Making a career out of the arts: Conroy Wilson ’s ride to success
THE performing arts have been Conroy Wilson ’s vehicle to success. They have taken him, now executive director of The Ashe Company, to various positions of power in different organisations, on international stints, won him local recognition, and have even allowed him to bypass the usual undergraduate degree requirement to enroll in a master’s degree programme.
When Conroy Wilson graduated from St George’s College in 1990, he left with only three subjects. It was what he did afterwards that has enabled him to accomplish what he has.
“All the bright people were doing the sciences and I wasn’t about to be thought of as dunce, so I went and did the sciences — biology, chemistry, add maths — much to my dismay because I had no interest or liking for any of them. I left with mathematics, English language and English literature,” he told the
Jamaica Observer in a recent sit-down.
Being unable to matriculate to sixth form with those results, Conroy Wilson decided to seek a job at National Commercial Bank.
“The requirement was four subjects, but I applied anyway. They called me for an interview. I got the job as a part-time specialist cashier. After about three months, they promoted me to full-time. After working there for a little less than a year, I started realising that this was wonderful, but not for me, because I started getting very impatient with the customers,” he said, adding that during that time, he sat and passed two additional subjects.
“I applied for a job at Sagicor. Sagicor offered me a job just up the road from where the bank was to do the same thing, but for more money. I told them no.”
After this, he landed a one-year teaching stint at St Benedict’s Primary School. Though he managed to register marked improvements in the students’ grades, it was his involvement with performing arts company, Ashe, that would earn him the most success. His involvement with the group began during his days at St George’s, when in third form, he earned a spot in Kathy Levy’s production Gift of Life and became a part of the Little People and Kiddie Players Clubs that gave rise to the company, in 1993.
“After I left St Benedict’s, I started working with Ashe, as they now had a full-time programme. I started helping out in the office. So, the journey moved from helping out in the office to secretary, to assistant administrator, to administrator, to becoming academy director, to becoming ensemble director, to becoming managing director, to executive director,” he said outlining his move up the ranks.
Moving up the ranks at Ashe, he was exposed to several professional developmental courses that would eventually convince The University of the West Indies (The UWI) to accept him for their master’s programme in communication and behaviour change at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication, even though he did not hold a first degree.
“When I started working for Ashe in ‘95, I started doing some professional courses, including administrative management for non-government organisations at Jamaica Institute of Management, now University College of the Caribbean,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
Conroy Wilson explained that he set out to complete an associate’s in business administration with a view to matriculating to the bachelor’s programme, but after the first class, he realised he was much more advanced.
“I went on the first Sunday and they were teaching English. And I just said to myself ‘Conroy, you cannot sit through this’. What I did was write to the school and I told them all that I’d done and said, ‘Can you give me an exam for the associate’s part and matriculate me to the other part for the degree.’ They said no. I never went back after that. A year or two after that, the late co-founder of Ashe, Joseph Robinson was lecturing at CARIMAC. They had just started offering a master’s in communication and behaviour change, and he carried me with him as an assistant. The next year, they called him back. He said, ‘Conroy Wilson, this what I told you should be doing’. He spoke to them at CARIMAC and they asked me to apply,” he reported.
A “long essay” and an interview later, and Wilson was accepted into the master’s programme.
“All of what they were teaching in theory, I was already doing practically. It would have been ridiculous not to accept me as a mature student, provided I could have kept up with the work,” he reasoned.
At the time of his application, Conroy Wilson was managing director at Ashe with an extensive, if not impressive, rÃ©sumÃ©. Listed among his accomplishments were helping develop Ashe’s first edutainment musicale and accompanying manual,
Parenting Vibes in a World of Sexuality, and leading the Ashe Ensemble across the Caribbean to perform and conduct training. He also produced and performed in
Curfew, an edutainment musicale aimed at combatting gender-based violence. He won five Actor Boy Awards for this production, including best musicale, best actor, best original score, best original song and best choreography. He also helped to developed Ashe’s Excitement, Involvement and Commitment model, which is a teaching methodology that was tested and proven at UWI. In addition, he conducted countless workshops on behaviour change, the very subject of the master’s degree, and has worked with several international NGOs, including the United Nations.
Wilson conceded that completing the master’s was challenging, especially since it was his first time in a university setting. Despite that ,however, and the fact that he still held a full-time position at Ashe, he emerged as one of the front-runners in the graduating class.
“I got myself in a group of five ladies and we worked on our master’s together. We are the only five people who submitted our thesis within the year and a half that the masters was for,” he reported.
Since then, his professional pursuits have expanded to include lecturer.
Charmaine Henry, who lectured in management studies, was one of the group of five and she asked him one day if he could be an external invigilator for a communications course.
“I said yes. I came out of the presentation, went upstairs and asked, ‘How do I become a lecturer here?’ They said to just apply. I applied. They called me back and I became one of three lecturers for the course at UWI, Mona,” he said.
He’s also lectured at UWI’s Western Jamaica campus and at Edna Maley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
If the performing arts is his first love, education would be his second. Conroy Wilson notes an interest in the field since primary school, where he admired his music teacher and taught the benches and chairs music when she was out of class. He has done teaching stints in music at Convent of Mercy Academy (Alpha) and Merl Grove High School, and has helped with graduation rehearsals at St Benedict’s.
Wilson looks back to his humble beginnings and his journey with gratefulness. He grew up as the youngest of six boys in a single parent household at different locations on Mountain View Avenue.
“Think of my mother alone raising five boys. My father wasn’t there and my mother worked in the canteen of a school. She was an ancillary worker, so that was the situation. Because of our involvement in the church, we had god mothers and godfathers who assisted. I don’t remember ever being out of anything, actually,” he told Career & Education.
Under his mother’s roof, it was mandatory for him and his brothers to attend St Theresa’s Catholic Church on Deanary Road, where he played the piano. It was during that time that he started doing classes with Lynette Case and completed the London Royal School of Music certificate programme. It was the late Shirley McDonald, however, who introduced him to music at St Aloysious. This continued at St George’s, where he was put in charge of music for assemblies and ceremonies and was, in third form, awarded The Headmaster’s Medal, a prize usually reserved for sixth formers.
Productions and awards aside, Conroy Wilson, 42, said his biggest accomplishment at Ashe was re-establishing a base for the company after an act of violence against an employee forced them to flee their Nannyville Gardens home, and managing to maintain the high performing standards even after Robinson’s passing.
“The biggest accomplishment would be in 2011 where we found this place (on Cargill Avenue), because we were just bouncing around. In addition, people knew Joe as the driving force and the person who was making things happen for us. Now when we perform people getting the same feeling and the standard is still high, and this is 11 years after Joe died. It is an accomplishment,” he said.
He says his story shows people, youngsters in particular, that they can do anything.
“The biggest takeaway for me would be how someone can go for anything. In other words, there is no limit to what you can do or achieve, regardless of where you are from — as I am not from a rich family — regardless of who you are, and in any field, because the performing arts is thought of as a field where you do sum’n on the side; is not something that you can make a career out of,” he said.
Wilson, who revealed that he and Michael Holgate have just written a book called
Your Empowerment GPA, is now pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Education to eventually do a doctorate in the arts as a potent means of empowerment.
“I am very big on the power of the mind and how people can use their mind to do and achieve anything they want. Take the leap, and if you don’t land on a bed or something, you will get wings and fly. I don’t believe in the victim mentality.
“Find something that you are passionate about and volunteer yourself into a job. If you volunteer, there is no way they can, in good conscience, send you away without pay or a job,” Wilson advised.