The Necessary Arts School (NAS) celebrates 20 years of training artists in the performing arts in TT. With branches in TT and Dubai, those who have worked with the school for two decades hope to continue the work of the school in the future.
Founder Naima Thompson said the idea for the school came while she was in college in New York in the early 90s.
“At the time, Harlem was under siege by the ‘stop and frisk’ policies of Mayor Giuliani. Tempers constantly flared between law enforcement and primarily the black male youth. The attitudes of the student population reflected this energy through the kids’ behaviour. An unfortunate, gang-related execution of a black youth at Madison Avenue and 104th Street, around the corner from where I worked, struck a flame in me so fierce that the quest for social justice for the invisible youth in my immediate community began.”
She said she had been developing workshops for the after-school programme Boys Harbour between 1991 and 1998, including theatre production, music-video production, advertising in media, ethics in music, and hip-hop dance evolution, for predominantly black and brown children of Harlem and the Bronx.
“These workshops created trustworthy and long-lasting relationships between myself and members of the Boys’ Harbour community. It was the boom of the hip-hop era and I took the time to explore adolescent themes through this popular culture, where my students could connect with something deeper within themselves: a power unique to only them.
She said many of these students and then others became those who would participate in the first few events of NAS in New York City.
“The incident of the kid who was executed on Madison Avenue propelled me to make a greater difference in the lives of my students. I was determined to develop youth programmes outside of my regular teaching job, a venture that could provide a refuge for Harlem’s latch-key kids. In 1997, I started the first NAS programme for the youth of Harlem. This would be the genesis of NAS.”
Thompson said she returned to TT in 2001 and shared her dreams of bringing the Necessary Arts programme to TT with her mother Yvonne Thompson. She met with past schoolmate and friend Lydia Ledgerwood on her home terrace to brainstorm and designed the NAS After-School Arts programme.
“We discussed our different skill sets, and our personal strengths versus challenges, against the backdrop of our perceived needs of the local community. Lydia had remained in Trinidad for the 11 years that I was in NY. By this time in 2001, she had already completed her bachelors in music from the UWI and also worked for many years as a classroom teacher for the Ministry of Education’s public schools.
“I was fortunate that we were able to rekindle our acquaintance on my return home because she had her finger on the pulse of the social needs for our children and youth. We spoke for hours after we ran into each other at a local dance spot, The Pelican. My mom welcomed Lydia into our home, preparing meals for us as we spent long evenings planning ways to move forward with our ideas.”
Thompson said NA Productions Ltd was formed first, a for-profit company to feed a non-profit that would come later. The company was formed with Thompson, her sister Karlene, her mother, and Ledgerwood as directors, and preparation began to offer the first training, Cycle 1, in February 2002. They opened the NAS at 44 Dundonald Street, fondly known as “the Orange Building,” where it remains today.
“We then designed the multi-faceted after-school programme which would be executed for the following 12 years very much as we envisioned. The early days were filled with excitement and lots of activities. We offered training workshops in guitar, vocals, steel pan, drama, video production, self-leadership, air-brush technique, local folk dance and hip- hop dance.
“Our first cohort of participants ranged from primary-school age to adulthood. They were a diverse group in race and economic status, diverse in degrees of talent and interests, and in some instances there were even parents and children in the same workshops. Regardless of background or circumstance we all worked with great eagerness and pride to showcase the outcome of our Augusto Boal’s Newspaper Theatre Forum production. Cycle one culminated in NAS’s first production in Trinidad titled Social Freedom at the Little Carib Theatre.”
Thompson said following the success of cycle one, the after-school curriculum was fine-tuned by Ledgerwood.
“We were applying for funding to subsidise the fees for our at-risk youth from children’s homes and orphanages throughout the country. This would be the template for many years to come. The most needed commodity to keep the dream alive was sustainable funding. Our biggest struggle has always been a sustainable administrative and fundraising system. We were blessed along the way to receive funding from the government, and private sector. It was never enough to really dig our teeth in, but enough to make a difference in the lives of our less fortunate participants.”
After 11 years, Ledgerwood and Thompson moved to Vietnam and Dubai respectively to pursue international teaching careers. They left the TT NAS to writer, director, and actress Penelope Spencer, who had been with the programme since 2003.
