I love musical theatre, always have always will. It was my intention even before arriving in Montserrat to put on some sort of musical theatre production during my time here. I met Alys Jenkins, a children’s theatre director who arrived in Montserrat in December. The rest is history as they say, and come January we started planning.
We set ourselves the challenge of devising a piece of Musical Theatre with a group of 20 children, aged 7-11, to be performed during the St Patrick’s week festival in March. As St Patrick’s week celebrates Montserratian culture and its Irish and African heritage, we decided to base the work around Montserratian history and folklore. With this loose outline we started promoting the project which would start that weekend and run for the following 7 Saturday afternoons.
As we didn’t know at the beginning what our musical would be about, we chose the name “Under the Mango Tree”. People told us they would have been told folk stories by their grandparents out in the yard, perhaps sat under a tree for shade. This name would not limit us to any particular story and we could follow the storyline in whatever direction it went throughout the rehearsal period.
To promote the project and get participants, Alys designed posters and hand outs which I gave to children around the different schools. I also did a radio interview which was played on the six o’clock news (cringe!!). With eight 2 hour rehearsals, no cast and no story, we had our work cut out for us!! (Some said we were too optimistic… 🙂
So we were all set to begin.. apart from the fact we had no idea what response we would get. Despite the children being excited about the idea, we started to worry a few days before the first rehearsal when we only had one child signed up.
We needn’t have worried about lack of response. In true last-minute style, on the morning of our first rehearsal the phone rang off the hook. We had over 30 children turn up on the afternoon to the rehearsal venue, the Hilltop Coffee House and Family Centre. Alys and I (both complete softies) kept extending our limit “Ok. Let’s just take 2 more. Ok, let’s go up to 25. Hmmmm do you think we can manage 30??” When we hit 30 we tried to be firm. But a couple of children’s tears made us give in and take the lot!!
We taped a long piece of paper to the floor and asked the children to write down or draw any “People, Places and Things” that they associated with Montserrat. We spent the rest of the session learning songs to hear their singing voices (Outstanding!!) and doing some ice breakers and acting games to get them comfortable. They all left happy and excited about what was to come. Most had never done an actual play before, so I think at first it was difficult for them to understand what we meant by a “production”. At the end of the rehearsal the two of us breathed a huge sigh of relief that it had gone well. However, at the same time it really hit home what we had taken on!
Alys and I did our research and took on the children’s ideas eventually coming up with a storyline involving the Mermaid of Chances Peak, a mythical character who lives on a pond up near the volcano. The myth of the Mermaid was supposedly brought over with the Irish, fitting in perfectly to the St Patrick’s theme. We devised the storyline together and designed it specifically to suit the children and the strengths that they had. The story took many twists and turns over the course of the project, as one of us would every now and then have a moment of inspiration or one of the children would do something in a rehearsal and we’d think “we need to fit that in the show somewhere!”
A brief synopsis: a brother and sister decide to go and find the Mermaid of Chances Peak to see if she is real. On the way they are taken on a journey through Montserrat’s history by 3 Orioles (the Montserratian National Bird). There they meet the Aruak tribes, followed by some children of the African slaves and the Irish. When they meet the mermaid she is upset that nobody believes in her anymore, so the children alert ZJB Radio to make an announcement. On hearing this news, the King of Redonda, who is looking for a wife comes in search of the mermaid. You can imagine the rest!
Alys wrote the script and I wrote the songs, a winning combination. As well as original music we also used some local songs.
So we had a musical that was taking shape nicely and a performance date and venue. Now just the small matters of a stage, set design, props, tickets, publicity, programmes etc. Our thoughts? “Agggggggh when are we going to find time to do all this as well as prepare the actual show?!” Enter Peter Filleul and his wife Sian Wynne! I was telling them our idea over a Gin and Tonic (or two) and they immediately said they would love to help. Sian kept insisting that sometimes they tend to “take over” so just to say if they were doing too much. This made me laugh and I insisted that with everything Alys and myself had taken on, we would be needing as much help as possible! With all their experience of putting on shows and other events and their knowledge of how to get things done in Montserrat, they were simply outstanding. Sian thought of absolutely everything and I learnt a lot from the two of them.
With the help of Doug, the man with the truck, they borrowed some staging from the Cultural Centre and were able to transform a small block of concrete stage into an almost professional looking performance space. You should have seen the children’s faces when they saw where they were going to perform!
Other people also generously offered their time and were an integral part of the show’s success. Along with Peter Sian and Doug, our design team, Helen, Terri and Shan did the props and set design. They decorated the stage with Palm Tree leaves and made wings by attaching material to two long pieces of bamboo that they fixed to the ceiling. Peter organised the sound system and lights and Sian printed tickets, programmes, manned the doors, and liaised with the St Patrick’s Festival committee to ensure that everything ran smoothly. We have all these people to thank for making the show such a success.
We also have to thank ZJB, the local radio station for their support. As well as broadcasting us on the news to raise awareness, the news presenter also recorded some announcements for us to use during the show – an important part of the story line. Nearer the performances they also had us on Rose Wilcock’s cultural programme to talk about the project and attract an audience. We took on two of our cast along, who absolutely excelled on live radio and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the radio presenters of the future!
We were originally allocated the performance date of Tuesday 12 March which turned out to be problematic. Firstly, it was the day of Lookout Primary School’s sports day (they take sports days VERY seriously here). A large number of our cast were from this school and since their prize giving wouldn’t finish until after 6, and our show started at 7, we were concerned about them getting to the venue on time and how tired they would be. Secondly, the venue only seated 100 people and we realised that the show was actually going to be very popular. So, we changed the date to the following Saturday, allowing us to put on two afternoon performances, a better time for such a young cast and to allow more people to see the show. This turned out to be a great decision as we sold out one performance and almost filled the other.
It was only as the audience entered that a member of the cast, a 7-year-old boy, Josue, realised just what a production was: “Becky….. look, there’s people here! Why are they here?” Awwww.
The children really rose to the occasion and performed wonderfully. We were really proud of each and every one of them. The audiences were absolutely brilliant, laughing in all the right places and didn’t need to be asked twice to get involved in the audience participation. They really supported the children throughout and gave them so much confidence. You could see the elation in the cast’s faces as they watch the audience give them a standing ovation. Have to admit I got a wee bit emotional at that point!!
The show went down unbelievably well. Everyone was raving about it as I think it really showed what the children are capable of. It was also the first show of its kind in Montserrat, at least for a very long time. The Minister of Education used it as an example of a successful community project and one that he would be happy to fund to be put on again. We have also been offered the Government House as a performance space if we would like to do another showing of it.
The children who took part are already asking, “Becky, I miss the show. What are we doing next?” Children who didn’t take part are asking “Can I please be in your next show?!” There is now definitely a sense of excitement around musical theatre amongst the children in Montserrat. This was exactly what we hoped to achieve with through the project and Alys and I have no intention of stopping here. We are meeting tomorrow to discuss what comes next. We hope to run a series of musical theatre workshops this term and would also love to put on another show, perhaps aimed at a slightly older age group. We would also like to offer a summer school in July and perhaps if there is any interest, train some people to continue the work we have been doing. Watch this space!
A link to more photos on the Spirit of Montserrat Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.501863523184706.1073741838.103640209673708&type=3
A link to a brief review of the show: http://www.mnialive.com/caribbean/montserrat/3554-under-the-mango-tree.html