I glance around fascinated as she ushers me into her Woodbrook living room. The setting could easily be a fairy tale illustration brought to life. Every corner is filled with family heirlooms and treasured memorabilia of her early dance career and decades of work with “the children”. A doddering old Mother Goose she certainly isn’t. Despite a pronounced limp (a tell-tale sign of the physical toll of a lifetime of dancing), she scuttles around with self-assured poise and grace.
“So this is Noble Douglas,” I muse as I settle down to chat with Trinidad and Tobago’s leading lady of dance and children’s theatre. “I got this last night,” Douglas offhandedly mentions while gesturing to the COCO Award for contemporary dance she’d just received. It’s the most recent of numerous accolades bestowed upon the Lilliput Children’s Theatre and Noble Douglas Dance Company Inc. founder through the years, not the least of which were the 2005 Hummingbird Medal-Gold and being named as one of the nation’s 50 Most Influential People by the Guardian Media Group. So I ask about her thoughts on this ongoing public recognition.
“I can’t understand why I’m so widely recognised,” Douglas responds. “This has never been about me alone. Our organisation is about a group of us.” She then adds: “One of my teachers in the States once told me, ‘Noble, always surround yourself with people stronger than you and you will always succeed.’ I have an organisation in which I just happen to be at the forefront so my name keeps coming up but I could not have done it without the people who work with me. All of those people are stronger than me.”
Drawn initially to music, then to dance as a child, and schooled in teaching dance at the London College of Dance and Drama and as a performer at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, Noble has devoted her entire adult life to exposing youngsters and teens to the performing arts. Through dance, drama, creative writing and Lilliput’s Carnival portrayals and stage productions, her vision always has been to draw upon “the Arts” as the conduit for inspiring a sense of hard work, discipline, respect, confidence, self expression and above all, good character in her students. “Lilliput is an experience,” she emphasises. “Even though there are a lot of new drama schools, there is something I don’t think they will ever capture called the ‘Family of Lilliput’.
That, I can honestly say, has come from me. I need to know every child… every parent. If we allow Lilliput to get too big, our sense of family will fall by the wayside.” The paradox is that the ‘Lilliput experience’ is big and with the recent launch of the Noble Douglas Lilliput Foundation for the Arts, it holds the promise of even further reaching effects. Douglas hopes the Foundation will attract the financial wherewithal (through its Lilliputian for Life Fund) to enable a wider community of youths to reap the life-enhancing benefits derived from exposure to the performing arts.
“A lot of kids come to us who really need help,” she explains. “We need to go out and spread the ‘Lilliput Way’, provide a sense of family and character development. Ultimately, we hope to have our own building where people can come to learn; a real home where we can hold classes and host performances.” The foundation is Noble’s long-held dream fulfilled. Its seed was planted years ago when she herself was given a fellowship from the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation to work and perform with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The experience was her impetus for forming her dance company 10 years after founding the Lilliput Children’s Theatre. The two have since had a seamless and symbiotic relationship, due primarily to their founder’s strong sense of ‘family’ and belief in the collaborative strength of a group.
Noble speaks with sincerity and admiration for the people who have influenced her career and success. She reverently recalls Ailey Dance Theater’s Associate Artistic Director Mary Barnett and Ailey II’s Artistic Director Sylvia Waters as being her mentors. With heartfelt respect, she mentions former and current working colleagues like Tony Hall, the late John Isaacs, Allan Balfour, Merylle Mahabir, Wendell Manwarren and many others. Pride beams from her face when she tells me about Lilliput and Douglas Dance Company alumni like creative writers Tia Holder and Elisha Efua Bartels, and dancer Charlene Harris who have moved on to achieve personal success. So she is caught off guard when I ask: “But what about you, Noble? How would you describe yourself?”
After a brief hesitation, she begins describing herself. “I guess I would say Noble Douglas is very Caribbean. She believes in her work as a family of people around her. She is not easy to work with. In fact, she has gotten softer in her old age… but she likes to believe that she can get things done, and done the right way.” Switching to the first-person, she continues, “I think some people are even afraid of me – I don’t know why though. Maybe it’s because I tend to ‘call a spade a spade’ and believe in the old saying, ‘Common sense is not book sense’. I was never bright in school but common sense ruled the roost with me and that, up to this day, has been my strong point.” She ends with, “Oh, and Noble Douglas loves to eat! I think that sums me up.”
It is clear that Noble Douglas is as comfortable in her own skin as she in a group, but even clearer is her unshakable belief in her calling which, she states unequivocally as: “To work with children, to help them.” This Noble Douglas has done… and done nobly. She is the surrogate mother of many, and when and if she eventually retires, her immense maternal spirit will live on happily ever after in ‘Lilliput Land’.