Thompson registered a branch of NAS with the International Humanitarian City in Dubai, UAE. From there NAS was able to take its outreach programme to several countries.
“Reach the Unreachable invited volunteer international teachers into communities in Kenya, Turkey, Uganda, Dubai and even Trinidad and Tobago from 2014. We maintained a blog during these years, until the pandemic came and travel stopped our endeavours. You can find reflections written by the volunteers on our blog: Necessary Arts Outreach.”
Spencer said she was brought into the programme in 2003 by Ledgerwood, who knew of her ability, dedication and commitment. She originally worked with the younger children while the founders focused on the adolescents.
“I brought in the component of letting the actors work, after they finished the course, I brought in ETC – Entertainment Theatre Company, where corporate would ask us to do either a little mime performance or write a script for the launch of a product, or we used to do statues a lot. So the actors who did our course eventually would come and work for us, and get paid, and we have people who have been with us for years doing that.”
She said after Thompson and Ledgerwood left, she narrowed to focus on the drama programme because she knew she couldn’t handle the full range of subjects the school was offering.
“We have had a very intensive programme where we get teachers from all over coming to work with the young people, and it hasn’t changed much because we still try to do that, get some of the best people in the business to come and work with the children. We would send them on internships with some of the companies that would have a play on, we’d send our actors there to intern backstage. The beginner’s course hasn’t changed much although a lot of people tell us it’s not a beginner’s course because it’s a very intensive three months that we do, because we do film, TV, and stage acting, working on all those different areas.
“The cycles run concurrently with the school term, so we started our course at the beginning of year to April, we’d have a graduation, and we’d do a performance. We’d have two or three cycles per year. We recently had our 30th cycle.”
Spencer said covid19 hit the school hard, as entertainment was one of the first sectors to be shut down and one of the last to be reopened.
“We did try to do some online classes, we did two cycles online and those were fairly successful but covid19 took a toll on us as an entertainment/performing arts company because that’s how we maintain ourselves, ETC jobs, or by the courses we run, that’s how we pay our bills. The building we are working in is not our building, it was shut down for the two years, so we’re at a real backlog where rent is concerned.”
She said now that things were opening back up, she hoped that corporate sponsors and other companies would reach out to them.
“One of our foundations is working with traditional mas characters, so I’m hoping that as the Carnival season comes about that we are in every little thing.”
She said a celebration of 21 years of the school’s existence was being planned for the Central Bank Auditorium in 2023.
“It’s about keeping our name alive, letting people know that Necessary Arts exists. I’ve been very concerned about our youth, as while children will tell me they want to do the arts, their parents will always guide them away from it. I’m hoping that more parents are open to their children being performers and seeing the value of it, not that it’s necessarily only for acting.
“Our motto at Necessary Arts, and why I fell in love with it, is Stimulating Minds Through Artistic Expression, so working with young people to give them their confidence, to help them with communication, that’s what I’m looking forward to next year and putting on a big production with plenty social value.”
Spencer said social consciousness and dealing with socially relevant topics has always been a part of Necessary Arts.
“The first production we did was called Social Freedom, we did a piece called Provoked where we tried to provoke the senses of the human, we’ve always done shows with social relevance and that’s always been the mainstay of Necessary Arts and another reason I’ve always loved working with this company. Other shows we’ve done include Big Hand, Circus Circus, Zuri, and Get Real.”
She said many people in the industry who are making names for themselves passed through Necessary Arts.
“People like Reagan Des Vignes, Kearn Samuels, Bradley Logan, Levee Rodriguez, a lot of people who are working backstage and onstage, people working out there making a name for themselves and that’s something we’re really proud of.”
Thompson said she was proud to see the outcome of Spencer’s dedication to the acting programme.
“We would not have 20 years to celebrate in Trinidad in it were not for Pennie. When Lydia and I left for international teaching careers, Pennie stayed and shaped the dream into what she could manage. Today NAS is one of the go-to institutions to develop skills in acting for stage and screen. Many successes have come through our doors and are visibly working in the entertainment and media industry today.”
Thompson said she hoped Spencer could continue the work of the school in the future, “where performers and non-performers alike can share in the experience of acting and use their skills in the ways best suited for them. I know that owning the Orange Building is a dream held by many NAS members and leaders. We continue to keep the hope alive.”