Many internationally acclaimed theatre practitioners from Jamaica started out in Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) competitions. Basil Dawkins, as well as the late Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, spring to mind.
During a recent JCDC Drama Parish Final at Campion College, St Andrew, I saw original plays written, directed and performed by young people who might eventually become professionals.
Sitting in the audience was young Jamaican playwright/director Joel Miller, who took that first step with the JCDC years ago and is now in the USA working on getting to Broadway. I was introduced to him by Ardenne High School drama and theatre arts teacher Suzanne Beadle, who Miller regularly helps to prepare students for the JCDC Drama Competition.
This year, Miller wrote and directed one of Ardenne's entries, Chosen, a tragedy about human trafficking. Beadle said it was written because the Ministry of National Security asked JCDC performing arts competitions participants to create works dealing with the topic.
Miller, who has been living in Atlanta, USA, told me he is heading for California with his play May 2010, which is about the Tivoli incursion. Miller's producer in Atlanta managed to hook him up with a counterpart in California. He wants to enter a competition there and win the Best New Play for 2015 prize.
This would help get the play to Broadway. Miller is confident May 2010 will do well in California as "the Jamaican culture is very strong there". Casting is now being done for a production in that state.
Miller studied business in college and intends to become a producer as well. "I don't have the money to do that yet, but eventually I plan to have my own production company, Joel Miller Productions," he said.
He got into drama at eight years old, after joining his school's Speech and Drama Club. "We went to the JCDC competition that year and did well. From that day, I've wanted to perform. It's what I love the most and what I'm best at," Miller said.
Beadle told me that, in preparing Ardenne's JCDC entrants, she depends heavily on Miller and other members of a team comprising seniors at the school, parents and past members of her drama group.
"That's the only way I could take five plays to the festival," she said, commenting on this year's crop.
Alexandra Gregory, a 17-year-old sixth-form student, wrote and directed the comedy CBA (Classroom Behaviour Analysis), the school's Silver Award winner in the junior group production. Alexandra's mother, Winnie Cross, is very proud of her daughter. "Over the years, I have seen her passion and her dedication to drama," Cross told me. "I have to be supportive, even when I saw her writing her play at 4 o'clock one morning."
Andrew Brodber, drama, speech and literary arts development specialist, told me Beadle is one of the outstanding contributors to the JCDC Drama Competition. He also mentioned Dr Maureen Campbell of the Port Antonio Drama Group. "She is like an institution and she works with people of all age groups - children of all ages, right up to adults," Brodber said.
Other prolific contributors Brodber spoke about are Shaurna Miller, drama teacher at Green Island High School in Hanover, and Kenny Salmon, head of Excelsior Community College's School of the Performing Arts.
Brodber is pleased that, despite major challenges, directors continue to contribute to the speech and drama competitions. He said proudly that the entries for speech far outnumber those for any other JCDC competition. However - and perhaps he was speaking as an actor and graduate of the Edna Manley College's School of Drama - Brodber confessed to being "greedy" in feeling that there were never enough drama entries.
"In parishes like St James, St Catherine and Kingston and St Andrew, we can devote an entire day or two to either speech or drama judging," Brodber said. "But in most parishes, we have a mix of speech and drama on any one day. It depends on the number of entries from that parish."
When I asked about the relatively low number of drama entries, Brodber said "it is inherently the most difficult of the competitions. So many components are required - the set, the costumes, the rehearsals. The investment in time alone is a deterrent and the people who soldier on are really to be congratulated for their efforts."
The competitions begin with parish auditions, with the winners moving on to the parish finals, where successful competitors learn whether they have won gold, silver or bronze awards, or certificates of merit.
"If those earning gold awards are the only ones in their categories, they automatically go on to the national finals. If there are two golds, the one with the higher percentage moves on," Brodber said.
The competitions end with the national finals, then top entries are presented to the public at events such as Mello-Go-Roun, in the week leading up to Independence Day.
The National Speech Finals will be from April 28-30 and the Drama Finals from May 11-12, both at the Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue, St Andrew.