Erin Knowles-McKinney had the opportunity to direct the 45th independence cultural show in 2018, and was tapped for the recent 49th celebration, which she says was very different, coming off a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19.
“The expectations were either extremely low or exceptionally high. I felt an overwhelming sense of uncertainty,” she says.
Amidst all the goings on in the country, she was charged with evoking pride in Bahamian people on a national scale. She says she was terrified, but confident she could deliver.
“From the theme ‘Proud To Be Bahamian’ was determined, I was envisioning a story that encapsulated that in its entirety.”
Knowles-McKinney took her vision to Philip A. Burrows and then to Patrice Francis who was charged with writing the script. Francis walked away with the theme and returned with an outline from which adjustments were made and song selections were recommended. They passed the recommendations along to Fred B. Ferguson, the producer, who confirmed they could use the songs recommended, then identified the singers that would execute the songs selected. It was at that point that Knowles-McKinney says they knew they had an amazing production, but she says on the night, the cultural show far exceeded anything she could imagine.
Knowles-McKinney got the nod of approval on Sunday, June 26 shortly after 3 p.m. They went into rehearsal three days later with a draft script that was finalized on July 1.
“We essentially had eight days to move from the page to stage,” says the director.
“Patrice Francis wrote two lines in the script that sum up what I wanted Bahamians to take away from the production: ‘We need to build this nation from a place of recognized strength, not from a place of glorifying our weakness. So, we acknowledge what’s not going well, while we acknowledge our resilience as a people.’”
Knowles-McKinney says it was her goal to provide an accurate representation of Bahamian lived experience.
“It’s not just about New Providence. The script touched almost all of our major islands. (I’m so sorry Crooked Island). Yes, we’ve suffered, yes, we’ve been hurt, and we continue to hurt, but at the same time we have so many accomplishments worth celebrating. There is much to still be proud of. The goal of this production was to instill hope.”
The praises for an amazing show and production have since been heaped on the Knowles-McKinney and the production crew. She describes the overall positive response as “heartwarming.”
Recalling the many moving parts to the independence production, she said much of it took place in isolation before moving to the stage for combined rehearsals.
“I spent hours poring over the script written by Patrice Francis, because although it encapsulated what needed to be said, the delivery was proving challenging, and the last thing I wanted to do was fall short. Once the script was done, there were rehearsals with the actors, working out blocking, figuring out stage placement, identifying props, how best to tell the story without having any idea what the stage at Clifford park would look like.”
Knowles-McKinney said although the actors play an integral part of the whole, her focus was not solely on them. She went from actor rehearsals to accompanying Ferguson at the band’s rehearsal, to see, hear and feel if the dialogue moved into the music effectively.
“While I did that, Ferguson had the mammoth task of getting a band together, finding the appropriate musicians, singers, dancers and even more that I have yet to grasp. He spent the time laying out arrangements for every instrument, every singer (lead and background) while juggling the responsibilities as a producer.”
She recalls one evening starting her rehearsal at 4 p.m. before moving to two other rehearsals and ending at Clifford park well into the bewitching midnight hour, getting home to make adjustments on the script to get out to the necessary team members, and Ferguson also doing the same.
“It was a constant process of working, revising and trying again. When we met to discuss the technical aspects of the production, we were a mere five days out from Independence. Zamar’s representative asked how many stages did I want, and how would I like them to be placed? What kind of mics should be used? How many people we expected on a particular stage at a particular time? What did I imagine the lighting cues to be? I knew that I’d incorporated video in the production and knew how important it would be to the overall scope of the show, but had no idea how it would impact the technical run of the show. Then Fred contacted me and ran an idea by me about incorporating students – it was the icing on the cake for me (the drones was the icing for everyone else). I was confident in what we had, but by the end of that same day, I’d built even more confidence in the production we were set to deliver.”
Transitioning to Clifford Park for their first rehearsal she said was a test of patience and trial by fire. She credits Ronald Simms as being the glue that brought them together.
“His organization, fire, practicality, sheer wit and genius, made the most unfavorable rehearsal enjoyable.”
She said by their dress rehearsal, their isolated parts started to look like a whole as they ironed out all the kinks needed to do well.
“He [Simms] looked at me and said, ‘We have a show.’
The independence cultural show has come and gone and Knowles-McKinney marvels at pulling it off even though they never once had a full complement of performers in rehearsal. And changes to the physical stage and script changes up to the day of the show.
“If you’d seen me on the night of the show, you would’ve seen a barefoot sprinter with headset in ear, script in my right hand and a Guinness in my left [hand]. It was so worth it,” she said.
The director said actors took some liberties, with her permission and the writer to ad lib, which added to the organic nature of the piece.
“We wanted to portray a sense of family, and it wasn’t possible without some jabs here and there. But I made it clear from the first reading, this isn’t about comedy. This is a testament to our reality and you need to get the point, before you can add comedic relief. They certainly took my direction and delivered overabundantly.”
The 32-year-old who directed a stellar 49th Bahamas Independence cultural show is a trained teacher by profession with a bachelor’s degree in secondary English language and literature. She recently left the system to focus on other endeavors, and is also a full-time volunteer at The Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts, and the associate artistic director of Shakespeare in Paradise.
Knowles-McKinney has no formal training in theater. Most of what she has learned is from working closely with others with formal training in the likes of Philip A. Burrows, Dr. Ian Strachan, Dr. Nicolette Bethel, Dr. Keith Wisdom, Gordon Mills and others. But she has been able to hone her skills and continue to learn thanks to The Dundas Centre for The Performing Arts. She participates in workshops and annually attends the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference to develop herself further.