The Shakespeare In Paradise Festival
A Celebration of Bahamian Theatre and Performance
This is an interview with Dr. Nicolette Bethel, festival director, and Philip A. Burrows, artistic director, of the Shakespeare in Paradise Festival conducted by Dr. Robert Hubbard.
Robert Hubbard: Could you share the story of how the Shakespeare in Paradise Festival came about? I understand that you both left the Bahamas for a time to teach at a college in western Canada, where you had an opportunity to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?
Nicolette Bethel: We were so skeptical of a Shakespeare festival in Oregon. We were like, “Never heard of it. Don't know what it’ll be.”
Philip A. Burrows: When you thought theatre, you thought New York, right?
Nicolette: Or San Francisco, or, you know—major centers. We had never heard of Ashland, Oregon.
Philip: So, our employer where we were teaching in Canada said, “Why don't you take the students to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?” And I was like, “All right, man.” I looked it up. We went there, and our minds were blown.
Nicolette: Yeah. This tiny, little, teeny-weeny town that was smaller than our little, teeny-weeny city (Nassau) had this amazing festival and it employed so many people. It's the company; it's a company town. I was like, if they can do it, we can do it! Right? Like, what is Ashland?
Philip: The town for us was the size of downtown…
Nicolette: The size of downtown Nassau.
Robert: So, that got you thinking that if this can happen in Ashland, Oregon, it can happen in Nassau.
Nicolette: After decades of producing theatre at the Dundas Centre for Performing Arts in Nassau, we had founded Ringplay Productions while Philip and I were still in Canada. That was in 1998. We incorporated in 2001, once we came back, and then the first play we did was Shakespeare.
Robert: Which Shakespeare play did you first perform?
Nicolette: An adaptation of Macbeth set in the Bahamas.
Philip: And not only that, but we also experimented. In that production of Macbeth, all our scene change music was by the band Queen. So we were saying how we could do anything we wanted to do because we had seen the various types of productions in Oregon.
Robert: So the inventive productions in Oregon and that first production of Macbeth gave you confidence to start Shakespeare in Paradise. The festival eventually got on its feet, and now on it’s, what, thirteenth season?
Robert: Let’s talk about how Shakespeare is perceived in the Bahamas. I imagine, for some, he might be a problematic figure in a postcolonial setting like this. I love Shakespeare; obviously, we love his work, but could you address how this white English playwright from four hundred years ago uniquely speaks to Bahamian culture today?
Nicolette: The choice of doing Shakespeare was an entirely pragmatic thing. We wanted to create a festival that would attract tourists, and we knew that the only thing that was going to attract tourists is Shakespeare. Then we had to do the work. So luckily, my first degree is in English and I studied Shakespeare. And then our experience in Oregon, where they were producing Shakespeare with colorblind and cross-gender casting and all kinds of things that enabled us to see Shakespeare outside of the box that we had seen him in. They had done Shakespeare productions in Nassau before and they were all very traditional.
Robert: And those early productions were guided by the expatriate community?
Nicolette: Guided by the ex-pat community, almost exclusively white, done for the students and boring. And what we saw in Oregon was not boring. So, we thought, Let's make it not boring. We decided we wanted to tackle the whole postcolonial thing straight off. The first play we did was The Tempest because the play is set in Bermuda—it's a Caribbean play. Prospero and Caliban have been used as tropes for the colonial project in the Caribbean by Caribbean postcolonial writers like George Lamming and Brathwaite, so there's this precedent.
With The Tempest we consciously Caribbean-ized it and brought it into the twenty-first century. Instead of having a Duke of Milan, we had CEOs. Prospero was the CEO of a company, and his sister kind of kicked him out. We also cross-casted in terms of gender, so Alonzo was Prospero’s sister, and our Caliban was a guy with dreadlocks. We wanted him to be as African-ish as possible. And our Ariel was also Black, but it was sort of like the house slave versus the field slave.
Robert: Interesting. You were obviously celebrating Shakespeare's remarkable storytelling and poetry while also illuminating his cultural biases and subverting the traditional expectations.
Nicolette: Absolutely. We've always been subverting. So we just decided that we were going to cast Shakespeare in such a way. But the way that we did Macbeth—we didn't have kings, we had prime ministers and we set it not in a physical battlefield, but in a political battlefield. It was set during a Bahamian election where Macbeth is the chairman of his political party and he kills his leader. The witches in our Macbeth were radio talk show hosts. We used Queen, so “Radio Ga Ga” was our opening music.
