FEATURE STORY: Gem Madhoo… Guyana’s leading entrepreneur of the liberal arts

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There is nothing quite like theatre.
It offers society a dramatic yet distinctive opportunity to reflect on mankind’s raw emotions and study his problems as an onlooker. In short, society is able to examine its fully-flawed reflection on stage.
Championing the cultural platform in Guyana is 63-year-old Gem Rebecca Madhoo. Born November 12, this phenomenal woman has been part of Guyana’s theatrical movement for over 40 years. She has made a successful career and business out of it with her husband, Kit Nascimento, by her side every step of the way.
For her unwavering support and sterling contributions to Guyana’s theatrical culture, Madhoo has received some of the nation’s highest honours and awards. These include; the Women of Distinction Award by the YWCA, the Guyana Folk Festival Award ‘In recognition for outstanding contribution to Guyana’s Culture & Heritage’ by the Guyana Cultural Association NY Inc, and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre Arts by the Institute of Creative Arts and Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.
But even with her unmatched contributions in the arena of theatre, this patriot is also a lover of nature. It is no surprise, therefore,that she is the proud owner of one of Guyana’s most enchanting eco-resorts—Hurakabra River Resort.
In this exclusive interview, the Guyana Inc. Magazine is given an in-depth look into the adventurous and multifaceted life of Guyana’s leading lady and entrepreneur of the liberal arts.


Guyana Inc. Magazine (GIM): “What are some of your most memorable experiences from your childhood?”
Gem Madhoo (GM): “Playing hide and seek with all the children in the village on the weekends and giving them a hard time to find me because I would always be hiding very high up in one of the big trees in our yard. Also, doing a ‘bush cook’ or cook out at the back of our yard with my friends.”

GIM: “How do you remember your parents during that time of your life and what were some of the most valuable lessons they passed on to you that remain relevant to this day?”
GM: “I was born to Agnes and Victor Madhoo. One of my siblings passed away, so today, I have five brothers and four sisters. My mother worked very hard; taking care of 10 children, running a business and handling all of the household chores. We helped her as we grew older but once we were in high school, she made no demands of us but to focus on our books. Education was very important to both of my parents. My father helped us a lot with our homework. We used to subscribe to the ‘Readers Digest’ which was sent from overseas. By the time the next one arrived, we would have read the current one from end to end. We also bought the Sunday’s newspapers, so there was always a lot of reading material around. My parents made sure we listened to educational programmes on the radio too. We also grew up knowing that honest living comes from hard work.”

GIM: “What was your schooling life like?”
GM: “I grew up at Auchlyne Village on the Corentyne and I attended Auchlyne Primary School, then Corentyne High School, now named JC Chandisingh Secondary. My parents moved to Britannia on the West Coast, Berbice and after I was successful in my GCE ‘O’ Levels exam, I came to Georgetown.”

GIM: “Before becoming a businesswoman and entering the world of theatre, where did you work, for how long, and what was that experience like for you?”
GM: “After I completed high school, I began working at the Guyana National Cooperative Bank in 1972. I continued studying privately and did up to Part 1 of the Institute of Bankers Exam. I joined the Public Service Union (PSU) Drama Group during the early years at the bank and did my first stage performance in Sheik Sadeek’s play ‘Black Bush.’ During that time, I traveled and saw a lot of Guyana’s coastline, as well as Linden, with the drama group.
I worked for five years before qualifying for extensive annual leave. My feet were itchy and I wanted to travel so I abandoned the remainder of my studies and went on an extended holiday around the world for eight months. At this time, it would have been unheard of for a young Guyanese girl of my ethnicity to be so brave. But, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I returned to Guyana eight months later, broke but happy; feeling satisfied that I achieved one of my dreams.”


GIM: “What led to your joining the Guyana Public Service Union drama group? And why did you choose to be back stage as opposed to on stage?”
GM: “I started with the GPSU drama group with the intention of working behind the scenes, but theatre genius, Francis Farrier, was staging a production of three short plays and he needed someone of my ethnicity to do a 12 year-old. I was 20 at the time. So I ended up as an actress while with the GPSU.”

