Talking self-descriptions with Ken Corsbie

Ken Corsbie is a true Caribbean man.

Not limiting himself to any one Caribbean country, Mr. Corsbie explains that he was born and raised in Guyana to Trinidadian parents, and is made up of Trinidadian, African, Chinese, Scottish, Amerindian, Welsh, Barbadian and Guyanese blood.

‘I am, therefore, a full-blooded West Indian,’ he says with a smile.

This is not where the self-descriptions stop. What about what he does?

‘The US says I am a storyteller,’ Mr. Corsbie says. ‘I have also been called a poet, dramatist, performer … you often get asked that question: ‘What do you do?’ in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone, and I always change the subject. It’s just too confusing.’

Mr. Corsbie has enjoyed a long career in performance, starting back in Guyana in the 1950s and 1960s. While travelling the Caribbean in the 1970s as an officer with the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, Mr. Corsbie ‘discovered the Caribbean’, and relished the differences in the theatrical scenes from island to island.

‘They’re very different – Jamaica has very vibrant theatre from way back, they’re professionals and a lot of people there live off of the theatre; it is a very highly sophisticated theatre,’ Mr. Corsbie explained.

‘Trinidad has a lot of semi-professionals and here you can’t make a living (as a professional actor). It is linked somewhat to population, you have a limited audience.’

However, a theatre he was involved with back in Guyana was similar in structure to the Cayman Drama Society, he said.

‘The theatrical scene in Guyana is very much like it is here – there are a lot of volunteers. I worked in the 1960s and ’70s at a theatre very much like this in Guyana – same structure, amateur theatre staffed by volunteers,’ he said. ‘It’s like coming home, coming back here to a small theatre like this.’

Mr. Corsbie is able to recognise the value in having a combination of cultures in one theatrical group.

‘A lot of the volunteers can be ex-patriates, and that’s, I feel, a contribution to the theatre group’s success. High schools, metropolises, universities – they all have theatre. Generally speaking ex-patriates have seen a lot of theatre. So everyone brings a lot of experience and expertise.’

Mr. Corsbie has performed at Gimistory this week in addition to his shows last weekend for the Cayman Drama Society. He is used to performing for a variety of audiences, whether it is across the country, the region or internationally in countries such as the US.

‘My audiences in America are very across-the-board. I can alter the style of my content for the audience; I am very conscious of what each audience may respond to,’ said Mr. Corsbie.

‘For Caribbean audiences you can do what you like, you can use idioms, you can use words: they get it. Once you are in front of a non-Caribbean audience, you slow down, you articulate a bit better, you try not to use a lot of Creole or idioms – if you do use it you have to explain it. For family audiences with kids you change the type of stories you tell – more action, more expressive stories.’

It may surprise many to learn that the US has a large sub-culture of storytelling.

‘The big storytelling festival is in Tennessee once a year in November and 10,000 people turn out to see it,’ said Mr. Corsbie. ‘They have people performing eight to 10 hours a day in tents.’

From his travels in the Caribbean, Mr. Corsbie believes that Cayman is the only country to have a festival such as Gimistory, which is dedicated to storytelling.

‘I’m surprised that the Caribbean does not have more of a presence. I don’t know of any other islands that have grasped storytelling as an art form,’ said Mr. Corsbie. ‘Cayman is the only island that has a festival that runs more than one day that I know of.’

Since becoming involved in theatre in Guyana when he was 21, where he performed as the only male in a number of plays at a nearby all-girls school, Mr. Corsbie knew his future would be in the theatre. Attending Rose Bruford College in the UK for three years, he studied theatre design and direction.

The journey from amateur theatre in Guyana to travelling the Caribbean with his shows such as Dem-Two and All Ah We to eventually becoming the one-man show that he is today was an enjoyable one. However, once he discovered one-man shows, there was no turning back.

‘I didn’t want to deal with other actors, a director, a scriptwriter, sets, musicians, choreographers – I can literally just turn up dressed like I am now to do storytelling anywhere,’ said Mr. Corsbie.

Those shows may be simple in design but the content is varied and plentiful. Mr. Corsbie combines stand-up comedy, dramatic readings, Caribbean poetry, acting and song into a dynamic and entertaining show for all ages and cultures.

Having moved to Barbados for 17 years from Guyana, Mr. Corsbie now lives in the suburbs in Long Island, New York, where he has resided for the past 13 years. Married to an American professor, he still enjoys his trips back to his home – the Caribbean.

‘My favourite thing about the Caribbean is its diversity. Its openness and its differences and similarities,’ Mr. Corsbie said. ‘All the Caribbean islands, for example, have different accents. Trinidadian accents come from the French, they have a lilt and jump up. Jamaican accents are on the downbeat.’

Mr. Corsbie’s love for the Caribbean region, however, is proven in every performance he does.

To see Ken Corsbie live, head out to Gimistory, continuing tonight at 7pm at Smith Cove on South Church Street. Admission is free.