That's the kind of thing we do, but we also don't rewrite the play. We will cut it, select bits and pieces from it, and put a lot of thought into setting. When we did A Midsummer Night's Dream, we set it on one of the Bahamian islands that is known for magic, Cat Island, during midsummer. We changed all the fauna mentioned in the play into local fauna. And we found that it spoke to the people, and we had different reactions every play we did.
For most of the Shakespeare plays that we've done, the biggest audience we have is school children. When we started off, we went through the plays that everybody studied in school. We started with Macbeth because that was the most common one. Then we did The Tempest; then A Midsummer Night's Dream. After that we did Merchant—not The Merchant of Venice. We set The Merchant of Venice in Nassau and called it Merchant. In our production, Shylock ran a numbers house, which was a semi-legal gambling place and a money lender. But the important choice was that Shylock was also Haitian.
Robert: Haitians are often marginalized and viewed as outsiders in the Bahamas?
Nicolette: Yes, and we played on that. Shylock was a despised outsider and it works really well because in the end, Shylock is exiled and sent back. Shakespeare’s Shylock is Venetian, just like everybody else in Venice and in our play, Shylock, the Haitian, is exiled back to Haiti even though he never lived there. That really touched a nerve with some of our audience. I remember one student was totally devastated. He said, “That ain’t right. He grew up here. He never seen Haiti. He don't speak Creole. How could they send him back?” We found that that was powerful.
Robert: A bold choice. It sounds like you make a lot of bold choices.
Nicolette: Yes, we do. We did Julius Caesar, which was probably our most successful Shakespeare because even more Bahamians have studied Julius Caesar than have studied Macbeth—particularly people who went into politics. They were inspired by Julius Caesar to go into politics, and they often quote the play. So the audiences that we had at the nighttime shows were the largest audiences, as opposed to the school shows we had at the matinee. There would be these big political men sitting there in the audience quoting entire speeches. Philip told his actors, “You cannot get this wrong, everybody out there knows these speeches.” That show was, again, political.
Robert: Thanks for touching on your approach to Shakespeare. The festival also includes other plays, which are equally important. How does Shakespeare in Paradise promote and sustain the unique and vibrant traditions of theatre in the Bahamas?
Nicolette: One of the things that we do is design the festival in a way that prevents us from losing any money. In order to do this, we try have the Shakespearean play at one end and a Bahamian play on the other.
Philip: We call them signature productions. A signature Shakespeare production and a signature Bahamian production.
Nicolette: Or local or Caribbean regional…
Philip: That's the way it's been from the beginning. The first year, we did Music of The Bahamas along with The Tempest, so they were the two anchor productions.
Nicolette: And then we also have smaller productions around them.
Philip: Or in between or we have invited performers in between. We've had five shows as our base. But we've had years where we had as many as eight productions and years we have had four productions. Normally there is one major Caribbean, Black American, or Bahamian work that anchors. That's the work all the students come to see.
Nicolette: And in recent years they've tended to be musicals. Obviously, you can't afford a musical every year. But we have had a division…
I think we have a natural Bahamian theatre. It’s the talent pool. The thing that we do as the theatre experts, more than anything else, is focus the innate ability of the actors who walk through the door; what already exists.
Philip: We've done Once on this Island. We've done Der Real Ting.
Nicolette: We produced what most people think is the greatest Bahamian play, You Can Lead a Horse to Water, which is a play with music.
Robert: Remind us who wrote that?
Philip: Winston Saunders. A very influential figure in Bahamian theatre.
So, the signature productions have been the major productions—the two anchors—because the Shakespearean production normally closes the first week and the Bahamian production normally closes the second week.
Nicolette: We've tried using classics for the Bahamian productions—Bahamian plays that have either been extremely successful when they've been performed, have been on many school’s syllabi, or that have just been seminal plays. In the beginning in our second year, we did Woman Take Two, which is probably the best-known Bahamian play, because it's studied by all Bahamian children in school. And those children become adults.
Nicolette: We did You Can Lead a Horse to Water. We did The Landlord. That's like the bank—you could print money with that one.
Robert: The Landlord? Who wrote that?
