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Stepping Off the Stage: Female Producers on the Rise

Scarlette Beharie Producer of Woman Tongue on the rising of female producers

Women have always played important and diverse roles in Jamaican theatre from the days of writer and producer Una Marson in the 1920s and ‘30s  through to Greta Fowler co-founder of the Little Theatre Movement and on to director and co-founder of the Barn Theatre Yvonne Brewster. The island also boasts an impressive roster of actresses, many of whom have become household names. However, the past few years seem to have produced a been groundswell in the women taking on leading production roles beyond the stage.

Bertina Macaulay and Karen Harriott in rehearsal for Woman TongueThe moment seems particularly marked by the current staging of Woman Tongue, produced by Scarlette Beharie, one of the women to most recently join the growing cadre of women producing commercial theatre in Jamaica. Interestingly, Woman Tongue, playing at the Courtleigh Auditorium in New Kingston, features not just a strong all-female cast of Carol Lawes, Barbara McCalla, Bertina Macaulay, Hilary Nicholson and Karen Harriott, but the writer, stage manager, musical director, choreographer, costume designer, set designer, and even the graphics designers are all women.

Along with Beharie, there are currently four other women confidently seated on the mantle of producer. Of these five, with the exception of Barbara Gloudon, who remains at the helm of The Little Theatre Movement which produces the National Pantomime, all have started their own production companies.  

Dahlia Harris wrote, directed, produced and starred in Her Last Cry

Dahlia Harris heads up her DMH Productions which has produced several of Jamaica’s recent award-winning plays including Judgement, Ole Fire Stick and Her Last Cry. Andrea Wright, most known for her extremely popular role as Delcita established her own Big Stage Entertainment. Nadean Rawlins of RAW Management operates out of Montego Bay where she recently produced Karl William’s award-winning The Black That I Am.

Of course, as Jamaica is the land of many hats, all five women have other roles in theatre. Gloudon has written the National Pantomime for a few decades. Rawlins and Harris remain two of Jamaica’s most celebrated contemporary actors while Wright is also a producer, director and actress.

The current growth, however, should not be seen as a fluke, but rather appears to be a natural progression.

Beharie argues, that the seeming absence of women, is probably more a figment of inconsistency than real absence. Indeed, women have penned several of the island’s most critically celebrated plays, considered an important part of defining the country’s theatrical canon. These include Sylvia Wynter’s Masquerade, Una Marson’s Pocomania,  Gloria Lannaman’s Stanley, Fay, Pularchie and P and of course the body of work produced by Sistren Theatre Collective. 

Therefore, what appears to be different at this moment, is the number of women actively and consistently engaged in work off the stage and on the page.

“In the last five years women have really been coming to the fore outside of the performance space, in terms of writing, directing, and producing,” said Beharie, “and thanks to the technical programme that Nadia Roxburgh started at the Philip Sherlock Centre [at the UWI, Mona], we have a number of female technicians who do lights, stage management and sound.”

Nadean Rawlins collects her Actor Boy Award for The Black That I AmInterestingly, Rawlins, Beharie and Harris all indicate that a significant part of what they enjoy about taking on the mantle as producer is the control that it brings, as well as the professional growth it provides. 

“For me producing was a natural progression,” Beharie who spent many years in stage management explains. “I had to decide where I’d like to see theatre go in Jamaica and then decide how I can help it get there. So, producing gives me a greater say in the kind of theatre I’m creating, the kind of theatre I want to see created. As a producer, you also get to choose who you work with and that’s very important to me,” Beharie said.

Nadean Rawlins, whose first foray off the stage was directing, starting with short plays,  explains that she began to explore directing to achieve growth. 

“I didn’t want to stay one place,” Rawlins said. “I can now say to myself yes I can act, so for me, it’s then what’s the next step.” 

For Harris, who is a theatrical quadruple threat as actress, writer, director and producer, the jump to writer and producer came from the practical need to create work for herself. She explains that she began this part of her sojourn as a means of getting work for herself in 2010. She explained that while earlier in the year she had the option of being a Jambiz International play or a Stages video, but while she had opted to do the Stages project it fell through.

“I was looking at a December with no work and so I said the only way I’m going to find work is to create it myself,” Harris said. The result was Judgement.

Rawlins in Dahlia Harris' To the FinishOf course, being a producer is no easy task. Rawlins laughingly admits, that she has questioned why she has decided to take on the role but has no wish to give it up.

“Why oh, why did I do this?” Rawlins says. “I don’t want to stop but the weight and the responsibility are much heavier. I like the challenge, though. It drives me.”

Interestingly, space is one of the biggest challenges that producers face. With Jamaica’s limited theatrical infrastructure, many producers can find themselves scrambling to for space to regularly stage and rehearse their play, as well as provide storage for costumes, props etc. 

It is a sentiment echoed by both Beharie and Harris, who also explain that it affects their ability to tap into the pool of institutions interested in taking benefits, who do so on a regular cycle, that they cannot often fit into because the space to stage a play isn’t available.

Beharie, who is staging Woman Tongue at the Courtleigh Auditorium, a non-traditional space for theatre, notes that taking a play outside of a theatre, significantly adds to the technical production costs.

Rawlins, who is currently operating out of the Fairfield Theatre in Montego Bay, therefore, counts herself lucky. 

“If you have no space in which you’re going to present the work, then you can’t present it,” Rawlins said.

Yet they remain undaunted by these challenges.

Harris notes that the rise of female producers is also affecting the roles being created for women. 

“You find that a lot of plays produced by women have strong roles for women. I think women are interested in producing stories about themselves,” Harris explained. “I think more women are exploring producing because of their commitment to the art as well as the business,” Harris said.

“I’m inspired by the women who have come before who have been outstanding,” Beharie said, naming Carmen Tipling, Yvonne Brewster and Jean Small as among those. “Yvonne said to me, if you want to do it, don’t talk about it, don’t ask anybody’s permission. Just do it.”