The Cayman National Cultural Foundation is a fierce advocate of the arts in the Cayman Islands, and has consistently produced shows, demonstrations and cultural events to remind people of their importance in the community and as part of the local heritage.
Henry Muttoo, artistic director of the foundation has always believed that encouraging children from a young age to be involved in the arts is vital to their growth and development and ability to be creative. He started the Young At Arts programme in the mid-90s where students could come together to be taught singing, acting and dancing by some of the most recognised names in the country.
The original vision was to create a group of young performers who, after attending the programme, could be capable of putting on a production and possibly taking it outside the country to present it elsewhere.
There was also the hope that as older actors retired from the stage, new blood could be introduced. In the early days teachers included such notable talents as Susan Barnes, Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette and Marcia Muttoo.
Teachers from local schools would also donate their time whenever possible and so the children were exposed to a great deal of professional expertise over the four-month period.
The workshops were held three evenings a week from January to April and September to December.
For five years the programme continued, but at the same time greater demands were being put on the teachers and the schools began to offer more and more extracurricular activities.
Young at Arts found itself in competition with after-school sports and convincing parents that subjects such as drama were just as important as other pursuits became increasingly difficult. Reluctantly the decision was made to put Young at Arts on hiatus for a while until they could regroup and get more support.
In the fall of 2010 the workshops were reintroduced, this time with a focus on storytelling and improvisation. Gimistory is an annual presentation of folk stories that visits many of the local districts and Cayman Brac and is organised by the foundation.
As it is an integral part of the Caribbean culture, it was decided that one of the workshops would teach children the art of telling stories and as their final exam they were included on the Gimistory programme for one of the evenings.
Muttoo is particularly interested in the classes based around improvisation, explaining that it “helps to find the creative being inside us.”
When handed scripts and characters, the students can learn how to perform the parts, say their lines perfectly and move to the correct positions on the stage, but interpretation is limited. Through improvisational workshops they are given the space and opportunity to be creative in a controlled environment but without the usual boundaries. Give eight students the same object and five minutes to think of a situation involving it and the odds are good that each student will come up with something different. It is a way of “taking things beyond what we perceive to be their limits.”
Although some parents may feel that a focus on the arts will restrict their child’s ability to pursue a lucrative career in the future, it should be noted that experts agree a solid foundation in the creative subjects proves to be beneficial once students reach maturity and are ready to enter the workplace.
For example, the Young at Arts programme encourages children to work as a team and express themselves perhaps more readily than they would at school. It provides them an outlet for sharing their thoughts and ideas, and instils a confidence that can later serve them in public speaking or presentations.
They are given the freedom to make mistakes and to see those mistakes as challenges or temporary setbacks, not insurmountable obstacles. The possibilities that the arts create and offer are sometimes forgotten when they are compared to courses in finance or economics.
As the programme runs alongside the foundation’s schedule of events, there are many opportunities for the children to experience every aspect of producing a show. They volunteer to work backstage, assist performers and organise props. It is an excellent introduction to the technical side of productions, and allows them to see that it takes much more than just great entertainers to make a show successful.
This term there are seven students enrolled and all of them display enthusiasm and an eagerness to perform. Teacher Gabrielle Wheaton begins workshops with warm-up exercises, followed by role-playing and improvisational skits.
They learn different techniques and how to express themselves with sounds and gestures rather than words. A range of different scenarios is suggested, then various members of the group are selected to bring them to life, sometimes with hilarious results.
Everyone has the chance to be the main character in scenes and those who are shyer than others respond well to the positive reinforcement and advice given by their teacher, finding their voice and showing more confidence.
It is fascinating to see how involved they all become in the task at hand, not just when it comes to discussing ideas, but how they use the few simple props they have at their disposal to assist them in creating their characters.
One moment they are patients suffering from various maladies and waiting in a doctor’s office; the next they are three chefs vying for a trophy whilst a host strides around with an imaginary microphone and a judge comes in to taste the final invisible results.
There can be any number up to 15 students accepted a term and ages range from 12- to 17-years-old.
When the programme began the plan was to have two groups of 15 students and two teachers, one taking the younger children and one taking the older.
Unfortunately the funding has simply not been available to accommodate so many, particularly when a great percentage of the applicants would be unable to attend but for a scholarship option.
The foundation is hoping that through some corporate or individual sponsorship, they will be able to offer more spaces in the future. There is no doubt that the children are very enthusiastic participants.
Unlike some classrooms where a question would be asked by the teacher and no answers would be offered, here there is a constant sea of hands in the air from students eager to share opinions.
A number of graduates from the programme have gone on to excel in their careers. Rita Estevanovich is programmes director at the foundation and has performed in numerous productions on the island and overseas.
She and other past students’ successes show how a background in the arts has served them well in their professional lives.
Young at Arts provides scholarships for a select number of students each term, based on the strength of their audition and other criteria.
Every student has to audition and approximately 80 per cent are accepted. If they do not make it through the first time, they are contacted by the foundation and encouraged to apply for the next term.
The heavily subsidised cost of the course for paying students is only $150 for the four months, which includes transport from school to the Harquail Theatre.
More information and an application form can be found at www.artscayman.org