Mervyn De Goeas has won five National Drama Association of Trinidad & Tobago Cacique Awards for his outstanding work as a Director in the Theatre arena in Trinidad and Tobago. He is a son of the soil, and has himself thoughtfully scattered the seeds of introspection, empathy and cultural appreciation in the minds of thousands of audiences, helping to cultivate a greater appreciation for our way of life and for each other.
His personality is larger than life; a quality which he has translated into directing dozens of celebrated plays, including Master Harold and the boys (1995), MANtalk (2004), Doubt (2005), Beef No Chicken (2006) and 3 Women (2008).
He has moved through the varying stages of his artistic experiences. Once a student impacted by brilliant minds, including his professors at Eugine O’Neil Theatre Centre, later sharing the local theatre space with theatrical icons such as Godfrey Sealey, Albert LaVeau, and Freddie Kissoon. It is difficult to imagine the theatrical landscape of Trinidad and Tobago without Mervyn in it.
At this stage of his life, he is looking both back and forward; like the Sankofa bird, he is learning and appreciating the lessons of the past and planning for a glorious future, an immediate part of that future being his involvement in the upcoming drama series, Plain Sight.
TEP: The term starving artist is very well-known, whether it still rings as true today as it did in times gone by is up for debate; but were you ever afraid of failing and not having a safety net?
MDG: There was one point when I had considered going on to get a further education in what I do, and my mom was telling a school teacher friend of hers that I wanted to do it, and her friend’s response was “that will be a good thing because then he could teach and he’ll have something to fall back on”. I was like, “fall?” I’m not going to fall!” And that was the end of that because I think that a security blanket and that comfort zone is a hard one. It’s a tough life, but having something to fall back on kind of means you intend to fall. And anyway, this is a business of being not too sure.
“It’s a tough life, but having something to fall back on kind of means you intend to fall.”
TEP: You trained and started out in Theatre as an actor. How did you become a Director?
MDG: When I was in school, the professors would always give us students a theme to develop or a show or play we had to do among ourselves, and then we’d present it to the class and everyone would critique it. At that time I just thought that I was bossy. I would say, “you do that”, “I would do this”. Then over the course of a couple years I was literally still telling people what I think they should do. So for me without thinking about it, it became a natural progression.
TEP: I’ve heard you say that The Rocky Horror Show was your baptism of fire. How so?
MDG: Well the late Godfrey Sealey, who I went to high school with, wanted to do The Rocky Horror Show. Now I’d seen the show as a movie; it’s a musical. Not my cup of tea. However, he couldn’t get anyone to do the lead because it’s this Transvestite in ladies’ underwear for the entire show, singing and dancing. And I said I would do it only if I got to direct. He said to me ‘no, you’re not going to direct.’ There is an old saying that goes “a good gambler is always willing to walk away from the table.” So then I answered, ‘well then I’m not doing it, find someone else,’ which was a strange thing for me to say, because nobody was giving me work anyway – because unless you’re affiliated to a company it’s difficult to get hired.
Eventually he caved and we started; and it was a horror! We had actresses fighting over an actor. And this one wasn’t speaking to the other one, and we’re going to entertain people every night but some people are warring with each other. At 24 years old I didn’t realise that part of directing was dealing with the human condition as it stands. In one situation I even got maced. Then Godfrey Sealey and I weren’t talking afterward. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were so many personalities, so many scenarios, and you’re just trying to balance it. Everything we do is a learning experience, and it’s such a cliché but it’s so true, that it’s sometimes good when you fail; it’s how you treat it that matters. It gives you a chance to examine it and ask “what did I do wrong?” And sometimes things happen that you can’t help.
“Everything we do is a learning experience, and it’s such a cliché but it’s so true, that it’s sometimes good when you fail; it’s how you treat it that matters. It gives you a chance to examine it and ask “what did I do wrong?”
TEP: I noticed that most of your work focuses on tragedy; the tragedy of life. Why such a heavy focus on this genre?
MDG: I’m not going to be the self-righteous Mervyn; I’m not going to do social justice, because we keep forgetting people are human beings and human beings are fallible and selfish. We’re greedy and a lot of us are not driven by kindness or all these altruistic mores that they give us as children. And that’s what makes us interesting.
