edge

​Handmade Trini Soap

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay. Photo credit requested.

Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersay

My name is Danielle Dieffenthaller and I made Trinidad’s best known TV soap opera, Westwood Park.

I’m from Trinidad AND Tobago. It seems quite limiting and stupid to me when people box me in as a “West” Girl. I live in Shorelands or Bayshore, depending on who I’m arguing with. According to the people who put up an illegal gate in the road cutting me off from the rest of the neighbourhood, I live in Bayshore… Except Bayshore too, have put up barriers; I guess I live in limbo land.

We lost Dad, Bunny, last year but my mother, Claire, is still alive. I was six when my parents got divorced. I remember grieving for my father as if he had died. I missed his presence terribly. I don't think I ever shook that feeling of complete abandonment. It got better over the years. My daughter was seven and my son was one when I got divorced myself. They are my whole family now.

My brothers Kees, Hans and John are in Kes the Band. We grew up in two different households but have managed to maintain a bond. I’ve watched their development from day one and documented their progression from their very first band so it's all very natural for me. I get the “Kees's sister" a lot but I see it as payback multiplied by ten for all the Westwood Park years they had to endure being "Danielle's little brothers". They never asked me to shake a tambourine. I would be a definite disaster. Respect to all the tambourine players out there.

I have many Kes songs that resonate with me for different reasons. Savannah Grass makes me cry whenever I hear it. I love Limin’, Come a Little Closer and Runaway. Lion feels like my anthem.

After my Common Entrance exam, my mother, my sister, Renee, and I moved to Barbados. We moved back to Trinidad when I was 11 and my mother remarried. At 13 we moved to Kenya, where I completed high school. I didn’t see my father for the first two years and all we had was snail mail. But I was fiercely loyal. When my stepfather wanted to adopt us, I vehemently refused, saying I already had a father and was not an orphan! My younger sister, Heidi, is my dad's last child.

After Ryerson University in Canada, I went to the University of Westwood Park. Now THAT was a WHOLE education!

I grew up believing in a universal energy and alway questioned traditional religions. So I’ve been thrown out of many religious classes, most notably in Kenya. When the nun instructing us on Adam and Eve refused to admit we were living in Kenya, the cradle of mankind, where a six-million-year-old hominid fossil had been discovered!
My church is in nature. I go to my sacred rock by the sea to connect with my spirit.

Do I dance? Well, you could call it that.

I’m kinda small, so hitting people may be futile. A well-aimed bottle does a better job. But I made a pact with myself at 15 to never get so angry that I lose control. I’ve broken that pact only three times. Since he tells everybody about it, to demonstrate what a virago I am, I admit one of those times involved Walt [Lovelace, former Earth TV colleague] and a coffee mug, but I won’t say more than that.

Westwood Park was born of: 1) I always wanted to do drama but didn’t want to start with something important or serious, like adapting Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance; 2) I was appalled the Young & the Restless was Trinidad’s number one show, when we have just as much bacchanal and glitz locally; And 3) I was suffering from a performance tabanca after the Immortelle Theatre Company’s production of Waves of Hope ran for three weeks in Barbados. Over pizza with Deborah Maillard and Bernard Hazel, I floated the idea and they immediately got excited. Dave Williams and Mark White joined the writing team of myself and my ride-or-die sistren, Antoinette Hagley.

We went for glamour because Trinidad and Tobago had already had soap operas that featured rural and working class people, but never really one about the well-to-do. As if bachannal didn’t exist amongst our own rich and infamous. Plus I thought it would be great to show off our own high fashion and exotic locations. In season one, particularly, most of the wardrobe was sourced from largely local designers.

We started shooting a pilot, to raise funds to do season one, in 1995, basically begging friends and family to use their houses as locations. Restaurants, public Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersayspaces and most people were pretty generous. We begged actors to work for free, promising to pay them when we got sponsors. We filmed the first three episodes like that. After a year of banging on doors, I shelved the show in frustration. One day, after the Caribbean Broadcasting Union had mandated more local content, both TV stations called to ask if I still had “that thing I was peddling”. So we had to scramble to produce a series. And scramble we did. We made every mistake there was to make, writing extra storylines to lengthen ten-minute episodes while [simultaneously] shooting and editing. Many nights, after shooting, I went into the edit suite, came out in the morning only to bathe, and went back out to shoot. Youth is a helluva thing.

