day,” says Mr. Murray, “watching them go 'oohh and aahh'.”

For the DCFA Head and his staff, it has been a challenging two-year journey to see their new headquarters completed, with many challenges still remaining. Even so, it is an improvement over their previous circumstances.

Founded 31 years ago at Agostini Street through the work of the late Dr. Patricia Ismond, and led by dramatist and educator Rawle Gibbons, the DCFA (then known as the Creative Arts Centre) grew and spilled past its boundaries. There are five units: Theatre Arts, Dance, Music, Visual Arts and Carnival Studies. These units and the DCFA offices were split between the Centre and Gordon Street. The building at Agostini Street, although beautiful, is showing its age.

“As Head, having to go back and forth between the two buildings was horrendous – dealing with traffic, running a divided department and having administrative systems in both places,” Mr. Murray says.

Now he's focused on what the new space can bring:

“We are constantly trying to increase the professionalism and when you add professional spaces to professionalism there is so much more you can do to push the envelope.”

He says the new building was phase one of a two-phase plan. The second part consists of the construction of a 400-person capacity full-service theatre and a library.

He says “a theatre is not an entertainment space. It is a space for performance. Entertainment, as I define it, is passive. It is background. Performance requires direct engagement.”

The DCFA Head knows performance. As a music director he has led both the National Steel Symphony Orchestra and the National Sinfonia Orchestra. He is musical director for the UWI Arts Chorale and UWI Steel, multiple national award-winning orchestras. As an educator at Smith College and Amherst Regional High School in the US, he formed choirs and even a steelband. Those in the UWI community who do not follow orchestral music might know him best for his work as musical director for the annual graduation ceremony. For many it’s the best part of the ceremony.

“Graduation ceremony is one of the easiest things to do,” he laughs. “It’s just a little vignette, a distraction from all the speeches and ceremony.”

Easy is a relative term. As DCFA Head, lecturer and musical director Mr. Murray is incredibly busy. At its most extreme, he worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

He says, “In my family we tend to be workaholics. When I became Head of DCFA I was still leading National Steel. At that level, whenever the Prime Minister calls, you say 'yes sir'.”

This ethic guides how he leads the department: “There is nothing else but focused hard work.”

Now more than ever, in the worsening economic climate and where the decades-long calls for diversification have become shrill, focused hard work seems essential for artists. For years, academics such as Dr. Keith Nurse and Dr. Jo-anne Tull (Lecturer and Coordinator in DCFA's Carnival Studies Unit) have advocated for the proper development of creative industries. Policymakers have made limited moves in that space. There have been some advances but there is still much unrealised potential. The DCFA's role is to give students the capacity to develop the industry themselves.

“I'd like to see us continue on the path to make students more self-reliant,” Mr. Murray says. “We have to be able to answer the question students ask of us all the time: what do I do with my degree? We have to create some pathways for them to be self-sufficient so they can succeed in their craft.”

Apart from the focus on rigour and professionalism, he points to programmes such as the Master of Arts in Creative Design: Entrepreneurship.

But there is something else that DCFA can do to help its students take ownership of a viable creative industry. In fact, the Department has done it already.

While waiting for our interview, a student approached me, asking for directions. She was lost in the smooth stone, the glass doors and high ceilings of her new school, a school for the arts, worthy of the arts.