12 Questions with Triston Wallace
—Published on 10th Jan, 2022.
Triston Wallace is a passionate creative and a fighter for the creative industry in Trinidad and Tobago. He is the founder of the Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network as well as a choreographer and casting director. In this Twelve Questions interview, he speaks about his journey pursuing the arts as his chosen career path with no need for a plan b and why he thinks critiques are a necessary part of the process.
FILMCO: Can you remember the first Trinidadian film you ever saw? What was it, and tell us about the experience of watching it.
Triston Wallace: Home Again (2012). If I am to be honest, I probably saw many other Trinbagonian films before this one as I am certainly familiar with their titles, but Home Again was the first one that I remember the experience of watching, probably it was also the first film I worked on (thanks to Penelope Spencer). The premiere was a whole red-carpet affair at Movie Towne, Port of Spain, and those are the kind of memories that tend to stay with you. Seeing so many familiar names and faces on the big screen filled me with more pride than I can explain. It was from that experience that I truly understood how empowering it is to have local content on our screens and airways, and hoped that representation like that, even outside of the annual T+T Film Festival would continue to grow. At the same time, while viewing the final product on screen the first time around, it transported me back to those days on set and remembering how fulfilling my first film experience was; an experience that would inform how key features and policies within the Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network (the Network) will be fashioned.
FILMCO: I see that you have an academic background in Environmental Management and Zoology. How did you get started in the creative industry? What has your journey been like from then to your capacity in the sector now?
TW: I have always been a creative. From a young age I was very much into visual arts. My journey into the performing arts however began with competitive dance and sport aerobics and gymnastics back in Secondary School. My parents however would not permit me to go further, insisting that I ‘focus on my school work’; so, like a rebellious teen, competing on an international stage was one of those things I swore I’d do once I reached 18 years old and my parents couldn’t tell me what to do *chuckles*. While pursuing my degree in Environmental Management and Zoology at the University of the West Indies, I would undergo spinal surgery in 2007. This significantly, and permanently affected the way my body was able to move, which put an end to my competitive career. I went into a deep depression until an associate invited me to join a choir, The Eastern Youth Chorale. I had no context for choirs outside of a religious setting, and I wasn’t a Christian nor in the mood for any sort of spiritual intervention in my mental state… but still I went, and was enthralled. They were performing excerpts from the Sound of Music and it was magical. The Musical Director upon learning of my background in dance asked me to choreograph for the choir. I only ever choreographed for competitions up till then, but I accepted the challenge, and in doing so, I discovered a new purpose. I always credit the choir for saving my life. Through the choir, I became exposed to a whole new world, and many other opportunities came. The first time I got paid however was for CHOGM 2009. I didn’t know people got paid for performing. It was at that moment that I believe I subconsciously decided that I wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts. It would be a while before I fully embraced that idea though as I had discouraging voices around me who believed the arts a hobby, and not a viable career option, and encouraged me to stick with science as a back-up. However, my sister, Alisha Wallace has always been my number one supporter. It wasn’t until I had the epiphany of “who on earth does their back-up first?”, and shed the subconscious desire for parental approval, that I fully embraced my passion, and decided to intentionally and wholeheartedly follow my calling to a life and career in the performing arts sector… and I haven’t regretted it since, not even during the current global pandemic.
FILMCO: Where does your inspiration come from?
TW: Well, I do many things, so it depends on the activity. For dance and choreography, it comes from the aether. The choreography already exists in full, but it is cloudy and I can only perceive it as lines and shapes in my mind, until I have bodies to mount it upon, then it becomes clearer until it lives on stage. I consider a collaborative process, so the persons that I am choreographing for, especially the kids at Presentation College Mixed Choir and the Native Foundation, have been extremely essential in my choreography processes. My vision for the Network and the performing arts sector in Trinidad and Tobago however comes from my own experiences in the performing arts, as well as the experiences of my peers. I believe that we can raise the professional standard of our sector; if we as a society truly believe we have the capacity to be better, and more importantly, put in the work to achieve it, it can be done. And I am willing to be the change. You would not believe how ‘This is Trinidad, we can’t do any better’ irks me (and I have heard it many times), or the idea that to be good or worthy of recognition and support you’d have to go abroad. Nothing is wrong with seeing what else is out there. I am constantly reading and consuming material about the arts and entertainment sector in various territories including the US and UK. Some things will work for us, and others won’t, but we could always be better. I envision a Trinidad and Tobago where there is more support for creative artists, and encouragement to pursue the arts as a career. To quote Bonnie Langford, “It is more than a passion, it is a profession.”
FILMCO: You wear many hats (choreographer, casting director, social media manager, etc); have you ever felt overwhelmed by the hat juggling and if so how do you manage it?