If you go to watch a film or see a movie and it’s all about good and caring people, you would be so bored in two minutes. I know I would leave. What makes it interesting is the humanness, the mistakes we make, the wrong choices; that’s what makes us worth studying. Can you imagine someone from a whole other civilization coming to look at us? They’ll be saying “they’re very complicated.”
“What makes it interesting is the humanness, the mistakes we make, the wrong choices; that’s what makes us worth studying.”
TEP: What dent do you think your focus on tragedy is making in our theatrical space in the Caribbean and the Diaspora?
MDG: I deal in truths. You know, I am somebody who specialises in tragedy; the human condition. And I can’t get around that. You look around and you see what Directors or Producers or Writers focus on. At the Creative Arts there is a heavy Caribbean/African Diaspora vibe. You look at (Raymond) Choo Kong and it’s a heavy comedic vibe, and that is just not me. But sometimes you step out of your crease; I’ve done some comedies and I had a ball doing them, but it’s not what I specialise in. I love, and am fascinated by, tragedy. I can’t help it. I think when you see something that is truly tragic, there is a comfort in knowing that no matter what you go through, there are people who went through worse. It also tells you that nobody is all bad. You see and hear people doing things and you wonder how can someone do that? And then you go and look at their history and their story, and you end up asking “how can anybody survive that?”
“I am somebody who specialises in tragedy; the human condition.”
TEP: At the height of your career places like the Little Carib Theatre and Trinidad Theatre Workshop were epicentres of theatrical art in Trinidad and Tobago. But for several reasons they are not that any more. Do you miss those places as they were, at all?
Well little Carib has had a resurgence. But yes, it was that, Naparima Bowl and Queen’s Hall. But thinking about it now, it’s really bringing back some memories. That was a real ‘prehistoric’ situation! And no, I don’t miss it. But I’ll tell you what I miss. When I went to high school in the 70s into 80s there were so many different things being offered – it wasn’t all comedy, it wasn’t all tragedy, it wasn’t all drama, it wasn’t all musical, but everyone had something different.
Because we had so few spaces, you had to choose and choose well, what you were going to do. So we had a lot of diverse happenings in the theatre and audiences were willing to go and see anything. But I keep telling people one of the biggest tragedies that happened to us both in everyday life and in terms of the arts, was 1990. If you stand back and take a look at it, all of a sudden there weren’t tragedies or musicals, it was just comedies to make people laugh and forget, because we as a people were uncomfortable. All of a sudden people did not want to hear any tragic stories; no, let’s laugh, let’s forget about it. So, you had to start building a whole new audience, because the audience that was there just wanted to come and laugh.
TEP: What is your philosophy on being a stage Director and Theatre lecturer?
MDG: I have never ever believed that the Director is your friend. I don’t believe a teacher is your friend. So, because of that, I’ve never been in the business of looking for friends. I work with people in the theatre, I teach people who are now coming up in the theatre, but I’m your Director or teacher; but not your friend. If we become friends over the years then fine – more power to us. Another dynamic of being Director is reminding us that we are all part of a giant journey that has everything to do with us and yet nothing to do with us.
“…we are all part of a giant journey that has everything to do with us and yet nothing to do with us.”
TEP: They say art imitates life. But what lessons have you learned from Theatre that you can now imitate in your personal life?
MDG: When you rent a space in Trinidad there are very specific dates, so you can’t call them up and say “the entire country has Chikungunya, can we delay it by a month?” You would have to still take the space or if not, you are going to lose it and your deposit. One time we had a play and just as we were about to open, the sitting Prime Minister at the time declared a State of Emergency. What are we supposed to do? You know, nobody saw that coming! Again at another time we had a play that was about to open and that is when the Chikungunya hit. You can’t fight these things. You know when they say “the show must go on?” I remember thinking when 9:11 hit, that clearly the show does not have to go on, because the whole of Broadway shut down. So your perspective changes as your life changes. It has also taught me to have the patience of a saint, and one of the best things that I’ve learnt is sometimes you just have to step back, breathe, and let it go.
TEP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
MDG: Extraordinary is declaring “What can possibly go wrong!” instead of thinking, “You know how much could go wrong?”