One year ago Rent, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical, was staged at Queen’s Hall by an unknown director, Andrew Seepersad. The Siparia-born Seepersad did not know it would take him 15 years to pluck up the courage to bring Rent to the local stage, after he first saw it on Broadway. Of course he struggled with the size of the production and the related costs once he made the decision, but he went ahead anyway. Rent was his first show. Financially, it put his life savings at risk, with only bpTT and the Ministry of Multiculturalism to help out with a potential $400,000 tab. He just managed to break even—quite a feat for a first-timer on an expensive production. He did not expect much from corporate sponsorship at the time. “Companies don’t see the importance of their corporate responsibility,” he laments. “They will sponsor a Carnival fete, which is not a nation-building thing, and they will not support the arts, which is nation-building and of great value. The arts are generally under-funded and it’s where talent development happens in any country. Look how many from T&T do well in the arts internationally.”
Armed with passion and a 1996 mental picture of the production, Seepersad launched himself into the world of theatre with Rent. He had no experience, no big names and only a handful of novices for actors, but he made do. He became casting director with a little help from friends, set designer with some construction help from his uncle, and director of Rent, with emotional support from loved ones.
The quality of the production took most people by surprise, so much so that the controversial content—the lives of characters, who happened to be gay and bisexual—didn’t attract much attention. “It was amazing to watch people appreciate the production and its quality and not reacting to the subject matter negatively. “I would like to be clear,” he explained, “that when Proscenium Theatre Co (PTC) decided to produce Rent, it was never done with the intention of championing gay rights in Trinidad. We believe it is a powerful piece of work which tells a strong story of love and compassion.” And since the issue of gay rights is on the front burner at the moment, he advocates for the separation of church and State. “Any time a country enters into a discourse which challenges existing ideology, it is a good thing. People should be allowed to think and feel. You can’t force anyone to feel differently.”
Seepersad is now staging a family Broadway musical, Little Shop of Horrors, his second theatrical production with a $400,000 price tag, at Queen’s Hall in Port-of-Spain until June 17. Proscenium also staged the drama Rabbit Hole, another Pulitzer Prize-winning production from the US, at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop last October. Natacha Jones and Mervyn de Goeas brought some star power to the production, which was directed by Giselle Langton and produced by Seepersad. Acknowledging his limits, Seepersad said: “I have a lot to learn and musical productions are my passion. “I plan to use directors who are better suited for other productions.” Jones, who saw the young director’s work on Rent, said: “I realised he was going all the way and not shortchanging anyone. I was really impressed with his gentle, caring, professional manner on Rabbit Hole. He is doing something that takes a lot of commitment and you don’t experience all the time.” A stalwart of theatre, director Helmer Hilwig, sought out Seepersad during Rent to say how impressed he was with the youngster. At 30, Seepersad is one of the youngest theatrical directors in this country, with larger-than-life dreams of reviving and bringing quality international shows to the local stage—in their original form. While there is no shortage of local talent, he said, “There is a void for better productions.” He lamented the lack of sophistication in local theatre.
“We used to have it in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.”
Seepersad grew up in the southland with a strict father, a lawyer, and a more liberal mother, a school principal. He is the youngest of four children. At his alma mater, Presentation College, San Fernando, he was fed a rich diet of theatre by music teacher Cynthia Lee Mack. He has performed in various productions with the Marionettes and UWI Festival Arts Chorale. “What we are trying to do with Proscenium is a more holistic artistic approach, musically, choreographically and directorially. “I don’t think we give enough credit to our audiences that they would enjoy something that is not Trini,” he said. His aim is “to sophisticate our audiences by giving them a diet of international award-winning productions. “I see our audience as part of the world,” he explains, “and we need not be myopic as we tend to be. We think everything we do is the best. We live in a bubble. When we say things like ‘God is a Trini,’ ‘Trinis are the best,’ when compared globally we are certainly less in some areas. We need to be realistic.” Seepersad is frank about the quality of local theatre.
“I don’t think it’s very good, for the majority of productions. I try to separate myself, being an audience member and the director.”
But he is not all doom and gloom.
“There is a lot of local creativity. Look at the Best Village programme, a lot of great things come out of it. Then you have the great quality of Tony Hall, with Miss Miles. I also think of The Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club as a great original production.” He doesn’t like the local practice of adapting and “localising” plays. “We don’t honour the original script and creativity,” he pointed out. “While I appreciate local theatre, it’s not my strength. I often feel cheated when I go to productions, because they don’t do what was promised. I am not judging anyone,” he said. “I’m certainly not the best director, and it continues to be a steep learning curve. I am lucky to have good people to lean on for advice.” Actor, director and writer Mervyn de Goeas is one of Seepersad’s mentors. De Goeas said: “He is doing the unexpected, and it’s quite unnerving. He has not acquired a fan base as yet, (but) people who go to his shows can’t get enough of it. He takes on too much, but it is part of the growing pains. He has a long way to go, with great passion and potential. ‘I don’t like musicals but the current production of Little Shop of Horrors may have changed my opinion. When I see how people react, especially children, I see it with renewed eyes.”
Rent remains one of Seepersad’s top choices globally, along with another Broadway heavyweight, Chicago. He has seen musical productions on the big stages from New York to London to Spain. But it’s not a cheap passion. “I am blessed enough to have a nine-to-five job to take the risk and I am able to give back.” Seepersad works as a finance analyst at bpTT. Proscenium’s big push has been to reveal fresh and unknown talent and to work with charity. The company puts emphasis on developing talent and working with charitable organisations such as Lifeline. He donated $15,000 to Lifeline from his first show, for the charity’s outreach programmes with young men at risk. The attraction of young talent also poses his biggest challenge as a director. “The diva attitude is killing their talent before they even make a name for themselves. We have good talent, but the sense of self-importance, when they think they are better than they actually are, it’s hurting their chances for work. “We have so much untapped talent. PTC will provide opportunities and need other companies to become the training ground for young actors and give them the opportunity to build their resume, so that they can compete internationally.”