TW: It is very rare that I feel overwhelmed with what I do because more often than not I enjoy the experience, and doing the work refreshes me. Furthermore, with the more experience I accumulate, the more I continue to refine my processes, and the easier it becomes. Also, in pre-covid times, I had very distinct seasons, where there is a greater demand for specific services compared to others at various times throughout the year, and I manage my time around that…so I never really had to juggle all of them at once. Still, there have been two or three incidents that I can recall feeling overwhelmed, not from juggling my professional hats, but rather when life decided to throw some heavy matter in the mix, which required me to pause, and readjust as I continue the process. I love what I do, and I am very committed to the projects I agree to collaborate on. So, when such life situations occur, I make sure to communicate what is going on, and keep my client in the loop (if that is what they want) as I do the work to regain control of the situation. At times like these I am especially thankful for persons such as Janine Charles-Farray, Saul Ramlal, Curtis Bachan, and Simeon Moodoo who continue to come through for me and the Network, Harmony Farrell and all the other persons who came before her on the Network’s writing team, our Casting Assistant, Darielle Allard and the Associate Choreographers I bring in on various projects from time to time. I could not continue to do the work I do without their support and expertise.
FILMCO: You have casted for numerous films and theatre productions. What would you say you look for differently when casting for the different types of productions? And do you prefer one to the other?
TW: I am a theatre kid at heart so I will always have a special place for anything theatre related, I have had a lot more experience casting for films and ads and I enjoy that process equally. While there are certain qualities that I constantly look for in my casting process, (like the ability to read and follow the self-tape instructions), for the most part, what I look for is informed by the specific project that I am casting. The process from rehearsal to performance is different for theatre and film. In my experience theatre often has a longer rehearsal process, so during casting, I am not only looking for those who can nail the roles being cast, I am also looking at those who demonstrate great potential and are able/willing to learn through the rehearsal process. In a theatre, the actors are also playing to a large audience and should be able to be larger than life in body and voice. For film on the other hand, the actor is performing for an audience of one… the camera. This often requires more subtle and natural expressions and use of voice. The rehearsal process for film tend to be quite shorter, so availability is a BIG factor that I consider when casting for filmed projects. An actor’s physical appearance is also a major factor to be considered in casting for films. In theatre we have the benefit of ‘suspension of disbelief’. Additionally, many attributes can be hidden or enhanced with theatrical make-up and costuming and the audience would accept it. As film is often truer to real life, the audiences are less forgiving. No matter how great an actor in their 20’s is for example, can they really be believed if cast as a character who is supposed to be 65+? I think not. Still, all in all theatre and film are collaborative processes, and for both mediums an actor who can take direction, and is open to that collaborative process would always get high recommendations from me.
FILMCO: You have trained with numerous names in the industry, from Raymond Choo Kong to Dr. Vertrelle Mickens, is there one piece of advice that you have received that you would pass on to those entering into the creative industry?
TW: Training and working with Raymond Choo Kong has had the most impact on my life and career in the performing arts, and it continues to inform much of my own processes to this date. At a rehearsal some years ago, he said “Critiquing the theatre is a very important part of the theatre. We have to criticize each other in order to develop.” When he said it I wrote it down, and it has stuck with me ever since. As creatives, we often put ourselves in our work and see any critique of the work as being negative, when we would be better served by focusing on what we can learn from it. It is often said that to be in this industry one needs to develop a thick skin. My advice however has been in line with “it is not about you, it is about the work”. Listen to the critiques, take from it what makes sense, and discard the rest.
FILMCO: Is there a production that you’ve done that has been your favourite to choreograph? If so, why?
TW: I can’t name a favourite per say, but I have a top three, which are among my favorites for very different reasons. They are:
Simeon Moodoo’s ‘The Inspector’ (2016). Not only was this the first original play that I choreographed for, it was a truly collaborative process where the script informed my choreography and my choreography informed the script. This play was also the first production to take me outside of Trinidad and Tobago, and although I was not the performer, it satisfied my long-held desire to compete on an international stage. It represented T&T at the Caribbean Secondary Schools’ Drama Festival (2017) in Antigua and returned home with 10 out of 16 awards including Best Ensemble and Best Overall Production. It was also the production where I developed my new style of choreography which I call “acting with movement”. Choreography that is not a dance, unless the characters are dancing in the scene, but rather an extension of the direction. This process makes the vocabulary of movement accessible to dancers and non-dancers alike as it is rooted in the Drama.
