Participatory Research: A Journey of Discovery

Paper presented on June 3, 2013 at the Canadian Association of Theatre Research CATR, in the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences  2013 at the University of Victoria. It was part of a curated panel called “Canadian Theatre in Broken English: On Exiles, Outsiders and Immigrants in Canadian Theatre today”.

I founded PUENTE Theatre (it means Bridge in Spanish), in Victoria BC, in 1988 and was its artistic director for 22 years, until my retirement in June 2011. For over twenty years PUENTE created theatre about the experiences of immigrants in Canada.  Plays like “I wasn’t born here,” “Crossing borders,’ “Canadian Tango,” and  “Familya,” told the stories of Latin American immigrants; the “Sisters/Strangers” and “Storytelling our Lives” community plays included stories of women from all over the globe; more recently, “Canadian Tango 09,” focused on mixed couples of different cultural and racial background. In this paper I will share some of PUENTE’s methods of participatory research, used while preparing and presenting our intercultural productions.
The complete PUENTE story is too long to go into here, and can be read about in my website,, but here’s some relevant background. PUENTE Theatre was born out of my own need to tell my story as an immigrant. When I arrived in Canada in 1976 I was 43 years old, and had a full professional life as a theatre artist in Chile, my country of birth. Suddenly, I was no longer living with people with whom I shared a past, a culture, a language, or a history, and I felt I needed to tell my new fellow citizens who I was, where I came from and what I was going through. As a theatre person, of course, I had to do this from the stage. However, in Victoria at that time, I couldn’t find trained actors who were also Latin American immigrants. After years of confusion and indecision, I decided to look for Latin American women who shared my feelings and create my play with them, even if they were not actresses or in theatre at all. Luckily I found them and also the necessary funding. Thus, I started doing applied theatre and community based theatre in 1988, at a time when these concepts were just beginning to be formulated, and there were few resources to guide me. I had to start from scratch and invent how to achieve our goals based on the demands of the kind of theatre I wanted to do. To tell the Latin American immigrant story truthfully and in all its complexity, it was clear we needed to carry out extensive interviews in that community.

The participants in the show conducted the interviews. During the training period, interviewers were instructed to listen with full attention, to respect the answers they received, to avoid making comments or giving advice, to be clear about the purpose of the interviews, and to assure confidentiality. We created the questionnaires together and practiced by interviewing each other. The fact that the interviewers were immigrants themselves added to the value of their observations: they had lived those situations, shared them, and were empathic and understanding.

The interview became for us the beginning of a sequence of interpretations of the immigrant experience by several people. Early on, we abandoned recording devices and preferred to take notes: we started doing interviews in 1988, and we noticed that some interviewees seemed intimidated by the tape recorder. We then realized that, by writing the answers, we had started a process of interpretation. First the person interviewed interprets his/her own experiences, and then the interviewer does it with his/her notes and observations. The process continues in the rehearsal hall: some interviews are acted out in front of the cast, different elements and commonalities are observed and used in improvisations and movement sequences; scenes are created, many are discarded, some continue to be worked on until finally the shape of the play is discovered and we start making sense of the material we have in our hands. It is a long process; one that doesn’t guarantee success, but is an exciting exploration in which the whole cast participates. An open mind and trust in the process must be kept at all times by everyone involved.  A hundred possibilities are tried and few are kept.
The number of interviews varied from play to play: “I wasn’t born here” and “Crossing Borders” were based on fifty interviews each, but for “Familya” we did eighty-one with immigrant teen-agers and their parents, from countries such as Mexico, Chile, Poland, Vietnam, Colombia, etc. Ninety people were interviewed for “Canadian Tango 09,” all involved in mixed relationships: Canadian born married or partnering with Chileans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Korean, Colombians, etc.
As the director and in many cases the writer of the plays, it was clear to me that the purpose of our research was to stage a play. Therefore we had to ask questions that led to actions, stories, images and situations that could be staged, not about general information or statistics regarding the immigrant situation. We asked questions like: What words do you associate with the word immigrant? Describe your best and worst moments as an immigrant so far? Give us a metaphor of your immigrant experience.  How did you imagine Canada before coming here? Etc.
Here are some responses to the questionnaire for the play “Familya”:

A metaphor of your relationship with your parents? We are like the sun and the moon: they are hot and the source of life, and I am small, cold and distant to them- Being stuck in a hurricane: keeps swirling and never ends, constant destruction – It’s like a house: a pretty outside but winding and complicated inside.

What has been the best moment in your relationship with your parents? I moved out and they accepted it even if they didn’t want it – Visiting Mexico with my Dad – I don’t have any.

