Practical strategies to embed diversity from day one in community arts projects.

Practical strategies to embed diversity in community arts projects.

By Lina de Guevara, who first learned about the Community Play concept in a workshop conducted by Dale Hamilton in 1989.

My field is cultural diversity: the inclusion of immigrants in the arts as creators of art.
I came to Canada from Chile in 1976. I was already forty-three years old and had a complete career as a theatre artist behind me. Overnight everything changed. I lost my bearings, spending many years in confusion and uncertainty. During these first years in Canada I felt a growing need to explain myself. I had lost my old connections, no longer living among people with whom I shared a past, a culture, a language, and a history. I needed to tell my new fellow citizens who I was and where I came from. Most importantly, I did not want to be looked down upon, pitied or offered charity, but to be known and respected on my own terms. I found that this urge to communicate with the mainstream was shared by many immigrants. PUENTE Theatre, which I founded in 1988, was born out of the need to tell our stories as immigrants. We had all left our countries of origin to establish ourselves in a new land.  We had common experiences of being uprooted from our homes, and of wanting people here to know that we brought values and knowledge to our new country. In PUENTE theatre we created plays about immigrants who now had a commonality of situation rather than a common identity rooted in a geographical place.

PUENTE’s first projects were about the experiences of Latin Americans, but as time went by our scope widened to include immigrants from around the world, and also First Nations people with whom many Latin American immigrants felt great affinity. Over the years, I became aware of the conditions to ensure participation from diverse minorities. I‘ll share my experience of 23 years as Artistic Director of PUENTE theatre, based in Victoria BC, producing and directing plays where immigrants are included as creators. Some questions frequently asked are: How do we get in touch with immigrant populations? How do we convince minorities to participate in the projects? What about the language barrier?

Partnerships:  The establishment of partnerships with organizations that provide services for immigrants and First Nations has been important for us to promote our projects, facilitate the contact with large number of immigrants and indigenous peoples, and awaken their interest and commitment. Luckily in Victoria, we have well-established organizations that work with diverse populations, amongst them the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Center. Both collaborated with us in several projects. It’s been necessary of course, to convince them of the specific value the projects would have for their clients; that we would use theatre to address relevant issues, i. e. cultural shock, identity crisis, language barriers, isolation, depression, work conflicts. We’ve had to adapt our own expectations and artistic ambitions to the needs of the partnering organizations. It’s a process that requires clear guidelines, flexibility, awareness, and good will from both parties.

Workshops: Many of the community arts projects have participants who are not arts professionals; therefore skill development sessions become necessary. We’ve done this by scheduling series of workshops, mostly on Saturday afternoons, once or twice a month. Examples of the featured workshops are Movement, Voice, Theatre Exercises, Storytelling, Visual Arts, Mask Making, Music Making, Dance, etc. On long term projects many participants have been enthusiastic, but could not devote a lot of time to the project —family and work demands had priority. Although they couldn’t take part in rehearsals and performances, their presence in the workshops was an important contribution to the content and atmosphere of the project. They contributed what they could, and it was plenty!

Working Atmosphere: A relationship of trust and respect must be established before participants feel free to express their truth, become encouraged to learn new skills and allow their creativity to blossom.. It is a good idea to start every project presenting a “Group Agreement” in which you discuss some basic principles of conduct such as confidentiality, discretion, punctuality, cooperation and so on. Facilitators should provide a list of their own requirements and ask participants to bring out any concerns they might have, so that they can be talked over and included.
Immigrants from different cultures have their own skills and talents to add to any endeavour, and it’s important to create the conditions for those skills and talents to manifest themselves. Consult periodically with the group about the content of the play. Throughout the project, the production team: director, writers, designers, etc. must remain open to what the community participants want to do—if they are not taken in consideration, they’ll have no reason to stay. Make sure to include immigrants and members of diverse minorities in the production team—an immediate bond is formed with the participants. Make sure to include Canadian born people in your production team too, so as not to create separation.

Support for Participants: Participants who are refugees or living in hardship and with many demands on their time will need extra support such as food, bus fare and some money. To make the participation of mothers possible, it is essential to provide good quality childcare. Create opportunities for elders and youngsters to work together and strengthen traditional bonds. Give respect and value to everyone

Languages: I am also an immigrant and speak Spanish. This helped me enormously in our first productions to establish a connection with other immigrants: we had similar histories and understood each other’s feelings. When PUENTE started including diverse minorities in its mandate, we devised creative ways of communicating: participants with more English became interpreters, we used sign language and drawings; we stressed the richness and importance of non-verbal communications and intuitive understanding. We’ve explored new expressive possibilities by staging scenes in other tongues.  Hearing your native language on stage is wonderfully empowering and reassuring. Speaking languages other than English stops being a problem, and becomes an asset that people from other cultures bring to Canada.

Interviews:  Most of our productions have been created based on material gathered through interviews in the immigrant community. We train some participants to become interviewers. Together we create questionnaires addressing the issues the plays deal with: i.e. relationships between immigrant parents and their adolescent children, (“Familya”), between couples with different cultural backgrounds (“Canadian Tango 09”), workplace issues (“Crossing Borders”), stories about immigrants’ first experiences (“I wasn’t born here”), etc. Questions have led to answers that provide images, actions, feelings, and stories about struggles: defeats and successes.

Rehearsals and performances:  Most people cannot attend long and frequent rehearsals, so in many productions I work with a core of performers, who carry the main responsibilities of the play, and choruses of participants whose roles are simpler—can be learned in three or four weekend rehearsals, and rely on following and responding to the actors. This approach works well; according to participants’ feedback, it provides a meaningful and satisfactory experience.

Audience participation: We’ve looked for ways of including the audience during performances: spectators were invited to dance with the actors in “Canadian Tango,” partake of a meal in “I wasn’t born here,” sing with the band in “Crossing Borders” and solve problems through theatre forum sessions in “Familya”. “Storytelling our lives” and “Sisters/Strangers” featured Playback scenes: spectators were invited to tell stories and actors improvised scenes based on them. Many productions started with parades in which the spectators could participate; PUENTE’s signature event is the “time-line:” Performers and spectators line up according to how long they have been in Canada and name their country of origin. Turning a theatre performance into an opportunity for togetherness and dialogue has been central to PUENTE’s philosophy.

My journey as a theatre director focused on intercultural inclusion has been rewarding: the immigrants and diverse minorities I’ve worked with have always brought great value to each project. Creating plays about their experiences has not been something I was doing for them; we’ve all been doing it together, becoming stronger and richer in the process. Helping communities to express their creative selves is always a great honour, and it’s been my privilege to help in that process.

Lina de Guevara