We pulled off onscreen glamour on a shoestring budget through sheer grit, determination, single-mindedness and the generosity of a lot of people. And committed costume/wardrobe designers. Karina Jeffrey and Mervyn de Goeas would actually replicate, by hand, designer clothes from the fashion magazines using cloth from Queen Street.

I can be objective about Westwood Park’s importance now. At the time, I was told we couldn’t compete with the foreign shows and it was beneath me to do a soap opera. But I felt compelled to do it. Because… Because… Bad mind! I can now look back and see how many people have benefitted from the WP experience.

I remember feeling as if I had wasted years when someone in the Film Company suggested I do a short film to “prove” myself. After I had already completed 100 half-hours of WP!

Because the images they were seeing were not familiar to the majority, we got comments like, “They ain’t have no black people?” And “The only Indians in Westwood Park are maids and waitresses!” We purposefully didn’t use too much slang, so we could export the show without subtitles, but we did speak with Trinidadian accents. A lot of men in particular would say “I doh watch them ting” — but then had some pretty in-depth comments about characters in the show. It wasn’t until season three that people felt comfortable enough to admit they were fans.

Audiences in Barbados, the Virgin Islands and Grenada were wild about the show. A few flight attendant actors became superstars in those islands. Barbados even invited “Sahara” and “Jason” to host their Miss Barbados/Universe along with a star from the Bold and the Beautiful. And Sahara & Jason were swarmed by fans far more than the B&B actor! When we got to New York and the Tri-state area, actors would get approached in by fans in major department stores like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret.

Early on, I decided the only people I would listen to would be the ones who had actually done what I was attempting to do. And that would have been exactly five people in Trinidad! The rest, I shut out. I had the support of my parents. My father, a horse racing man, told me to put on my blinders and run my race. So I did.

I love scenes where we made something out of nothing. Like in season one, when Pamela visited the obeah woman, Zalina. We transformed a corridor in a corner of what is now Black Box with stuff from my and the art director’s house and it turned out great.

The DVD release of season one was bittersweet. So much bacchanal had transpired by that time that I wasn’t really hyped about it. Plus, I wish I had insisted on a different cover. The DVDs didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. People had been pirating the show for years.

One moment will always stay with me. In Grand Rivière, at Mt Plaisir Resort, one of our main sets, in the rainy season — it was always the rainy season when we filmed, despite my best efforts — we started early in the morning. At around 10am, I noticed that the backdrop of a sandy beach was all of a sudden covered in water. Natacha Jones’s young son and his friends were playing in the sand. I got nervous and called them in and, soon after, this apocalyptic gush of water came! It was my first experience of seeing a river come down!
The best thing about WP was that we got to see our entire country and to show it to our people. The worst thing about doing WP was looking for the #$@#% money! Especially with people assuming I was making a mint. Because popularity was apparently bankable! I have to be grateful that the TV stations eventually funded the show. There were many personality clashes, a couple o’ nervous breakdowns, several personal agendas to sidestep and a lot of people telling me what I was doing wrong, but not offering any solutions!

We wrote whatever we wanted and then I'd put on my producer hat and start slashing or downsizing to fit the budget. Wherever we could bargain, beg or borrow from any and everyone, we did. So that every cent would be on the screen.

Without the generosity (and naivety) of a lot of people, Westwood Park could not have been made. Piero Guerrini at Mt Plaisir was one of our earliest supporters from the initial writing stage to the very end. Several families who did not know what they were getting into stuck with us most of the way, like the Lewises, Veni Mange restaurant, Christopher Lynch (until his death), John Cropper and his family and the Phillips.

A Haitian/American asked me to define my self as either black or white. I said I was a Trinidadian. She said, “That is not a race!” I said, “But it is!” For me, then, a Trini is an attitude and an ethnicity.

Trinidad & Tobago is the only place to which I can belong. It is my home, my nemesis and my muse.