Elton John and Tim Rice’s ‘AIDA’ (2018) with Presentation College was also an amazing experience as it gave me the opportunity to mount choreography that has been living in my head since 2010 when I saw Must Come See’s production of the musical at Queen’s Hall and fell in love with the music. It was also the first production where I wore multiple hats, functioning as the choreographer and lead marketing consultant. With this added responsibility, this was the first time I introduced Associate Choreographers (Breige Wilson and Omar Jarra) to my process, and collaborating with them was an absolute blast. I posted a rehearsal clip of one of the pieces I choreographed leading up to the shows opening, and Krisha Marcano, a dance captain of the Broadway Cast of AIDA commented that she loved the choreography and said she wished she was home (she’s a Trini) to see it. I lost my mind!
Brian Mac Farlane’s ‘Christmas Joy’ (2015, 2018 – 2019) also ranks among my top three choreography experiences. With the exception of in 2017, I have been choreographing for Christmas Joy since its first outing up to the last concert pre-Covid. While each year came with its own sets of challenges (as productions always would), it has always felt like choreographing for a Broadway production, which is a dream I used to have when I first started in musical theatre. Now I am like ‘why go to Broadway, create our own Broadway right here. #SupportLocal
FILMCO: If all necessities were available and you could choose any project to work on next, what would it be?TW: Choreographing for Dreamgirls, Hairspray or Newsies are on my bucket list, so I would jump at the opportunity to work on those projects. I have also read some scripts from some of our local filmmakers such as Azriel Bahadoo and Ryan Figuera that I am very eager to cast once given the green light. That aside, I do have some plans that I am working on with the Network that will be revealed in time.
FILMCO: The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network has been going strong for 13 years, what are your plans for the future of the network and the Theatrebuzz Callboard?
TW: As with everything, we are always changing and growing. Thirteen years is no small feat, and our audience is quite expansive. In the future we hope to convert to a membership organisation to better administer how the benefits that we are developing will be applied to the sector. We also plan to offer training in various disciplines and engineer systems through which our would-be members can earn passive income from their creative outputs. Everything will be revealed in time.
FILMCO: What do you think are the three things we need to be able to build a sustainable film and television industry here in Trinidad and Tobago?
TW: Documentation: We need to develop a culture of documentation. Not just in the form of contracts and agreements, (‘cause nobody has time for another he said she said), but also documentation of our creative processes, our culture and heritage, that is accessible for future generations. We are more than just the land of Carnival, and much of the institutional knowledge that makes us unique is being lost with the passing of the ancestors. The cultural confidence of our people is being eroded as we continue to be inundated with American content. We need to document our own stories, and have them celebrated on national platforms as well as promoted in international markets as well.
Collaboration: One of the reasons the Network was created was to facilitate collaboration. In my early years being a member of many performing arts groups, I noticed that many producers were operating in silos… trying to do everything themselves, which appeared to be quite a stressful process. While it may come with its own challenges, partnerships and collaboration reduces the workload on one individual creator, creates more jobs in the sector, and allows more persons to get a piece of the pie. This is not limited to collaboration on the local scale, but also includes regional and international as well. A larger network increases the number of eyes that will potentially be attracted to the project, and that opens up a world of possibilities. You know what they say, your network is your net worth.
Innovation: We need to continue exploring new ways of operating in the film and television industry in Trinidad and Tobago. Technology is always changing, making processes less labour intensive, and more affordable. We have to keep learning, and also sharing that knowledge. “This is the way it has always been done.” is perhaps the biggest destroyer of creativity and progress. We have to keep evolving or we’ll be a relic of the past.
FILMCO: What would you say has been the most rewarding experience you have had so far working in the film and theatre industry?
TW: I have had so many fulfilling experiences since I began my career in this field that it is difficult to say which has been the MOST rewarding. The most recent however was when T&T went into lockdown in early 2020, I did not know what that would mean for me as an artist, the creative community (who I fondly consider my tribe) or for the Network. Surprisingly the demand for our casting services increased during this period. It was then that I began seeing what I do, not just as another service, but rather as a huge responsibility to help my ‘peoples’ continue to work, when opportunities for work is scarce, in such unprecedented times. Since then, hearing the reactions of the actors over the phone when I say “you’ve been cast” has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I have had working in this sector.
FILMCO: Could you tell us a bit about what you are currently working on or what we can hope to see from you in the future?
TW: I am working in casting and talent coordination for a couple films that I am not at liberty to disclose at this time. I am also preparing to host my first workshop sometime in 2022, and expanding the team that works with the Network. But the most notable thing that I can share at this time, is that I am working closely with the Arts Association Collective of Trinidad and Tobago to develop a coded system for Performing Arts spaces, so that artists can continue to work safely at various levels of Alerts due to the COVID-19.
To find out more about Triston Wallace click here.