Nicolette: A guy by the name of Sam Boodle. It's a comedy set in a traditional Bahamian yard. Now, those yards don't really exist that much anymore. You know, fifty years ago… audiences are nostalgic for The Landlord.
Robert: You also do a production called Short Tales, which is a bill of original one-act plays.
Nicolette: Yes. What I really wanted to do was to develop new playwrights. Originally my idea was that we could just train people. We had a play reading series where we just asked people to send in their plays and then we would just read them and identify plays from that. But as we did that, I realized that a lot of people here don't really understand what a play is.
Philip: We were in a meeting in this house one Sunday afternoon, and we were talking about this—the possibility of new playwrights—and we talked about that concept. I remember coming up with the name but then I went again to the States. I went to the Fire This Time Festival in New York, which is a festival of ten-minute plays. I didn’t know that we had stumbled onto such a popular idea.
Nicolette: What I’d originally envisioned was developing full-length or one-act plays. Then I realized that we must start from scratch, so we got into the idea of ten-minute plays and Philip said, “Let's just do an evening of ten-minute plays.”
Robert: And you get a lot of new people involved, not just writers, but also your acting pool.
Nicolette: Yeah, so the idea was that we call for the scripts and then we train people to direct because we also have a dearth of directors: Philip, his brother, David, and I really were it. And you can't grow an industry if you don't have directors. So we were training directors, we were training tech, and we were training actors. Short Tales became a very popular show but also a helpful recruiter. We would take risks on people, right? Because it's only ten-minute plays—you can take risks on anybody. People came out to audition—people we would have never cast in a longer play—and they got parts. And a lot of the people you see in Love's Labour's Lost which we are working on now, have come through Short Tales.
Robert: Cool. Changing gears here with an impossibly broad question that may be difficult to answer. How would you characterize Bahamian theatre? What makes it unique?
Nicolette: It is unique!
Philip: I think we have a natural Bahamian theatre. It’s the talent pool. The thing that we do as the theatre experts, more than anything else, is focus the innate ability of the actors who walk through the door; what already exists.
Nicolette: We tell stories. A Bahamian is a storyteller, right?
Philip: And we take that. There's so much natural talent. There's so much developing. I find that when I'm working on new plays, mostly because you rely on what comes naturally out of actors sometimes with a new play.
I specifically saw this when Winston Saunders wrote his Nehemiah series, and it was three plays, with a lot of room for ad-libs and stuff. These spontaneous moments from rehearsal are a big part of it; they allowed the whole thing to grow. There was a natural flow—a series of guys who used to sit in this bar and do these particular scenes, and Winston loved it because he was able to just grab what they were saying and focus it. I think our job, what we do now, is a lot of focusing. We do a lot of taking a lot of what people naturally have—and Bahamians have a lot.
Robert: There is something performative or histrionic about Bahamians?
Philip: Yes. And it's there. And I—you know my mother's family. There is no greater set of actors that you could find. It might be the same in other communities. But having worked on productions in the States, people tend to approach a lot of things very shyly, and they take a lot longer to build to where it goes. In my work here, I’m pulling people back from day one because they are coming with what they expect. They're all here because that's how they are in life.
Robert: I have witnessed this a little bit in rehearsal so far.
Philip: I can't say that I could perfectly compare it to theatre in other places. I can compare it to people that I've worked with in schools in Canada and people that I work with in productions in the States. And I'm not saying it's pulling teeth, but I'm saying that I find that the risk-taking impulse is a lot more readily available here.
Robert: Final question. You're now in season thirteen of Shakespeare in Paradise. What hopes and dreams do you hold for the future of the festival?
Nicolette: I know that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival began with one Shakespeare play a year in 1935 and now it's ten months long. I just want this to go on and do the same thing here. And I realized, if we do it right, it will outlive me and Philip. We're trying to train people to come behind and to maintain the standards and to keep the thing growing and keep it going.
Philip: Originally when we started this thing, we did the first year, we did the second year, and they said, “You know, you're not really, truly a festival or anything, unless you can get past three years.” So, we've gotten past the three years and almost ten since then. So, I think that once we get back up and running and do the festival properly, it will only get stronger and keep growing. One day, it’ll be going on and we will be coming in our wheelchairs to watch it while other people are doing it. That’s the dream.
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