​Handmade Trini Soap

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay. Photo credit requested.

Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersay

My name is Danielle Dieffenthaller and I made Trinidad’s best known TV soap opera, Westwood Park.

I’m from Trinidad AND Tobago. It seems quite limiting and stupid to me when people box me in as a “West” Girl. I live in Shorelands or Bayshore, depending on who I’m arguing with. According to the people who put up an illegal gate in the road cutting me off from the rest of the neighbourhood, I live in Bayshore… Except Bayshore too, have put up barriers; I guess I live in limbo land.

We lost Dad, Bunny, last year but my mother, Claire, is still alive. I was six when my parents got divorced. I remember grieving for my father as if he had died. I missed his presence terribly. I don't think I ever shook that feeling of complete abandonment. It got better over the years. My daughter was seven and my son was one when I got divorced myself. They are my whole family now.

My brothers Kees, Hans and John are in Kes the Band. We grew up in two different households but have managed to maintain a bond. I’ve watched their development from day one and documented their progression from their very first band so it's all very natural for me. I get the “Kees's sister" a lot but I see it as payback multiplied by ten for all the Westwood Park years they had to endure being "Danielle's little brothers". They never asked me to shake a tambourine. I would be a definite disaster. Respect to all the tambourine players out there.

I have many Kes songs that resonate with me for different reasons. Savannah Grass makes me cry whenever I hear it. I love Limin’, Come a Little Closer and Runaway. Lion feels like my anthem.

After my Common Entrance exam, my mother, my sister, Renee, and I moved to Barbados. We moved back to Trinidad when I was 11 and my mother remarried. At 13 we moved to Kenya, where I completed high school. I didn’t see my father for the first two years and all we had was snail mail. But I was fiercely loyal. When my stepfather wanted to adopt us, I vehemently refused, saying I already had a father and was not an orphan! My younger sister, Heidi, is my dad's last child.

After Ryerson University in Canada, I went to the University of Westwood Park. Now THAT was a WHOLE education!

I grew up believing in a universal energy and alway questioned traditional religions. So I’ve been thrown out of many religious classes, most notably in Kenya. When the nun instructing us on Adam and Eve refused to admit we were living in Kenya, the cradle of mankind, where a six-million-year-old hominid fossil had been discovered!
My church is in nature. I go to my sacred rock by the sea to connect with my spirit.

Do I dance? Well, you could call it that.

I’m kinda small, so hitting people may be futile. A well-aimed bottle does a better job. But I made a pact with myself at 15 to never get so angry that I lose control. I’ve broken that pact only three times. Since he tells everybody about it, to demonstrate what a virago I am, I admit one of those times involved Walt [Lovelace, former Earth TV colleague] and a coffee mug, but I won’t say more than that.

Westwood Park was born of: 1) I always wanted to do drama but didn’t want to start with something important or serious, like adapting Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance; 2) I was appalled the Young & the Restless was Trinidad’s number one show, when we have just as much bacchanal and glitz locally; And 3) I was suffering from a performance tabanca after the Immortelle Theatre Company’s production of Waves of Hope ran for three weeks in Barbados. Over pizza with Deborah Maillard and Bernard Hazel, I floated the idea and they immediately got excited. Dave Williams and Mark White joined the writing team of myself and my ride-or-die sistren, Antoinette Hagley.

We went for glamour because Trinidad and Tobago had already had soap operas that featured rural and working class people, but never really one about the well-to-do. As if bachannal didn’t exist amongst our own rich and infamous. Plus I thought it would be great to show off our own high fashion and exotic locations. In season one, particularly, most of the wardrobe was sourced from largely local designers.

We started shooting a pilot, to raise funds to do season one, in 1995, basically begging friends and family to use their houses as locations. Restaurants, public Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersayspaces and most people were pretty generous. We begged actors to work for free, promising to pay them when we got sponsors. We filmed the first three episodes like that. After a year of banging on doors, I shelved the show in frustration. One day, after the Caribbean Broadcasting Union had mandated more local content, both TV stations called to ask if I still had “that thing I was peddling”. So we had to scramble to produce a series. And scramble we did. We made every mistake there was to make, writing extra storylines to lengthen ten-minute episodes while [simultaneously] shooting and editing. Many nights, after shooting, I went into the edit suite, came out in the morning only to bathe, and went back out to shoot. Youth is a helluva thing.

