IN a society where true and sustained appreciation for the arts has been found wanting, Carlton Mc. Millan Ishmael’s life story proves that any innocent bystander has the propensity to embrace something new and make it become their life passion.
Born in 1954 in the CDC housing area in Castries to Theresa Joseph of Praslin and Kenneth Ishmael — a police officer from Barbados — Ishmael grew up in Castries with his father after his mother left Saint Lucia for Britain in search of a better life.
“Growing up, I was the usual Castries boy. I attended the Methodist School and after classes ended each day, we would go to George V Park to play marbles, football or cricket,” the ever upbeat Ishmael tells me. “Sometimes we would go as far as Vigie Field or Victoria Park (now Mindoo Phillip Park) before returning home late in the afternoon. Television was not a common thing then so we found ways to keep ourselves occupied.”
He later attended Technical College and recalled his growing up period coinciding with the city’s own restructuring effort having been razed by a great fire in 1948 that leveled the Castries landscape.
The nearby Castries Town Hall, Ishmael said, was the main hub for all forms of creativity. He recalled peeping through the holes in the building’s walls to get glimpses of dance performances, theatrical productions or music events.
After observing what was going on there from the outside, he decided at some stage to enter the building and become a legitimate part of the audience. That bold move turned out to be a crucial point for Ishmael who went on to dazzle audiences the world over.
Ishmael joined the Saint Lucia Arts Guild at the organization’s late stage. At the time, he was a trainee attached to LUCELEC installing meters. His skills in the field of electricity landed him the position of assistant lighting personnel in the Guild. Despite being assigned to strictly technical matters on the productions, Ishmael’s eyes, ears and ambitions fell in love with the art of performance.
“When you’re backstage, you learn a few things because you basically become the outsider who sees the production from different angles,” Ishmael, 62, said. “I was able to learn a few things about stage management, backstage management, costume designs, décor, set construction, and all these key elements. However, whilst I was doing all that learning, I was not involved in the practical side of those areas.”
Every now and then, if someone did not show up for their part, Ishmael served as a stand-in, having learned the actors’ lines vicariously. He was later selected to attend a summer theatre workshop in Trinidad to advance his technical knowledge of theatre. While there, he was influenced to go beyond learning more about the technical side of things. He wanted to do more. He wanted to be a central part of the performance. He wanted to act.
One thing led to another with Ishmael honing his acting skills which led to him getting into dance and drumming. While he does not classify himself as being heavily involved as an actor, Ishmael said he was able to make his mark in dance and drumming to the extent that he has even passed on his skills to others.
Ishmael has travelled across the globe and represented Saint Lucia at many CARIFESTA events. His experience also landed him invitations to pageants and other events, either to perform or to be part of the judging panel. Many would remember Ishmael featuring prominently in the ole mas section during the carnival season as he puts his unique spin on wordplay.
Earlier this year, Ishmael formed part of a large cast of dancers selected to pay tribute to the late dance instructor Virginia Alexander. While the audience seemed delighted at his performance – a few nostalgic reasons included – Ishmael explained that the moment did come with some degree of trepidation.
“It was unfortunate that I was asked to perform when I was over 60 years and overweight,” Ishmael said jokingly. “You immediately discover that it’s harder on both the body and mind. The mind always reassures you that you can do it because you’re used to it. But when you’ve not been physically involved in something like dance for 10 years or more, it can take its toll on you when you finally do,” Ishmael said.
The quest for survival saw Ishmael leaning more towards drumming and dancing at hotels and other venues to earn an income. Like now, theatre seemed a vocational thing back then. Twenty years ago, he joined Cox & Company Ltd. as a tour guide, later being promoted to the tour department as a facilitator/liaison officer for the company and the cruise ships. For the past 12 years, one of his key roles at the company has been to train new tour guides. The celebrated dancer, however, has made another big step in his life’s journey.
“Three months ago, I officially took early retirement from Cox & Company and I’m now chilling as I decide what my next move is,” said Ishmael. “But the arts have helped me in many ways. Firstly, I was fortunate enough to be included among every major contingent that left Saint Lucia to participate in other countries. So as a cultural ambassador, I travelled extensively. Secondly, I became a dance consultant for various independent dance companies.”
In February last year, Ishmael was awarded the Saint Lucia Medal of Merit (Gold) for his sterling contribution in the performing arts. He said the moment was “soul satisfying” for him but lamented the lack of creative space that contributes to many productions either being cancelled, under-funded or not attracting large numbers. That needs to change, he said, if the arts are to become sustainable. On the human level, he added, attitudes towards the arts needs to change.
“One plays drums because it means something culturally and historically. One performs as an actor or dancer because he or she is making a statement of skilful expressions. Today, computers and other electronic devices have stripped everything natural from these art forms and people, including the audience, are caught up in these devices. So the essence of the performance is often lost,” Ishmael said.
For now, you can catch Ishmael’s trio, Tropical Triangle Trio, as they perform at various hotels across the island. Who knows, you might even be able to convince him to break into a few of his dance moves or quote lines from those scripts for which he often served as a stand-in.