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​Backing into the Spotlight

My name is Ellen O’Malley Camps and I have a new project.

I’m probably better known in Trinidad and Tobago as Helen Camps, the theatre lady. I was involved in formal theatre and started Tent Theatre. But I’ve been out of theatre for a million years and I’m totally disinterested. That part of my life is completely over. All my theatre friends seem to be dead.

From 2004 or so until they shut us off for covid I started work on a film theatre programme at the Maximum Security Prison. During covid, I started a kind of a cottage version on Zoom of some of the things I did, offering it online. I call it the Nana Project.

I’m only now come to the stage where I can perhaps answer the question I’ve asked myself all my life: what do you want to be when you grow up? I never had a clue! Growing up in Ireland, I won every scholarship you could think of but never knew what I wanted to do. Maybe if they’d offered physics, I’d have loved it. I love listening to Neil De Grasse Tyson now and I know nothing about physics.

I’ve always loathed being in the public eye. Just before covid, I was made a national icon by the government. I don’t know whose idea it was. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be one. They had me up all around the Savannah. I was invited to run a mentorship programme and I was supposed to get $50k for it – and I thought, “$1k for every year I worked for free in this country.” Of course, it never happened. Because of covid. But we could have done everything online.

I came to Trinidad by plane the first time, after my eldest child, Aaron, was born, and he will be 60 this year. When we came to live on January 1 1966, we arrived by boat. And my Irish passport was out of date.

I’ve lived in Trinidad and Tobago as a proud citizen since 1966. This is my home. When I go to Ireland, as I used to every few years, I was a visitor. My brothers were there and my nieces and nephews.

I was living with my family, Michael Camps, the paediatrician, and our then three children, Aaron, Sara and the newborn Simone next door to Michael de la Bastide. His sister Joan had put on the pantomime Robinson Crusoe and they inveigled me to take a part. But I was never very interested in being onstage. Something about the whole attitude to the work didn’t gel well with me so, after three nights, I didn’t turn up. But Derek Walcott was in the audience and saw me. He was writing In a Fine Castle and he invited me to come down to the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. I was very impressed with their productions. And that’s how I got involved in theatre in Trinidad.

From working with TTW, I became very interested in, not performance, but the rehearsals, and how much I learned about myself. Derek and I were always arguing about something. And it was very misogynistic, I suppose. I was in Dream on Monkey Mountain, Ti-Jean and His Brothers, In a Fine Castle and I can’t remember what else. But I really thought we should have had more young people being brought it.

Tent Theatre came about because Tony Hall and I started talking about Jean Genet’s The Maids and I decided, rightly or wrongly, that we’d have a theatre season. Tony and his wife and Michael and I set up All Theatre Productions and put on The Maids and Emile Elias’ wife did the set – that’s another long story.

I’m particularly proud of our production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead. I think the playwright, the white South African, Athol Fugard, would have been thrilled. My production was done in the round and the set by Wayne Berekley, God bless him, was really something.

Cinderama, Sno Cone and the Seven Douens, Mas in Your Mas and the other musicals were based on the idea of pantomime, but using characters we all would have been aware of [as Trinidadians]. Raymond Choo Kong played King Dumb – until he breaks out into song at the end of the show. Which was lovely and went down well. I became more and more aware of Roger Israel and that he composed music. I said, let’s forget the popular tunes and put in our own tunes. I thought the musicals were great fun. Pat Bishop thought they were terrific so that was lovely.

Tent Theatre came about because we wanted to take theatre to places around the country that wouldn’t normally get plays. I don’t know if I’m proud of it. I’m not good at things like that. I just do what comes to me as the thing I want to do at that particular moment. My character is a bit Putin-ist or Stalinist. I don’t ask people, I tell them. And everyone went along, for whatever reason. I’m sure they hated my guts half the time. And I wouldn’t blame them.

My interest in theatre had very little to do with the audience. I couldn’t give a shit. They would take out of it what they wanted to. But I was intensely interested in the performer. That’s what theatre was all about – my approach was more Gratowski than Brecht.

You have to adjust to life changes brought about by the ageing process whether you like it or not. I’ve adjusted very well I think, emotionally and psychologically. But I’ve done an awful lot of work on myself. Because of theatre, I realised the power a director has working with a group. I’ve seen some local directors really abuse people, not deliberately, but just because they didn’t know what they were doing.

