“Biz is at the stage of her life where she’s doing all the things she’s always wanted to do.”
I danced my way through secondary school at St. Joseph’s Convent St. George’s (SJCSG). If there was a stage, I was on it.
But as much as I loved it, dance was just another extra-curricular activity, like Girl Guides, Drum Corps and Young Leaders. At that time, 1999 – 2004, there weren’t any opportunities for the academic study of performing arts at the secondary level. At least, not in Grenada.
My former SJCSG teacher, Cecilia Griffith (she taught me Biology, led our dance group and later founded Conception Dance Theatre), started teaching Theatre Arts at SJCSG in 2010, with the first group of students sitting the CSEC exam in 2011. And in the years since, several dancers have taken the subject as adults. But my turn wouldn’t come until 2021.
On July 19th 2021, I sat the final exam for my 11th CXC CSEC (Caribbean Examinations Council Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) subject… 17 years after I completed the first 10.
I went back to high school.
The story of how I went back to high school to do my 11th CSEC subject, Theatre Arts, starts in Trinidad & Tobago at CARIFESTA XIV.
To kick off my grown-up gap year in 2019, I journeyed to Trinidad & Tobago with Team Grenada to be part of the cheering squad/provide logistical support for Conception Dance Theatre. It was my first CARIFESTA and I was excited to be part of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts, i.e. a tremendous display of Caribbean awesomeness.
Conception’s second performance was at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts (SAPA) in San Fernando, Trinidad. My eyes lit up as I entered the auditorium. Then I went backstage, and then up into the lighting booth. “Wow,” I whispered several times. I was impressed, and this wasn’t even the NATIONAL Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA). But I was also jealous. Why doesn’t Grenada have a national *anything* for the performing arts?
At some point during our time in Trinidad, as we discussed culture and the state of the performing arts industry in Grenada, Cecilia mentioned that I should do Theatre Arts with her. I didn’t know. Surely it was too late for me. Besides, I wasn’t going to be home what with my plans to travel and see the world and all.
In my Mélange Magazine essay, How COVID-19 Turned My Travel Dreams Upside Down, I shared that I didn’t just want to be a Caribbean voice in the world; that I want to share Caribbean stories with the world. This led to more discussions about culture, performing arts and preserving our heritage and traditions. And taking Theatre Arts.
According to the rationale section of the CSEC Theatre Arts syllabus, Theatre Arts is “at the centre of the artistic and cultural expression of Caribbean peoples.” And so, in addition to the technical elements of theatre arts, this subject includes the study of Caribbean cultural forms. This year’s exam focused on 3 cultural forms: Masquerade, Wakes, and Landship. There were also 3 areas of specialization to choose from: Dance, Drama, and Stagecraft.
I chose Dance. Obviously.
Unlike other CSEC subjects where the majority of your grade is based on your performance in the final exam, Theatre Arts is structured in such a way that the assessments done prior to the exam account for 70% of the final grade.
These assessments included 3 practical exams: dance improvisation, choreography/dancemaking, and technique; a play critique, research project and a journal.
I critiqued Heritage Theatre Company’s play Patient Zero, written by Chris DeRiggs and directed by Neila Ettienne. And for my research project, I chose to focus on a venue of cultural significance and wrote about Marryshow Folk Theatre.
To be honest, when I signed up for Theatre Arts, I underestimated what 3 practical exams for a dance specialization meant. Especially since it’s been about 14 years since I danced often enough to consider myself a dancer.
Plus those pandemic pounds.
So yes, I was desperately out of shape. And by the time I finished the 5-minute improv exam, I was done. My lungs burned. Everything hurt. Abort mission, Alyssa.
But we don’t just give up over here.
Marryshow Folk Theatre: Small Stage; Big Impact
For my research project on a venue of cultural significance, I looked at Marryshow Folk Theatre at Marryshow House. I have fond childhood memories of going to Marryshow House for plays and shows, and later, as a teenager, dancing on the stage.
Marryshow Folk Theatre was the place for the performing arts in the nineties, and I always wondered why, as the industry advanced, the Folk Theatre remained the same. In the absence of a national centre for the performing arts, I think we took for granted that Marryshow Folk Theatre happened to kinda-sorta fill that void.
For this project I interviewed Mrs. Beverley Steele, former Resident Tutor of the University of the West Indies; Francis Urias Peters, founder of Family Theatre Company; Chris DeRiggs, founder of Heritage Theatre Company; and Neila Ettienne, founder of Creative Arts Theatre. Through those interviews we explored the impact of the Folk Theatre, whether there is still a place for the Folk Theatre in our current landscape, and what the future of the Folk Theatre and theatre arts in general in Grenada could look like.
I’ll admit that this was an ambitious undertaking for the scope of the assignment. I mean, the word limit was 500 words (howwww?), but it lay the groundwork for some pretty awesome future projects.
The final exam
The Saturday before my exam, I bought my exam necessities: 3B pencils, eraser and sharpener. Then, not wanting to get scolded again by my learning strategist Dr. Orlando, I settled down for my final review. Oh how things have changed in 17 years. Form 5 Alyssa used to just read and re-read information. Two degrees, a 6-year teaching career, and years-long friendship with a learning strategist later, I cringe at how passive I was towards retaining information. But that makes me wonder, are learning strategies part of the school curriculum yet?
Since there were just a few of us sitting the exam, we took the e-test on Ministry of Education provided laptops. Oh hey technology!
Taking this subject as an adult was, without a doubt, difficult. It was hard being back in an environment with teenagers, because teenagers are, well, teenagers. I had to deal with my own insecurities, as I worried too much about what others would think. I felt like I was constantly justifying my decision to take Theatre Arts.
But, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Even though I started dancing at 4 years old, this was the first time that I had ever been assessed for my understanding of the principles of dance and choreography.
As a writer, I loved learning more about our Caribbean cultural forms, especially the traditional masquerade characters from around the region and Barbados Landship. If we ever get out of this *pandemonium*, I’m going to see them all in person.
And as a lover of the performing arts, this experience confirmed what I had already been feeling: we cannot continue taking the arts for granted in Grenada. There are so many talented people in our small country; can you imagine where we would be if we had the spaces, resources, access and encouragement? We’d be even greater.
So, to Ms. Griffith, thank you for letting me be your student again. To my Theatre Arts classmates and group members, thank you for putting up with me. To my research project interviewees, thank you for sharing your insight and experiences.
And to this little ballerina, thank for you never letting me forget the magic of the stage.