AS TOLD TO BC PIRES
My name is Danielle Dieffenthaller and I made Trinidad’s best-known TV soap opera, Westwood Park.
I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. It seems quite limiting and stupid to me when people box me in as a “West” Girl.
I live in Shorelands or Bayshore, depending on who I’m arguing with.
According to the people who put up an illegal gate in the road cutting me off from the rest of the neighbourhood, I live in Bayshore…except Bayshore too, have put up barriers…
I guess I live in limbo land.
We lost Dad, Bunny, last year, but my mother, Claire, is still alive.
I was six when my parents got divorced.
I remember grieving for my father as if he had died. I missed his presence terribly. I
don't think I ever shook that feeling of complete abandonment.
It got better over the years.
My daughter was seven and my son was one when I got divorced myself. They are my whole family now.
My brothers Kees, Hans and John are in Kes the Band.
We grew up in two different households but have managed to maintain a bond. I’ve watched their development from day one and documented their progression from their very first band so it's all very natural for me. I get the “Kee’'s sister" a lot but I see it as payback multiplied by ten for all the Westwood Park years they had to endure being “Danielle’s little brothers.”
They never asked me to shake a tambourine. I would be a definite disaster. Respect to all the tambourine players out there.
After my Common Entrance exam, we moved to Barbados.
We moved back to Trinidad when I was 11 and my mother remarried.
At 13 we moved to Kenya, where I completed high school.
I didn’t see my father for the first two years and all we had was snail mail.
But I was fiercely loyal. When my stepfather wanted to adopt us, I vehemently refused, saying I already had a father and was not an orphan!
After Ryerson University in Canada, I went to the University of Westwood Park. Now that was a whole education!
Do I dance? Well, you could call it that.
Westwood Park was born of: 1) I always wanted to do drama but didn’t want to start with something important or serious, like adapting Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance; 2) I was appalled the Young & the Restless was Trinidad’s number one show, when we have just as much bacchanal and glitz locally;
And 3) I was suffering from a performance tabanca after the Immortelle Theatre Company’s production of Waves of Hope ran for three weeks in Barbados.
Over pizza with Deborah Maillard and Bernard Hazell, I floated the idea and they immediately got excited.
Dave Williams and Mark White joined the writing team of myself and my ride-or-die sistren, Antoinette Hagley.
We started shooting a pilot, to raise funds to do season one, in 1995, basically begging friends and family to use their houses as locations.
Restaurants, public spaces and most people were pretty generous.
We begged actors to work for free, promising to pay them when we got sponsors. We filmed the first three episodes like that.
I can be objective about Westwood Park’s importance now.
At the time, I was told we couldn’t compete with the foreign shows and it was beneath me to do a soap opera.
But I felt compelled to do it. Because…Because…Bad mind!
I can now look back and see how many people have benefited from the WP experience.
Because the images they were seeing were not familiar to the majority, we got comments like, “They ain’t have no black people?” And “The only Indians in Westwood Park are maids and waitresses!”
We purposefully didn’t use too much slang, so we could export the show without subtitles, but we did speak with Trinidadian accents.
A lot of men in particular would say “I doh watch them ting” – but then had some pretty in-depth comments about characters in the show.
It wasn’t until season three that people felt comfortable enough to admit they were fans.
Audiences in Barbados, the Virgin Islands and Grenada were wild about the show. A few flight attendant actors became superstars in those islands.
Barbados even invited “Sahara” and “Jason” to host their Miss Barbados/Universe along with a star from the Bold and the Beautiful – and Sahara & Jason were swarmed by fans far more than the B&B actor.
When we got to New York and the Tri-state area, actors would get approached in by fans in major department stores like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret.
The DVD release of season one was bittersweet. So much bacchanal had transpired by that time that I wasn’t really hyped about it.
Plus, I wish I had insisted on a different cover. The DVDs didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. People had been pirating the show for years.
One moment will always stay with me. In Grande Rivière, at Mt Plaisir Resort, one of our main sets, in the rainy season – it was always the rainy season when we filmed, despite my best efforts – we started early in the morning.
At around 10am, I noticed that the backdrop of a sandy beach was all of a sudden covered in water. Natacha Jones’s young son and his friends were playing in the sand.
I got nervous and called them in and, soon after, this apocalyptic gush of water came! It was my first experience of seeing a river come down!
The best thing about WP was that we got to see our entire country and to show it to our people.
The worst thing about doing WP was looking for the #$@#% money! Especially with people assuming I was making a mint. Because popularity was apparently bankable!
I have to be grateful that the TV stations eventually funded the show.
There were many personality clashes, a couple o’ nervous breakdowns, several personal agendas to sidestep and a lot of people telling me what I was doing wrong, but not offering any solutions!
We wrote whatever we wanted and then I’d put on my producer hat and start slashing or downsizing to fit the budget. Wherever we could bargain, beg or borrow from any and everyone, we did. So that every cent would be on the screen.
Without the generosity (and naivety) of a lot of people, Westwood Park could not have been made. ‘Piero Guerrini at Mt Plaisir was one of our earliest supporters from the initial writing stage to the very end. ‘Several families who did not know what they were getting into stuck with us most of the way, like the Lewises, Veni Mange restaurant, Christopher Lynch (until his death), John Cropper and his family and the Phillipses.
A Haitian-American asked me to define myself as either black or white.
I said I was a Trinidadian.
She said, “That is not a race!”
I said, “But it is!”
For me, then, a Trini is an attitude and an ethnicity.
Trinidad and Tobago is the only place to which I can belong.
It is my home, my nemesis and my muse.
Read the full version of this feature on Saturday at www.BCPires.com