The soaring chorus of the celebratory final act of KHONA The Musical turned swiftly to angry chants of protest backstage at the Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) Auditorium of the National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA).
On Friday 29th September, immediately following the curtain call of the final show, furious cast members of one of the most anticipated musical productions of 2017 stormed off the NAPA stage in search of an explanation and any form of redress on the status of outstanding performance fees owed to them by KHONA Producers, Curtain Call Productions.
DISCLAIMER: Photos used in this article feature members of the 2017 cast of Khona the Musical. The T&T Performing Arts Networks makes no allegations that any specific member featured in these photos were directly involved in the incident as reported and neither should it be inferred by any reader of this article.
According to the official show description, KHONA The Musical, (script, music and direction by Dr. Carl Spencer), is about a 12-year-old boy named ‘Khona’ born into the fictitious ‘Malinzi’ tribe, a fearless warrior tribe from ‘Massa Valley’ in Africa, whose village is taken over by ‘Dikeledi’ from the ‘Thema Tribe’. Will Khona find the courage to reclaim what is rightfully his?
One of the newer production companies on the theatre scene, Curtain Call Productions, led by Spencer, announced auditions for KHONA The Musical on July 8th and 9th of this year, seeking local talent for lead roles, dancers, singers, actors and chorus.
A cast of close to 50 persons was hired including live band musicians and other theatre technical crew members. In the KHONA programme note from the Creative Director, (also Spencer) he stated that, “an active decision was taken to choose persons of little theatre experience but whose talent was astounding” for three months of “gruelling” work in preparation for the show’s run.
Spencer gave his account of the situation via telephone interview on Saturday 30th September 2017. He confirmed that the communication given to the cast about the show’s inability to pay performance fees stemmed from a misunderstanding between himself and the Executive Producer of the show. He declined to clarify the nature of the misunderstanding, however, he reiterated that he remains one hundred percent committed to paying the cast of KHONA.
“I told everyone involved after the show. I’m going to the ends of the earth and back to ensure that everyone is paid. As someone in theatre who has had shows cancelled on me and who has also not been paid other times, I understand completely how people are feeling. This was my first time and theatre is my passion and my life. I don’t want to start and have to stop now because of this.”
While concrete arrangements have not yet been made, Spencer confirmed that he intended to make private arrangements to settle all outstanding performance fees. He also confirmed that Curtain Call Productions was registered as a partnership theatre production company between himself and another person whose name he did not wish to disclose.
One of the KHONA cast members who preferred not to reveal her identity, confirmed that all performers were given contracts committing to 16 performances across a schedule of morning, matinee and evening shows, in San Fernando at the Southern Academy of the Performing Arts (SAPA) and in the north at NAPA.
A representative of the musical’s technical crew revealed that a member of the Curtain Call Productions team had called a meeting with all cast members before the 7:30 p.m. final show on Friday to announce that there may be a problem paying cast members. A refusal to perform followed, but after lengthy discussion, the KHONA cast was convinced to go on with the performance at a delayed start of 8:00 p.m., with an understanding that there would be more word on arrangements for performance fees to be paid at the end of Friday’s final show.
Tensions rose considerably when cast members, musicians and dancers assembled on the steps outside the backstage exit on the Keate Street side of NAPA waiting to have their concerns addressed. Calls for justice, fair treatment of actors and performers’ rights continued to escalate among the gathered cast members when representatives of the Production team did not immediately come forward to address the situation.
Multiple cast members argued that they had serious financial expenses to cover which relied on Curtain Call Productions fulfilling its agreed contract terms for payment of the full amount of all performance fees on that night. Many also confirmed that they had been assured that the production was fully funded and that their payments were guaranteed under the terms of their contracts.
A source close to the Production revealed that only “upfront costs” of the production may have been sponsored, with remaining fees, including cast and crew fees to be covered by ticket sales revenue. Spencer offered no comment on these allegations during Saturday’s telephone interview but did admit that a conversation with the Executive Producer of KHONA occurred on the night of the finale, where an appeal was made for additional funding to be made available to pay cast members immediately.
While most of the cast eventually began leaving the NAPA venue, the dancers remained outside the NAPA backstage doors, agitated, upset and refusing to leave until they were either paid-in-full, or given assurances of when payments would be made. An eyewitness reported noticing discussion among the Production team members and one of the dancers, after which that dancer was fully paid in cash. This account of events was verified with the identified dancer via telephone call on Saturday 30th September 2017.
Another direct witness to the unfolding of events identified the Producers’ decision to pay this dancer and an insistence on not paying the others as the cause of a confrontation which then occurred between the remaining dancers and Production representatives of KHONA The Musical just inside the NAPA backstage area. The witness confirmed that the confrontation then escalated into a physical altercation where NAPA security and later, officers of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service were required to intervene.
The witness also confirmed that after a lengthy discussion between police officers, the KHONA director, the dance team leader and the remaining dancers, eight other dancers were paid-in-full with funds collected from NAPA box office sales that evening. Three dancers remain unpaid as they had already left before the altercation took place. To date, other cast members still have not yet been paid.
Spencer denied any knowledge of a physical altercation happening after the show and when a representative of the NAPA management team who oversees the security department was called for comment, an indication was given that a formal statement might be released at some future date.
In an effort to work toward a resolution of the non-payment of performance fees to the cast of KHONA, Spencer confirmed that a meeting is expected to be held on Tuesday 3rd October 2017 at 6pm where he intends to meet with the cast to make a report on ticket sales revenue.
“We’re going to go to the outlets and get information on the tickets and revenue made from the show. I was not dealing with the money part of it, the person handling the box office money is another contracted member of the production, which is why I was not personally able to pay the cash yesterday. I personally haven’t seen any money from the production at all.”
In the concert programme bpTT is listed as “the OFFICIAL sponsor of KHONA The Musical” under the show’s ‘Special Thanks’ section. However, Spencer confirmed that bpTT’s support was in the form of marketing sponsorship at their discretion.
The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network wishes all parties a speedy resolution on this issue.