GIM: “What was the experience like being part of your first play?”
GM: “I was very nervous.”

GIM: “In what year was your debut and where?”
GM: “It was in 1974 at the Theatre Guild.”

GIM: “What are some of your most memorable experiences, during the 70’s to 80’s, as a member of the Theatre Guild?”
GM: “I joined the Theatre Guild in 1978. The level of acting was very high. You had to be really good to compete at auditions, so when plays were being cast, I would opt for working in the production team. I learnt the craft very quickly and enjoyed the whole production process of plays. There was a feeling of ‘family’ at the Guild and a major production was staged for three weeks (18 nights) and sometimes two or three repeats. We rehearsed for two months. All of this was voluntary, no one was paid.
The presentations were of a very high standard. We attended workshops every Monday night and I always felt sad when the plays came to an end. It was three great months of working together as a team. We would have a cast party on the final night. One of the things we always looked forward to on that night is the ‘parody’ of the play put on by the stage crew and the poetry of Patricia Gomes which she would compile about all of us and everything that happened during the rehearsals and performances. They were hilarious.”

GIM: “Tell us about the genesis of The Theatre Company and how transformative it has been for the arts in Guyana?”
GM: “Times were getting really tough in Guyana and those who chose to stay were seeking additional sources of income. Some members of the Guild were travelling to participate in theatre workshops in the Caribbean and returning with information that in many of the Islands, the actors were being paid to perform. Our performances were comparable with theirs, so why shouldn’t we earn a living from our talent?
A group of us then brainstormed the idea of forming a group while continuing to be members of the Theatre Guild. The satirical show ‘The Brink Shows’ was staged every four years at the Theatre Guild, with Frank Pilgrim as its architect. We discussed the idea of doing a satirical show with Frank and launching it at the National Cultural Centre (NCC).
Frank came up with the name ‘The Link Show.’ At that time, the Cultural Centre was a white elephant. The only event that was regular on their calendar was the ‘CC Varieties’, staged at the end of the month by Lord Canary.
Myself, Ron Robinson and later Ian McDonald, joined the board, and legally registered ‘The Theatre Company’. With my limited accounting background, I took on the role of the business aspect of the productions, did the stagemanaging, publicity and generally all organizing aspects of the production. We had contracts drawn up for all persons working in the production.
‘The Link Show’ was staged on November 1, 1981. It was a huge success, beyond our expectations. Four nights sold out. The plan to stage it annually was met with a lot of negativism and so did the idea of paying persons for their talent. There were many criticisms. Nevertheless, actors and everyone else in the industry were contracted and paid for their talent in a business-like manner for the first time in Guyana.

The Theatre Company was, from all research, the first registered professional theatre company in Guyana. New playwrights, producers and directors emerged out of this era.
The NCC began to get so many requests for bookings that production meetings had to be scheduled at the beginning of each year to allocate dates to producers.This was also the time when huge migration was happening in Guyana.”

GIM: “Looking back, what do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out in theatre?”
GM: “To get into writing and directing.”

GIM: “Who or what was your biggest influence?”
GM: “I was baptized by Francis Farrier in theatre, and later, learnt a lot from The Theatre Guild experience and then Ron Robinson when we started The Theatre Company. He knew a lot of the technical aspects of theatre as well as directing. I read many scripts and recommended a lot of the plays that the company staged.”

GIM: “Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals before writing, producing or acting?”
GM: “The normal phrase we use is ‘break a leg’. We never say ‘good luck’. I don’t have anything unusual that I do or say. Just focus and get it all done correctly. We also do some concentration exercises with everyone in a circle before the start of the show.”

GIM: “How has theatre changed from the time you entered it to now?”
GM: “Indiscipline is on the top of the list. Serious drama has been lost because we have lost the audience for it. This has been replaced by large doses of comedy and more slaps.”


