Bagasse Company co-founder Christine Johnston’s love affair with theatre began as an accident. She told an audience at the Monday Night Theatre Forum at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW) that she didn’t get bitten by the acting bug until after high school, when she was introduced to theatre through a role as a singer/actress in the 1981 Judy Stone production, “The Fantastics.”
As painful as it was to the uninitiated actor, it was there she met Raymond Choo Kong, who introduced her to the Trinidad Tent Theatre, which she described as fascinating. Johnston said it really captured her imagination and brought out a part of her she didn’t know existed.
After some five years in the Tent Theatre, Johnston; along with fellow actors Mervyn de Goeas, Noel Blandin and Kenrick Perreira, left to form the Bagasse Company in 1986, as they found the productions were getting too repetitious and they also wanted to get into mainstream theatre.
That year, they performed Old Story Time for the National Drama Association’s Festival, with costume and set design done by Geoffrey Stanford and Claude Allum of “D Village.” This began a collaboration which lasted for years, as the decision was made to raise production values early on, and they remain important to the Company to this day. They also decided to make proper programs so they could sell ads to raise funds.
After this, the company performed “Mass Appeal,” a play which questioned the raison d’etre of religion and challenged the status quo of theatre in T&T. Bagasse Productions continued to do a number of productions in the same line, including “As Is,” a play about AIDS; “Extremities,” a powerful play about rape and women’s rights; “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and “M. Butterfly,” all chosen by de Goeas, whom Johnston credited with giving the company its reputation for being outlandish and controversial. Johnston and Bagasse Company went on to do several more productions over the years, including A Brighter Day (1998), Red House Fire! Fire! (1999), Shirley Valentine (2004), Jesus Christ Superstar (2005 & 2006), Fools (2008), and Inspector Calls. Blandin and Carrera left in 1988, and de Goeas in 1989.
In 1989 and 1990, Bagasse Company put on “Children’s Story World,” a literacy project for children, in conjunction with NALIS and D Village. “We had them come to Queen’s Hall to see a half-hour presentation and give them these huge story books to follow the story, then we played word-related games.” Over 20,000 schoolchildren came to the event, which had four shows a day, performed by the members of the company and others such as Errol Fabien, Wendell Manwarren, Penelope Spencer and Cecilia Salazar.
Johnston also managed three arts facilities, including Queen’s Hall for six years, the Little Carib Theatre for a year and Maljo Kaiso Tent for three years. She left Queen’s Hall in 1991 and tried to make a go of theatre as a full-time career on her own. In addition to plays with Bagasse Company, she did corporate functions and events, attempting to get as many jobs as possible. During this time, the Company also went on tour with plays like J’ouvert, – England and France, Smile Orange – Grenada, When the Cat’s Away – Grenada and St. Lucia and The Mind with the Dirty Man – Barbados.
Johnston was President of the National Drama Association of T&T for a number of years.
“Godfrey Sealy encouraged a coup because he’d had enough. He got Raymond Choo Kong, Cecelia Salazar, John Isaacs, Wendell Manwarren and others, to go to the AGM and wrest the Association out of the hands of the elders. Godfrey was the first President in that era.”
Johnston also paid tribute to Veronica Collins who she said was a powerhouse and held the organization together. Some of the initiatives NDATT carried out were a theatre month in 2003, as well as mentoring of theatre groups island-wide.
In 2008, suffering from burnout, Johnston left the theatre to pursue a career in advertising. This enabled her to pay off the debts she had incurred after 11 years of trying to make it on her own.
“I stayed away from theatre in a long time because tabanca would have hit me. I could not bring myself to go to plays.”
After a seven year hiatus, Johnston returned to theatre in 2015, directing Monkey Mountain’s production of Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers and writing, co-directing and producing “Cinderella – The Trinidad and Tobago Musical.” She returned to a theatre landscape where people expected to be paid decently for working in theatre, making it difficult to put on the same calibre of play without Government or a backer’s support.
“People have certain expectations of salaries that we didn’t have to fight up with when we started, and people used to do stuff for free. Students are coming out of UTT and UWI with expectations of entitlement, in that they’ve done all this work to hone their craft and now they need to be paid, which is just not realistic. They don’t know about paying dues.”
Johnston also said theatre, and theatre producers, have a responsibility to society to show a wider scope of theatre.
“I feel if we keep giving people the same things, they’re not growing, not appreciating anything different, and we’re not giving them the opportunity to see the scope of theatre or understand it for themselves.”
The next edition of the Monday Night Theatre Forum will feature playwright and teacher Zeno Obi Constance on August 22nd.