Theatre practitioner Mervyn de Goeas said he does not think of himself as just a director or a mas-man or an actor or a writer, but as an artist. He told an appreciative audience at the Monday Night Theatre Forum he has been a has-been on many occasions and come back each time.
His family moved from Guyana when he was two years old, and he grew up on Queen’s Avenue in San Juan/Barataria. He was sent to Rosary Boys RC School to be “toughened up” and enjoyed the experience of meeting children from different backgrounds, as well as fighting and learning how to curse. De Goeas first knew he wanted to be involved in drama when a teacher took his ABC class to see Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s the Sound of Music at the Deluxe Theatre.
“Something odd happened. I knew it wasn’t real or a documentary, I knew I wanted to be a part of that, though I had no clue what that was, so at that age I decided this was going to be my life.”
After 11-plus, he went to Fatima College, where he felt trapped and miserable, as everyone in his class was focused on studying and regurgitation. The saving grace came when the school got an audiovisual room, where he was able to make small films.
It was at Fatima that de Goeas met the late playwright and director, Godfrey Sealey, who he was seated next to because the teachers thought they wouldn’t talk. At 15, they put on an evening of entertainment called Rejuvenation, which de Goeas said wasn’t good, but gave him something to aspire to, although his family didn’t want him to be an actor. His family moved to Diego Martin, where he was the only child around, and so he would put on plays where he would play all the parts. In the 70’s, he discovered new wave cinema and realized he loved tragic movies. A life-changing moment was seeing “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, as he said the acting was raw and visceral. This would later play into the way he trained new actors, as he told them “you have to imagine a whiteboard and clean everything off, that’s what we arrive with, and as people tell you things and you experience things, that is what fills it up and that is the mosaic, the crazy quilt that makes up your life.”
In 1976, de Goeas participated in making history, as he and Sealey worked in the Lee Hueng mas camp on Peter Minshall’s germinal band Paradise Lost. It was then that he became an ardent fan of Minshall’s work, and even had a portion of the Queen costume built on him, as he was the same size as Marilyn Henry.
Inspired, he went to design school in Toronto to study fashion and design. Although he hated the experience, he said it taught him to be independent. He recalled a few good experiences, including a Museum of Modern Art exhibition which he said changed him completely, and living on Hamilton Street with other creatives.
Back in T&T, de Goeas got a call in September 1980 to audition for Helen Camps at the Little Carib Theatre, and met Raymond Choo Kong, Mavis John, Glenn Davis and Christine Johnston, among others.
He described it as “living in fantasy land, all of a sudden, creative people who were interested in things I was interested in.”
In this era, he performed as chorus in Cinderama and the Carnival Show, as well as Jazzle Dazzle by Jennifer Charles. He understudied the role of the Dame Lorraine in King Jab Jab, but finagled his way into playing the Clown, where he had a name, costumes, lines and his own song. He was also able to play, using a fat suit, the role of Fat Sam in Jazzle Dazzle. Simultaneously, he was stage-managing Same Time Next Year for Judy Stone’s Dinner Theatre, along with Sealey, and also performed in Radio Republic 555 by Raoul Pantin, which got a glowing review. De Goeas said he made himself indispensable by doing everything that needed to be done in and around the theatre.
He applied for a USIS International Scholarship, along with John Isaacs, Joanne Kilgore and Godfrey Sealey, using their best ideas to complete the application essays. While awaiting the results, went to Manhattan for a six-week theatre summer, where he saw everything and went everywhere, returning happy and saturated with empty hands and ticket stubs, and to the news that he had won the scholarship.
After a series of delays, de Goeas flew into Connecticut to attend the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where he had many interesting teachers, and did everything except set design, which he later regretted. It was there that Rudy Shelley of the Royal Shakespeare Company instilled in him a sense of time, “one should never be late – early is on time, on time is late and late is unforgivable,” mainly by locking latecomers out of classes. During this time Goeas also met his greatest influence, director Michael Posnick, who started out as an enemy but inspired de Goeas to do some of his best work to date, in an attempt to “stick it” to Posnick. It was after the performance of a pivotal scene from the play “Bent” that de Goeas was greeted for the first time by “the silence,” that hush that overtakes an audience who has been so overcome with emotion that they cannot applaud.
“Everything I do, everything I am, everything I want, I owe to Michael Posnick. He made me dig into my soul and my guts and made me an actor. He saw this arrogant, talented, full of himself, little boy, and broke it down into nothing, and brought the fighter out. He opened my eyes so much.”
de Goeas returned to T&T and joined the newly founded Trinidad Tent Theatre, where he performed in Season of Statements and as chorus in Bent, among others. He left the company after 13 months, and joined with Sealey to do the Rocky Horror Show. While de Goeas hadn’t liked directing class in school, he was always bossy and telling others what to do, so decided to join the production on the condition that he got to direct. The famous play was difficult to cast due to its risqué nature, but people came out to see the show and it was a hit. De Goeas was called “the most perverted person to ever put foot on stage” and “responsible for the decline of Western civilization” by the newspapers covering the production. Fights erupted backstage, including between himself and Sealey, which permanently ended their friendship.