In the 1980s, I did psychosynthesis training over four years in London. That taught me a lot about myself. And, of course, you use that in theatre.

Shadow said Feel the Feeling but I don’t think I began feeling until late in life, probably in my 60s. So I hardly every knew when I was being insulted or taken advantage of, or when I was taking advantage of other people. Because I just got on and did what I wanted to do.

I’m good at making the best of life but life is in a shit state. Mother Earth has got fed up of being raped. I’m satisfied more or less with my own life. But the shite that’s going on with climate change, covid and the terrible situation democracy is in absolutely appals me.

I think the word is sad. I feel very sad. It is so unnecessary. Everyone knows the solution to what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine, just like they knew it in Northern Ireland: everybody has to put down their arms. But it’s not as simple as that. The Ukrainians want to hold on to their land and the Russians, rightly for them, want to do what their president wants to do. How do you make life bearable? The world is definitely in the adolescent stage. I think I want to see more and more young people running things.

The prison work is what I liked doing and it saddens me that covid put an end to it. I probably got more out of it than they did.

Any project I’ve started, I’ve started because I thought it made sense. I did whatever I could to help. I hope I didn’t do any harm but you always do, don’t you, even if you don’t mean to.

In the Nana Project, “Nana” has the meaning of granny, grandmother, who has nothing else to do except sit in front of a computer and, if anybody, a small group or individuals want to come on and do sessions, they can. I did get paid by quite a few places around the world and I need the money – who doesn’t – but I can’t be bothered with trying to go through Paypal and all of that stuff.

Right now I’m willing to work with people for free. If you want to give me money at some stage, I’m open to it. I think when you do everything for free, people don’t take you on. And maybe they’re right.

I’m hoping to give anybody who wants to be involved in it the opportunity to look at life or whatever is going on and starting from the self, the small self and the big self, from the inside out, if you like. There’s not a bloody thing we can do about hunger in wherever. For me, it’s about empowerment: using your will, doing guided imageries and creative visualisations and actually learning how to literally move on.

If I ever did a podcast, it would be about the existential crisis, which is always there, regardless of democracy or autocracy or bullshit or gorgeousness or whatever. At some stage in your life, questions of isolation, of meaninglessness, of freedom – one of the hardest ones – and death, it all comes down to that. And you have to deal with it.

I think I was a terrific teacher in a boys’ school, where most of the kids were poor, although the only thing I never wanted to be was teacher. I was 19 or 20. And this poor little seven-year-old boy, I can still see him trying to smile with the tears running down his face. That visual will never goe. Because I was so hard on him. I was the first class teacher and I knew the teacher in second class spent the day with his feet on the desk reading the bloody newspaper, and I wanted the best for these kids. There were 35 kids in front of you and you were given a stick of chalk. The books were stupid: the cat is on the mat. I often wonder if that little boy spent his life thinking, “That bitch!”

I have perennial persistent pain from osteoarthritis. My whole body is a mess. Pain is a killer. It makes life so miserable. You have to keep finding jokes to keep you going all the time. I love the Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan. He’s crazy. All Irish people are crazy in my opinion. And I am among them.

I’m tormenting my adult children telling them the same things over and over but it is totally appropriate for 84-year-olds. Who are no longer interested in anything except the family. I find most people extremely boring – that sounds so arrogant – except the people who are not boring.

I don’t go to funerals or memoriams. I think they’re awful. Somebody said I’d have to go to my own funeral but I won’t. When you’re dead, you’re dead, you’re no longer there, just a piece of carcass.

I have a great love for people who actually go into politics. I think a lot of them are in it because they want to make a difference. Maybe I’m stupid. I hate generalising. Because you really don’t know. I’d be useless on a jury. I think I’d have to actually see the person murder somebody before I could convict them.

I like the soul of a Trini. And it matches up with my own soul.

A Trini is the kind of person I admire, someone I want to spend time with. Someone that gets it all wrong and yet gets it all right. Like the Irish, there’s a sense of humour, of what’s real. I think Trinis keep it real. They do it in calypso. I’m a bit worried that all I’m hearing is about jumping up and down. I love the picong, the repartee.

Trinidad and Tobago is home to me. It’s the place I want to be. It’s equally generous and mean to me. A normal kind of a place where people are ready to be in community.