And from the research for “Canadian Tango 09”:

A metaphor of your marriage? A brick maze with no exit – Like chocolate, sweet – We are like a zebra – Lost ship stuck in the ocean – Sheltered from the world under an umbrella.

Best moment in your marriage so far?  When we are back in Africa and I am not in the minority – Giving birth to two children and wondering what they would look like

After all the interviews were done, the answers were compiled. These compilations made for fascinating reading and provided an inspiring foundation for our work.

Most of our projects included an exploration of the immigrant experience conducted through visual arts workshops, mask and puppet making workshops, storytelling circles, movement and music workshops. In this way, the participants became accustomed to expressing themselves through the arts and discovered or revealed their talents and skills.

We completed our research by inviting the immigrant community to take part in Image Theatre workshops, where they were guided to create ‘living sculptures’ representing their experiences, and Playback events, where they told their personal stories and watched them enacted by a group of actors. These events provided more scenes for the plays that were embraced as true community efforts by the audiences. Participants in the process thought their experiences and opinions were valued; they felt pride and ownership of the artistic achievement represented by the play. They believed that participating in the research process helped them reflect on their situation as immigrants and come to terms with it.

An important part of PUENTE’s work was done using Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques; they were extremely useful to address serious issues regarding immigrants, such as family violence, racism, cultural shock and work problems.

By definition, a one-person show is not a community play, but the research we did for our production “Uthe/Athe” (“Here/There” in Punjabi), included the community in a significant way. Actor/writer Raji Basi and myself wanted to hear from women elders from the East Indian community: we felt we needed reassurance about the appropriateness of the themes we intended to deal with. We wanted to show respect for the community, and secure their permission to treat controversial topics. Being sensitive to older Indian women’s customs, traditions, and propriety, Raji and I had many conversations about the best way of approaching them. We decided to invite them to a party. After introductions, food, and conversation, I explained the rules of a word game that we would play; I asked them to freely say the words that came to their minds when I said, for instance: Indian, Canadian, wedding, family, and so on. I wrote the answers on a flip chart. The responses were telling. The word Daughter, brought these associations: Love – sadness – headaches – responsibilities – sleeplessness – worry – groom -dowry – gossip – wealth – teaching – dressing-up. India and Canada prompted words that showed contrasting worlds: India was about traditions, religion, and family. Canada, about freedom, good living, drinking and drugs. When Raji proposed the word sex, there was laughter, silences, and uneasy looks. Finally, some words came out: forbidden – silence – fighting – making up – important – cheating – wedding night – abuse – honeymoon – power – embarrassing. We received interesting answers to:  If you could say one sentence to a young Indian woman, what would it be? Get married – no sex before marriage – learn good housekeeping – learn to manage money – respect elders – have patience – come home straight from school – no orange or purple hair – if your parents tell you to get married, do it! –

As the evening progressed the women became more trusting and started talking freely about their own experiences in marriage. Finally Raji asked: If you had to live your life over again, would you do the same thing? This provoked discussion and soul searching. One of the women said bluntly that she had been married at 16 to a drunk, that she had been abused and lonely; other women, brought from India to marry Indo-Canadians, talked about how difficult it had been to adapt to life in Canada. Only one of them said that she had been happy in her arranged marriage. Suddenly a woman exclaimed: “We are doing this! We are demanding our daughters do the same thing we did, even if we were not happy! Why do we do it?” This question remained unanswered. We agreed that it was a subject for more discussion and reflection, and that was the end of the evening. The openness we encountered in this event was greatly encouraging to us. It gave us freedom to address the topics we wanted.  “Uthe/Athe” was very successful; in one occasion we were asked to present it at a very important event the East Indian community organized in Vancouver, addressing the issue of violence against women.


The type of research changes according to the requirements of each production:  who the participants are, the kind of community, the demands of time, location, budget, topic, etc. Research methods must be flexible and cannot be restricted to interviews: valuable results can be obtained through story circles, visual arts workshops, dance events, image theatre, playback, photography, etc. All these art-based ways of exploring a reality are worthy and effective.

Sensitivity towards the community’s values, customs, and traditions, is extremely important. Selecting who’s going to be interviewed, what questions to ask, and how to ask them, requires truly knowing and respecting the community. Trust must be built between participants and researchers, confidentiality and respect are essential, participants must be advised of the way their responses are going to be used, and they must have access and be invited to all events in which they have collaborated.

Using the right techniques and having the right attitude, community-based theatre is a powerful artistic means of healing and empowering the community.

Lina de Guevara

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