Mister Theatre: Ken Corsbie

Broadcaster and performer, writer and storyteller, Ken Corsbie wants people to discover each other through theatre.

Ken Corsbie in actionKen Corsbie. Photograph courtesy Ken CorsbiePhotograph by Caribbean eyePhotograph by Caribbean EyePhotograph by the Caribbean EyeResearching Brimstone Hill in St Kitts. Photograph by Caribbean EyeWith Banyan colleagues Tony Hall (left) and Christopher Laird (right) at Brimstone Hill, St. Kitts. Photograph courtesy Caribbean EyeWith colleague Tony Hall (left) and sing/producer Eddy Grant (right)

A million tourists do it every year. Columbus did it in 1492, and Ken Corsbie did it in 1971. Yet many people who should do it, haven’t.

Ken Corsbie
, one of the region’s most versatile stage and media figures, is constantly encouraging people to discover the Caribbean. His CV reads like a combined Caribbean Geography and 101 Careers in Theatre. His involvement in the performing arts spans the entire region and nearly three decades, and his contribution to them ranges from a book on Caribbean theatre to teaching small community groups in Belize how to use available materials for play production.

Acting, moderating, writing, directing and set design are all part of his repertoire, but two skills stand out: comedy and Caribbean lore. He uses his knowledge of regional lifestyles to convey both humour and understanding. His love for the region transcends boundaries and colour. “I am a Caribbean person. My father was Chinese, African and Welsh, and my mother was Scottish and Portuguese.”

The islands, he claims, are not really insular. “Only the political nationalism of the individual islands has isolated us. But the Caribbean is a very mobile place. Each island is different yet they all interlock, and together they make a complete picture.”

Ken’s introduction to the arts began in “the Taitts’ back-yard” in Georgetown, Guyana, where he learned the rudiments of theatre in the course of daily play. Formal theatre, he says, “was just a follow-up from the way I lived.” The Taitt family exposed him to ballet and symphony music and much more. “We played steelband music, sang and acted. That yard was a crucial spring-board for a number of Caribbean theatre people who are now spread throughout the region and England.”

Through the Taitts’ back-yard, Ken also became a national basketball player, and later team captain, coach and manager. He represented Guyana as a sprinter and hurdler–his agile stage antics reflect this early athletic prowess.

In 1959 – Ken was 29 – he helped found the Theatre Guild of Guyana, and acted in some 30 plays over the next five years. He won a three-year theatre scholarship in England, then took a job as a producer/announcer with the Guyana Broadcasting Service. There, something dramatic happened.

He was producing a series of radio documentaries on 13 islands in the region, entitled Project One. “I suddenly discovered the Caribbean. What a revelation. The different food, architecture, accents, musical styles, even the mentalities. I was finding out the islands are similar but very different.”

He began to grasp how little he knew about his own region. “I was on a plane with a group of broadcasters – people who are supposed to be knowledgeable – to Belize to put together these programmes. None of us knew where Belize was. We didn’t know where we were going. So I was literally discovering the Caribbean.”

He figures that put him in good company. “I have no problem with Columbus. He discovered the Caribbean for himself and the Europeans just as I discovered the Caribbean in 1971.”

Ken became the Theatre Guild of Guyana’s first Playhouse Director, and helped produce a one-man performance of Caribbean stories and poems blended with Shakespearean material. The audience’s powerful response to the Caribbean stories excited him. Three months later he staged a show of his own called He-One, and embarked upon a crusade.

“It had taken me five years after coming back from drama school to discover a way to channel my skills, my talents, my experiences into something positive and encompassing the Caribbean. I used poems and stories that I had collected from all over the Caribbean. It was a total revelation for audiences in Guyana. I was, in a sense, helping them to discover the Caribbean.”

The He-One show led to Dem-Two, a collaboration with actor Marc Matthews, a piece of Caribbean-style cabaret theatre. Ken was appointed Director of Drama in Guyana’s Department of Culture. The shows travelled widely, gaining momentum as well as audiences. Dem-Two grew into All-Ah-We, which contained musicians and more theatre people. In eight years, Ken did some 200 performances throughout the region.
By 1978, trouble broke the spell. Despite his resounding success, like so many other nationals, Ken left Guyana, upset at the political situation at that time. He relocated to Barbados, where he co-ordinated the fledgling Theatre Information Exchange, an association of Caribbean theatre activists and groups.

As a freelance theatre consultant and performer ever since, Ken has travelled up and down the Caribbean doing one-man shows, theatre workshops and radio programmes, and directing plays. One of his plays, Barbados, Barbados, ran for five years.

Ken’s book Theatre in the Caribbean was published in 1983 as part of an educational series designed for schools. It traced the evolution of theatre in the region and gained some popularity, as well as some misapprehension. “I remember a headmaster meeting me and saying, ‘Ken, it’s a nice book, but it doesn’t teach the students how to act.'”

One well-publicised venture has been a 13-part television series called Caribbean Eye, a much-praised project involving UNESCO and exploring cultural and social themes across the Caribbean islands. It was a perfect vehicle for Ken, and won him the title Presenter of the Year. “This was a culmination of my Caribbean discovery and experience. Because I don’t represent any specific nationality or race, the Banyan Studio in Trinidad recruited me to present the programmes. One of the intentions of Caribbean Eye is to illustrate the close linkage between the islands. It actually celebrates their similarities and differences. The series is an ideal introduction to Caribbean cultures. It illustrates the lack of shared information between the islands.”

Ken is now a leading authority on the performing arts in the Caribbean. Across the theatrical spectrum, he says, “the movement away from European and North American material and towards Caribbean resources is now well-entrenched.” From as far back as the 1950s, “a lot of writers, directors and producers began to integrate our own history, folk cultures and rituals into the theatre, and to use everyday cultural folkways as a means of expression,” despite the lack of support from regional media and educational systems.

“In Trinidad, Rawle Gibbons, director of the Cultural Training Centre at the University of the West Indies, uses past and current calypso as a metaphor to tackle issues of modern living. Barbadian Earl Warner, now an internationally recognised director, uses folkways and ritual in his plays. And perhaps the best-known playwright/poet to come from the region, Derek Walcott of St. Lucia, has always tended to use legends, folklore, songs and rituals from Caribbean culture.”

As technical skills become more sophisticated, and creativity more fluid, islands are developing their own personal stamp. Jamaica has “the most widespread professional and semi-professional theatre activity in the region”. In Barbados, “satirical review is now becoming a distinctive style of theatre. The concept of transmitting topical information through satire has almost become the Bajan style of theatre.

These days, Ken is happily storytelling and teaching Caribbean discovery again with a whole repertoire of shows, both in the region and beyond. They incorporate stories, song, poetry, comedy and anecdotes from 12 countries, from Belize to Suriname. With his special ability to transcend cultural differences and age gaps, Ken attracts both adults and children, who watch spellbound as he takes them around the region. The response confirms his own philosophy: “The Caribbean can discover itself through theatre.”