GIM: “Theatre and tourism are central themes in the businesses you have established. Let’s start with GEMS Theatre Productions, kindly share with us how it all got started.”
GM: “It was January 2002 and I was asked to host Sullivan Walker, a Trinidadian/Hollywood performer, in his production ‘Boy Days’. Things were not going too good in my partnership with The Theatre Company and we had just staged the 20th anniversary celebration of the company. It was an opportune moment for me to decide whether I should go independent and start my own production, which I did in February 2002.”

GIM: “How many productions have you staged thus far under GEMS?”
GM: “66, inclusive of stage and television productions.”

GIM: “What were some of your favourites?”
GM: “‘Round about midnight’ (musical production combining art, poetry, film and music); ‘Testament’(adapted for stage by Dr.Paloma Mohamed from the book by Dr. Janice Imhoff based on testimonies of cancer survivors); ‘Mood Indigo’ Jazz concerts (a series of Jazz concerts by a combination of local and international artists in very unconventional settings – the lawns of State House on a moonlit evening, grounds of Castellani House); ‘All in Wan’ (a musical written by Dave Martins and sponsored by GTT for Guyana’s 40th Independence Anniversary); ‘Vagina Monologues’ (the internationally acclaimed ‘voice of women’ production); ‘For Love of Aidana Soraya’ (a production based on religious conflicts in a village in Guyana); ‘Talk Tent’ (renowned Caribbean story-teller Paul Keens-Douglas post Trinidad Carnival production). ‘Last of the Redmen’ written, directed and performed by Dr. Michael Gilkes and ‘Couvade’, also by Gilkes, staged for Guyana’s 27th Independence Anniversary.”

GIM: “On a similar note, what prompted you to bring the Vagina Monologues to Guyana and will there be a return of it soon?”
GM: “I collaborated with a VSO attached to the Department of Culture to stage this production. I knew of it and she, Jennifer Davis, was ending her contract in Guyana and we both felt very strongly about the message of the play. This had to do with bringing women’s issues to the fore. We found the need to boldly stage it in Guyana in 2005. It was restaged a few years ago by Colette Jones (who performed in it during my production). There are no immediate plans to restage.”

GIM: “What prompted the birth of your offshoot GEMS Youth Theatre?”
GM: “At that time, there was no workshop or training of any kind for young persons, so I felt there was a void to be filled. I approached the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to fund a six-month workshop covering the field of writing, directing, acting, voice, story-telling and other areas of the theatre for young people.”

GIM: “Has it been difficult taking your productions out of Georgetown since theatres are based in Georgetown?”
GM: “It is very challenging and technically difficult to stage plays outside of Georgetown. You have to compromise and adapt to accommodate the productions in the various situations and venues that are available.”

GIM: “Garnering so much experience in the world of theatre, what would you say is key to being a great writer and producer?”
GM: “I do not consider myself a writer. As a producer, I would say discipline, dedication and commitment are the key factors.”

GIM: “What are you working on now?”
GM: “Producing the latest television sitcom ‘Days like Dese’ for local television. I also produced a 50-minute short film, ‘Maira and the Jaguar People’ written and directed by Dr. Michael Gilkes, which was filmed in Surama, Rupununi in November 2016. It, however, continues to be an enormous challenge to fund this production. It has been held up owing to both government and private company commitments failing to deliver on promised funds needed to complete it. Once completed, the film would be sent to international film festivals worldwide. The quality of the film is of a very high standard. An overseas crew came to Guyana to make the film. The actors are all indigenous persons from Surama who went through months of training and rehearsals.”


GIM: “Do share with us how you and your husband got involved in the resort venture?”
GM: “Our resort is purely by accident. It was meant as a retirement home for us and he changed his mind about retiring, so we decided to open it for tourism as an intimate boutique resort.”

GIM: “What’s the most important attribute of your resort?”
GM: “It is very private and intimate and a group of friends or family checking in for a few days can experience having their own private resort all to themselves. We also pride ourselves on serving excellent food.”

GIM: “What is the biggest challenge of owning and managing such a resort?”
GM: “Finding the right staff you can trust to live and work unsupervised in a quiet and peaceful location.”