We pulled off onscreen glamour on a shoestring budget through sheer grit, determination, single-mindedness and the generosity of a lot of people. And committed costume/wardrobe designers. Karina Jeffrey and Mervyn de Goeas would actually replicate, by hand, designer clothes from the fashion magazines using cloth from Queen Street.

I can be objective about Westwood Park’s importance now. At the time, I was told we couldn’t compete with the foreign shows and it was beneath me to do a soap opera. But I felt compelled to do it. Because… Because… Bad mind! I can now look back and see how many people have benefitted from the WP experience.

I remember feeling as if I had wasted years when someone in the Film Company suggested I do a short film to “prove” myself. After I had already completed 100 half-hours of WP!

Because the images they were seeing were not familiar to the majority, we got comments like, “They ain’t have no black people?” And “The only Indians in Westwood Park are maids and waitresses!” We purposefully didn’t use too much slang, so we could export the show without subtitles, but we did speak with Trinidadian accents. A lot of men in particular would say “I doh watch them ting” — but then had some pretty in-depth comments about characters in the show. It wasn’t until season three that people felt comfortable enough to admit they were fans.

Audiences in Barbados, the Virgin Islands and Grenada were wild about the show. A few flight attendant actors became superstars in those islands. Barbados even invited “Sahara” and “Jason” to host their Miss Barbados/Universe along with a star from the Bold and the Beautiful. And Sahara & Jason were swarmed by fans far more than the B&B actor! When we got to New York and the Tri-state area, actors would get approached in by fans in major department stores like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret.

Early on, I decided the only people I would listen to would be the ones who had actually done what I was attempting to do. And that would have been exactly five people in Trinidad! The rest, I shut out. I had the support of my parents. My father, a horse racing man, told me to put on my blinders and run my race. So I did.

I love scenes where we made something out of nothing. Like in season one, when Pamela visited the obeah woman, Zalina. We transformed a corridor in a corner of what is now Black Box with stuff from my and the art director’s house and it turned out great.

The DVD release of season one was bittersweet. So much bacchanal had transpired by that time that I wasn’t really hyped about it. Plus, I wish I had insisted on a different cover. The DVDs didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. People had been pirating the show for years.

One moment will always stay with me. In Grand Rivière, at Mt Plaisir Resort, one of our main sets, in the rainy season — it was always the rainy season when we filmed, despite my best efforts — we started early in the morning. At around 10am, I noticed that the backdrop of a sandy beach was all of a sudden covered in water. Natacha Jones’s young son and his friends were playing in the sand. I got nervous and called them in and, soon after, this apocalyptic gush of water came! It was my first experience of seeing a river come down!
The best thing about WP was that we got to see our entire country and to show it to our people. The worst thing about doing WP was looking for the #$@#% money! Especially with people assuming I was making a mint. Because popularity was apparently bankable! I have to be grateful that the TV stations eventually funded the show. There were many personality clashes, a couple o’ nervous breakdowns, several personal agendas to sidestep and a lot of people telling me what I was doing wrong, but not offering any solutions!

We wrote whatever we wanted and then I'd put on my producer hat and start slashing or downsizing to fit the budget. Wherever we could bargain, beg or borrow from any and everyone, we did. So that every cent would be on the screen.

Without the generosity (and naivety) of a lot of people, Westwood Park could not have been made. Piero Guerrini at Mt Plaisir was one of our earliest supporters from the initial writing stage to the very end. Several families who did not know what they were getting into stuck with us most of the way, like the Lewises, Veni Mange restaurant, Christopher Lynch (until his death), John Cropper and his family and the Phillips.

A Haitian/American asked me to define my self as either black or white. I said I was a Trinidadian. She said, “That is not a race!” I said, “But it is!” For me, then, a Trini is an attitude and an ethnicity.

Trinidad & Tobago is the only place to which I can belong. It is my home, my nemesis and my muse.