For two years after that, de Goeas was persona non grata in the threatre world. He kept body and soul together with the help of Mark Lyndersay, who got him into the world of advertising, as well as doing makeup for stage and Lyndersay’s photoshoots.
During this time, de Goeas would lime with Christine Johnston and others he had met at Tent Theatre, and they jokingly said they would form their own company. The next day, January 17, 1986, he got a call from Johnston saying they were registering the “Bagasse Company” and entering the National Drama Festival.
De Goeas and Johnston, along with Noel Blandin and Kenrick Perreira and designers Geoffrey Stanford and Claude Allum of “D Village”, put on Old Storytime, with a budget of $3,500 and the money they gathered from selling ads in the programs.
They then did Mass Appeal at the Central Bank, which also did not draw a large audience. De Goeas was then approached by Benny Gomes in 1987 to do “As Is,” a play about AIDS at the height of AIDS-phobia. “People were literally dropping dead in the streets, but nobody was talking about this great big unknown. The play talked about sex, man on man, lewd, crude, and after reading it I said obviously he wants us to be killed, we’ll be chased out of town with pitchforks and torches.” de Goeas praised Wendell Manwarren, Roger Roberts and Cecilia Salazar for their bravery in acting in the play, which he said was very real. He was terrified on opening night, especially after two people left during the lovemaking scene. At the end of the play, de Goeas was greeted by “the silence” for the second time in his life. The play sold out every night except one.
After this, he said his stance on love, life, sexuality, betrayal, hope, etc., became very political. The next play was Extremities, which featured an attempted rape scene with Cecilia Salazar and Wendell Manwarren, and again sold out all nights. De Goeas then attempted his most ambitious project, Les Liaisons dangereuses, which was again successful. He then put on M. Butterfly in 1989, after which he said he broke and was drained mentally and emotionally. He also directed Santimanitay at the Hasely Crawford Stadium with Minshall’s Callaloo Company.
De Goeas said he became a washed-out has-been at the age of 29. He ignored theatre for 12 months before deciding he wanted to do things he was interested in, instead of having to satisfy the public. By this time however, the 1990 attempted coup had happened. “The country was held to ransom and people needed to laugh, so that’s what we did. If you don’t like comedy, stay in your house.”
He worked on the comedy Play On with Giselle Langton at the MerMade Theatre, then the Normal Heart, which led to the creation of the National AIDS quilt.
He went on to work on “The Lady in Question,” a comedy about Nazism, “MASTER HAROLD… and the boys,” in 1995, the musical “50 Dead Nuns” and the tragedy “Total Abandon.”
Following this, in 1998, he went to work on Westwood Park Season 2 with Danielle Dieffenthaller, where he went on to become the head writer. This was a life-affirming experience for him. During hiatus, he decided to put on the Vagina Monologues, which made him realize that no-one really talks to women about their sexuality. He designed the costumes for Shanghai Moon, directed by Giselle Langton, and worked on Carnival Messiah with Earl Thompson. He was asked to do MANtalk, where Errol “Blood” Roberts caused another “silence,” and also worked on “Doubt” in 2005.
in 2006, de Goeas met Derek Walcott and agreed to become an assistant director in a season of his plays, directing “Beef, No Chicken.” Gregory McGuire asked him to do “3 Women,” written by and starring Eunice Alleyne, Belinda Barnes and Anne Louise Tam, in 2008.
In 2009, de Goeas directed Machel Montano’s Boy Boy and the Magic Drum, and worked with Peter Minshall on Montano’s Madison Square show the following year. After taking time off, in 2014, he did Dimanche Gras, “The Maids” with Belinda Barnes, the makeup for 3 Canal’s Grimee and The Wiz with Andrew Seepersad, almost simultaneously. Everyone in The Wiz got Chik-V and they didn’t have a full cast rehearsal until they moved into Queen’s Hall. In 2015, he directed Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.
In 2016, de Goeas collaborated with Peter Minshall on “The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova. “One of the great things was watching people fawn over it and take pictures with it. I’ve always been intrigued by how people talk about and interpret Mas, to me it’s either good or very bad, and every year the very bad Mas wins a lot of prizes.”
Currently, de Goeas is working on the series “Plain Sight” with Danielle Dieffenthaller and the inaugural New Play Festival coming up in October. He said he’s been lucky to meet a few excellent actors but said there’s always the potential for them to get better. He said he is constantly improving as a writer and a director.
“You have to know what you want and where you belong. If you want to be good, you have to make the decision to be good, that’s all. We have so much talent in T&T and we take it for granted. We have one life which can be anything we want it to be, so don’t mess it up.”