GIM: “What authentic local experiences will guests have access to at the resort?”
GM: “We serve up a variety of Indigenous, Creole and Indian foods. International flavours are also available, depending on the taste of our guests. They are taken on local tours within the vicinity of the resort. These would involve the historic tours to Fort Island and Kyk-over-al. We offer a jungle walk to spot wildlife, mainly birdlife and monkeys, and for visitors to get a brief glimpse of the types of trees and foliage in Guyana. One can also enjoy seeing hundreds of parrots settling on an isolated Island at sunset, as well as experiencing some of our waterfalls and rapids in the Mazaruni River. One can also have a taste of the bustling activities of Bartica. We even offer water sports on the river such as kayaking, jet skiing, and water skiing.”

GIM: “What led to the production of the tourism booklets (Guyana- Where and What) and what has the response been like over the years for this project?”
GM: “I was inspired by ‘Barbados in a nutshell’ and felt Guyana really needed a small pocket-sized handbook that you can carry around easily. We already had the ‘Explore Guyana’ produced by THAG, which is a large magazine, so I felt this would complement our tourism material. “Where and what” is a mine of information on our country. The response has been excellent. I was really happy to discover that some of the schools are using it as a reference guide. I have a passion for history, so this book gives me the opportunity to realize that.”

GIM: “With the businesses you have built, what would you say were key moments/lessons along the way?”
GM: “Always approach whatever you are doing, especially if finance is involved, in a very professional and business-like manner. When it comes to business, trust yourself first and everyone else afterwards.”

GIM: “You have travelled extensively in and out of Guyana. With that said, have you ever longed to live in any other part of the world? And what keeps you so grounded here?”
GM: Before I ever embarked to travel overseas, I had seen a lot of Guyana’s interior and loved it. I travelled extensively and have seen many beautiful and lovely places, but home is always where the heart is. I am sorry my husband changed his mind about retiring in the Essequibo River. I would have loved to finally settle there, but then my involvement in the theatre would have been curtailed.”

GIM: “What advice would you give to women wanting to set up their own business?”
GM: “Be confident in what you want, and then execute it efficiently.”


GIM: “How did you meet your husband?”
GM: “At Wolga beach, Essequibo River (two minutes from where the resort is located) in 1976.”

GIM: “For how long have you been married?”
GM: “19 years.”

GIM: “Could you, kindly, recall his proposal to you?”
GM: “When he proposed, he said ‘I will not ask you again’, because he knew of my previous experience when I was asked several times and never said ‘yes’.”

GIM: “How supportive has he been regarding your business ventures?”
GM: “He is very supportive, but critical at the same time. He has the expertise to advise what I should get into and what I shouldn’t. Invariably, he is right but I don’t always listen to him.
In fact, he encouraged me to get back into the ‘Link Show’ production in 2009, after I left The Theatre Company in 2002. The shows had come to a halt and many of the actors were behind me to get involved again. With his encouragement, I did that for the next eight productions,which led to ‘Link Show 32’.”

GIM: “What do you admire the most about your husband?”
GM: He is a stickler for discipline and leaves no room for excuses.”

GIM: “For young married couples, what would you say is key to sustaining a long-lasting and satisfying marriage?”
GM: “Understanding each other and learning to adapt to each other’s needs. Find something to do that might become a ritual. Like, my husband cooks every Friday evening (except when we are invited out) and we have a romantic dinner with candle lights et al on our balcony surrounded by foliage. He is a gourmet cook. We still adhere to it in this our 19th year of marriage.”


GIM: “What are some of the plans in the pipeline for your businesses?”
GM: “Television. I started a new local sitcom called ‘Days like Dese’. It is currently being aired weekly, with a new episode per month. I am hoping to be able to have my own studio in order to produce a new episode per week.”

GIM: “Is there a philosophy that you live by?”
GM: “Always lend a helping hand to whoever needs it. Don’t be afraid to dream because they just might come through.”


(Article taken from the Guyana Inc. Magazine Issue 27)


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