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Theatre, a place where people commune
During his debut on Broadway in 2011 as a puppeteer for the lead character in one of the hottest stage plays in recent times, War Horse, a story about horses in World War I Europe, actor Jude Sandy accumulated accolades and amazing memories. “I’ll never forget the sensation of our first performance, the lights came down and we were not prepared for the tsunami of applause. When the lights came up the audience was on its feet, roaring and clapping. We could see grown men in tears,” recounts Sandy, 38.
“Famous people were streaming in to see us: Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Lange and Samuel L Jackson. We could see Hugh Jackman applauding, Ryan Gosling and Matthew Broderick came backstage. Angela Bassett stayed a half hour shaking hands with every cast member. The funny part is, I met almost none of these people because after playing a horse for over two hours all you want to do is take a shower, ice your muscles and eat!”
Sunday Guardian caught up with the Trini thespian during rehearsals with Fault Line Theater for Michael Periman’s At The Table, which opens this summer in New York City.
Q: How can Broadway have an influence on humanity?
A: Theatre as a part of the cultural economy in America is an often unsung force in the life of this society. In a technological age in which it’s easier and easier to be isolated, theatre is a place where people commune. Theatre is about human connections happening right in front of you, in which you are also participating. We laugh and cry together, yay and boo together. The actors and the choices they make are affected by your presence, often more than you realise.
It’s like going to football or cricket. You root for characters you love, you hope the actors have a great performance, and your support makes a difference.
Which productions have you performed in?
As a classically trained actor I’ve played everything from the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol to a Nigerian student in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun, as well as a French waiter, a doctor, drug dealer and drag queen. This past year, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, I appeared alongside Stacy Keach in repertory productions of Henry IV, Parts I & II.
Here in NYC I was cast for two years on Broadway puppeteering the title role in War Horse at Lincoln Center Theatre. I’ve understudied a leading character in an off-Broadway production of Ike Holter’s Hit The Wall, played the Cardinal in a production of Shakespeare’s King John, and just finished playing the title role in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. I recently finished playing several roles in an off-Broadway adaptation of the French classic, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
Which productions influence your technique or career pursuits?
In live theatre individual performances tend to stick with me longer than complete productions. In Fences on Broadway, Denzel Washington confirmed that August Wilson’s writing about the lives of Black people was as sweeping and monumental as the greatest opera. Denzel made language sing in ways I’d never heard. In the Sydney Theatre Company’s beautiful production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, Cate Blanchett’s vocal resonance was magnificent, she never shouted, even in the balcony she sounded as if she was right next to you.
Should visitors to NYC weigh Broadway versus off-Broadway productions?
See theatre in NYC, not just Broadway, it’s where some of the world’s greatest live performances can be found. Look for shows that peak your interest. My favourite New York theatre experience was an off-off-Broadway production called Lying in a space with under 100 seats.
Broadway isn’t all musicals. Some of the best musicals may never have a Broadway run. Don’t be limited by labels. Get newspaper or go online and be ready for an adventure.
Have you noticed more or fewer Caribbean nationals in Broadway productions?
There are too many of us around—many working under the radar—to provide anything resembling a proper list. Last year, I worked with the wonderful Carolyn Michelle Smith who is of Trini parentage, who has a better Trini twang than I do! She’s been on Broadway in Romeo & Juliet and appeared on the Netflix series House of Cards.
John Douglas Thompson, considered right now to be New York theatre’s great classical leading man, was born in London but his parents are Jamaican. Recent Yale grads Winston Duke of Tobago and Paul Pryce of Trinidad are making big impressions. In musical theatre, Trini Krisha Marcano is one of many Caribbean folk working regularly on Broadway.
What have you learned that you didn’t acquire in Trinity Rep MFA Programs at Brown University?
A conservatory is a demanding but often protective environment. You don’t learn the business side of the profession in school. You leave school not knowing how much rejection you [might] face. You don’t learn the perseverance it takes to survive the ups and downs of a life in the profession. These things you only learn by practical experience. What school offers you is craft, technique, and an opportunity to explore your truth as an artist in a structured environment.
What does the Broadway experience offer young minds?
Theatre offers young people the opportunity to have their imagination encouraged and rewarded. We grow up in a world that often curbs our creative thinking. But it’s creative thinkers who make the biggest contributions to society. Theatre reminds people, young and old, how to access their sense of wonder and say, “What if ...”
Is there a Trini story that seems suited for an off-Broadway stage?
I can’t think of one, which is partly my own ignorance, but which also says something about our ongoing failure in fostering a healthy Trinbagonian theatre. It’s all the more sad when you consider that T&T has several of the ingredients necessary for a vibrant theatre culture. With Carnival and other festivals, we have nurtured an innate sense of theatricality and spectacle. We have a local and expatriate literary tradition that is highly esteemed.
Third, is a rich calypso social commentary tradition, which means we are used to using the performing arts as a way to critique our lives.
What we haven’t figured out is how to cultivate an audience for meaningful theatre, how to take these ingredients and create a theatre culture that is distinctive and feels relevant to our world. Theatre and dance are more vulnerable than other art forms because they depend on a live local audience in order to survive. If we can educate ourselves and our audiences about what great, fresh theatre can actually look like, and think regionally about creating and presenting work, there is potential for a richer future for Trinbagonian theatre.
The late, great Geoffrey Holder’s work in musical theatre and dance was celebrated specifically because the theatrical worlds he created onstage integrated the pageantry, ritual, sensuality and spirit that make up the heart of Trinbagonian identity.
How can visitors research Broadway shows to make informed choices?
Playbill.com, Broadway.com and Broadwayworld.com are good places to get info on what’s playing. In the middle of Times Square is the [famed] TKTS booth, which offers discounts for each day’s Broadway performances.
What do you miss about T&T?
I miss all the people who, against cultural forces that tend to coerce us into narrow lives and narrow thinking, they opened my mind in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
In your downtime are you scripting your dream play, and does it involve bloodshed and corruption?
I have three plays at varying stages of composition, but they’re more existential arguments than plot-driven narratives, though bloodshed is a possible outcome in at least one of them. Two are set in a fictionalised Trinidad, and I do dream of having them produced at home with Trini actors.
If your life’s journey became a play what would be the title on its playbill?
A Chronicle of (Un)Becoming Whole.
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