Although small in structure, the Little Carib Theatre has played a monumental role in Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural life.
Founded by late dance icon Beryl McBurnie in 1948, the theatre, situated at the corner of White and Roberts Streets, Woodbrook, has nurtured the talents of many local artistes and remains a leading venue for budding thespians and veterans alike.
Small wonder, then, that the facility, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on November 25, is still the preferred choice for many social and cultural events in the country.
Chairman of the theatre’s board of management Michael Germain said, however, the prominence which the theatre enjoys did not come easy but was the result of years of sacrifice, patience and determination.
“Every milestone for the Little Carib is special because Beryl struggled to get that theatre off the ground,” Germain said in a recent interview at his home on Cornelio Street, Woodbrook.
“She had to fight everybody, the city council, Town and Country, everybody. But she was very strong in her determination to have this place established and she basically left it for the arts community in Trinidad and Tobago.
“She felt it must always be there for those who need a space to exhibit what they have to offer.”
McBurnie, who received the nation’s highest award, Trinity Cross (now the Order of TT) , in 1989, died on March 30, 2000 at the age of 87.
As one of Mc Burnie’s nephews, Germain has experienced the highs and lows of the theatre’s fabled past but maintains “it is one of the most important spaces in the national culture.”
“Several things happened at the Little Carib. The members of her dance troupe went on to become accepted dancers internationally and even the Holder brothers, Geoffrey and Boscoe, were part of the initial Little Carib thrust.”
Germain also recalled calypsonian Winston “Gypsy” Peters (now National Carnival Commission chairman) telling him at an event, years ago, he had performed at the Little Carib during the early stages of his career.
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“I would say that Little Carib has been very much in the background of the beginning of a lot of people’s careers.”
Legendary dancer, author and academic Molly Ahye, who died on April 20 at the age of 84, also led the Little Carib Dance Company, which Mc Burnie founded.
Established to celebrate TT’s vibrant and diverse culture, the Little Carib Theatre holds the reputation of being the country’s first bonafide folk-dance company and theatre
In fact, several of late Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s plays were first seen at the theatre, where he held weekly workshops as its founding director from 1959 to 1971.
With a capacity to seat 250 people, the Little Carib offers a level of intimacy between performers and patrons that one is hardly likely to find in any other space in the country, Germain said.
“The space, as far as I can recollect, is the first place the steel pan was put on the stage,” he said.
“Beryl was very supportive of the early steelband movement. As a matter of fact, Ellie Mannette (ace pannist) always says he would have never reached where he is if it were not for Beryl Mc Burnie.”
Germain described his aunt as “a typical high-level artiste and creative person.”
“A lot of people would even say that she was slightly crazy. She had one determination in life, her dance. That was more or less channeled into the folk dances of the Caribbean, not just Trinidad and Tobago.
“She studied the dances of the South American countries, Haiti and Cuba. As much as she could learn, she took it to heart.”
Germain, a seasoned musician, said Mc Burnie’s shows often featured elements of the Spanish, French and Indian influences on local culture.
“She always tried to portray in her shows how cosmopolitan Trinidad was.”
To commemorate the Little Carib’s 70th anniversary, Germain said the theatre intends to host a special production in Mc Burnie’s memory around the time of her birthday on November 2.
They also are hoping to begin a series called Jazz at the Little Carib in the upcoming months.
“The Little Carib is an ideal space for that type of programme because jazz of its nature wants an audience close to it.”
Germain, who has been the theatre’s chairman since 2008, has already spoken to several jazz performers who have expressed interest in the event.
“Once we can come up with a good programme that would afford the artiste some renumeration and, of course, that the theatre would benefit too, I think we could have a good thing going there.”
Once finalised, Germain said, the jazz shows would begin in July and continue periodically until the end of the year.
As part of its celebration, the Little Carib also started drama classes on Tuesdays for young people in primary and secondary schools. The classes are being tutored by veteran local actress Cecilia Salazar.
Germain said: “What we want to do is encourage and educate the young kids on what the Little Carib is, what theatre and drama is because Trinidad is really the most talented spot on this earth.
“I think per capita, we probably have the most talented people in the world but it needs to be nurtured and the earlier you can start impressing on the kids that drama is part of their heritage, exposing them to it will always be beneficial.”
Still, the historic building is not without its challenges.
Although the theatre functions as a non-profit organisation, Germain said it has never received a State subvention and has not so far been considered as a national heritage site.
“We were fully expecting to be part of the national heritage sites in Trinidad but to this date we don’t know what is happening.
“I would expect that if you are not declared a national heritage site that there would be come sort of maintenance subvention available.”
Germain said the board, which works voluntarily, recently had a meeting with the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts with a view to getting an annual subvention.
He recalled that in 2004, former culture minister Joan Yuille-Williams had attended a function at the Little Carib, which was in a deplorable state at the time.
He said Yuille-Williams had recommended that the then management approach the ministry for financial assistance.
“It took about three years before we came up with a proposal for the ministry for a complete restoration of the theatre which was agreed to and we were granted the funds in 2007. The amount was $8.3 million at the time.”
Germain said the project, which was supposed to have taken 18 months, was delayed by six work stoppages due to non-disbursement of funds.
He said by the time the People’s Partnership government assumed office in 2010, Peters, who was the culture minister, and given his affinity to the Little Carib, assisted them with getting the theatre opened “because we realised that our sole income at the theatre is rental of the space.”
While there are some aspects of the restoration work still to be done, Germain said the facility boasts of having a fully air-conditioned auditorium, a sound and lighting system, new offices and bathroom facilities for wheelchair-bound patrons.
“But in Trinidad, maintenance is a bad word but we have endeavoured to maintain the theatre as well as we can without any funding.”
In an attempt to cut down costs, the theatre also employs workers, such as stage crew, on a show to show basis.
“Our total revenue is from rental of the space. So, if we don’t have money coming in from there, it doesn’t make sense to have employees.”
Germain said the board’s vision for the Little Carib is for the facility to be a space where the less fortunate in society can express their artistic abilities.
They also want the theatre to continue to be the mecca for all cultural expressions in TT.
“Rock bands, folk concerts, Best Village performances, drama. You name it, it has happened at the Little Carib.”