Ready for Arts-in-Action

Arts-in-Action is a Trinidad-based group on the cutting edge of art as a means of social change

Members of Arts-in-Action portraying traditional Carnival characters. Photograph courtesy Arts-in-Action

There’s a small arts revolution taking place in Trinidad and Tobago, with roots in the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts (CCFA) at the University of the West Indies, and branches reaching as far as Europe, Africa, and North America. Officially launched in 1994, Arts-in-Action (AiA) is a public education programme. It is the brainchild of UWI professor Danielle Lyndersay (known to everyone just as “Dani”), and has become the leading team of applied creative arts consultants in the Anglophone Caribbean.

After Lyndersay — born in Britain — moved to Trinidad in 1990 with her Trini husband, they started a programme called Youth Crossroads and a theatre-in-education collaboration with Trinidad Theatre Workshop. In 1992, Lyndersay began another programme called It Fits, designed to help primary school children with mathematics and lateral thinking, using multi-coloured cubes and the expertise of local artists like Brian Honoré and Ken Joseph. The following year, working with Rawle Gibbons and students at the CCFA on their annual production, AiA created one of their seminal pieces, Dolly Mois, which toured twenty-two community centres through Trinidad and Tobago.

UWI has been AiA’s home base since the early days, a relationship honoured by their receipt of the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in 2002 and subsequent integration as a unit of the university system. Their team members often come on board through taking the theatre and drama in education certificate, or the BA in theatre arts. Others have trained on the job, joining through word of mouth. Its team members have included some of Trinidad’s most accomplished young performers: Marvin George, Camille Quamina, Kurtis Gross, Michael Cherry, Samantha Pierre, Patrice Briggs, Brendan Lacaille, and others.

The group is on the cutting edge of art as a means of social change, with a commitment to using the Caribbean’s indigenous arts and traditional characters to engage their workshop participants, who range from primary school children to managers in top corporations. Their accomplishments in just twelve years are impressive. They have received several international grants and commissions, numerous awards for their projects, and their clients have included the United Nations, government ministries, schools and communities throughout the country, and corporate giants like BHP Billiton, BP Trinidad and Tobago, Republic Bank, First Citizens Bank, the Rotary Club, and TSTT. Beyond their local work, AiA has travelled extensively throughout the region, the United States, the United Kingdom, and recently returned from the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education in Portugal.

But few people are even familiar with the application of drama and theatre as a tool for conflict resolution and education, and even fewer know what to think when they hear the term “applied creative arts consultants”. More often than not, AiA is faced with the question, “So what do you do exactly?”

Simply, they create environments in which problems can be solved. Most often, they are asked by schools and communities to engage with issues like peer pressure, domestic violence, sexuality, abuse, drugs, disaster preparedness, and HIV/AIDS — all topics that seldom get comprehensive coverage in schools. In the business context, their workshops have covered topics such as tourism, anger and stress management, leadership, and customer service.

Taking into account the needs of each client, the AiA team devises and presents a piece of interactive action theatre, which sometimes employs folklore or Carnival characters. They then create an interactive forum where the workshop participants are encouraged to begin thinking critically about the issue at hand, airing viewpoints, and working towards a solution or constructive approach. The team uses a plethora of techniques to coax sometimes self-conscious and sceptical audiences to open up, whether it’s placing people in the “hot seat”, or engaging in role-playing and trust exercises. The entire thing can last anything from thirty minutes to five hours, always with the emphasis on presenting healthy and viable options to the members of the forum, and empowering the communities, schools, and staff they engage through personal accountability.

Their faithful client base and the volume of referrals and unsolicited calls they receive is a further testament to their success. Lyndersay has a commitment to expanding the organisation’s reach so that any and everyone can benefit from their work. Crucial to that goal is securing regular funding from corporate and government sources, and getting dedicated vehicles which can transport the team members and their materials to even the most far-flung parts of the islands. Lyndersay is hopeful, too, that interactive theatre will become integrated with all teacher training, and that this kind of arts consultative work will become recognised as a viable career path for young artists and educators.

In the meantime, the passionate and tireless staff at AiA will continue to enrich the lives of local, regional, and international communities through a belief in the arts and the empowerment of all people.