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. I had a full professional life as a theatre artist behind me. Suddenly everything changed. I was no longer living with people with whom I shared a past, a culture, a language or a history. I lost my bearings. I went through great upheaval: I felt I needed to tell my new fellow citizens who I was, where I came from, what I was going through. As a theatre person, of course, my means of expression had to be on the stage. I looked for actors who were like me, immigrants from Latin America, so that together, we could create a play to tell our story. However, in Victoria at that time, I couldn’t find other Latin Americans who were also actors. I thought: “I can only achieve my dream in Toronto, or maybe Vancouver. There, I would surely find theatre artists who share my background.” I spent years in confusion and indecision, until it dawned on me: “I don’t live in Toronto or Vancouver, I live here in Victoria: this is my reality, my truth. I have to work with what I have!” Embracing that reality was the beginning of the process that shaped PUENTE theatre. I decided then to look for other Latin American women who shared my feelings and create my play together with them, even if they were not actresses or in theatre at all.
In 1988 I learnt about a wonderful grant offered by Manpower and Immigration that would allow me to work with newcomers to Canada considered unemployable, but who, through the grant, could receive training and experience, and gain the skills and self confidence needed to succeed in this country. The Belfry Theatre, then with Glynis Leyshon as Artistic Director, and Mary Desprez as General Manager, took on the administration of the grant, setting a previously unheard of example of open mindedness and trust. Pat O’Brien was the Belfry’s account manager for this project in 1988, and she has continued to be account manager for PUENTE until this day! The Belfry is still PUENTE’s good friend and supporter.
Manpower and Immigration gave us two important grants, including enough money to employ everybody for all the time needed to properly develop our ideas and learn what we needed to reach our goal of staging two theatre productions. The first: “I wasn’t born here”, a play about Latin American immigrant women. The second: “Crossing Borders”, about Latin American immigrant men. Most of the participants in those first two projects had come to Canada as refugees: they were escaping oppression and war. Those hardships had to be acknowledged as we searched for healing through the telling of those stories. Since then, PUENTE’s core principles have always included caring about people, justice, and human rights.
Directing those first two projects with people who were not trained actors I discovered an interesting fact about myself: Until then I had lived my life as a theatre artist, mostly concerned about my own career, my place in theatre, the roles I was going to play, what I wanted to do. But the idea that it was all about me, had to change: my collaborators, strongly motivated to tell their own stories, didn’t have the conventional acting tools; what they had was great courage, a rich, dramatic life experience, and a strong desire to express themselves, to tell the story of their journeys, to find a voice and reach out to their new fellow citizens. To bring out and support that voice I had to let go of my self-centred approach, and create, with them, a working atmosphere of warmth, trust, and respect, that acknowledged the great worth of their contribution. Only in that atmosphere could the participants feel free to express their truth, become encouraged to learn the necessary acting techniques and allow their creativity to blossom.
During that time I became aware of some of the conditions required to create Community-Based theatre, and the style and personality of PUENTE began taking shape. One of the many lessons I learnt was that I had to base my work, not only on what I wanted to achieve, but on the needs of the immigrant community and the reality in which we all lived. Those needs and that reality have been a source of inspiration for many of PUENTE’s productions during the 23 years I was its artistic director. For instance: realizing the many social issues that immigrants face, such as work problems, family conflicts, racism and discrimination, I started to use Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, a powerful tool to raise awareness of issues, to empower participants, and to discuss practical solutions to problems.
Another innovation coming out of the reality of immigrant life was our adaptation of the Community Play concept, proposed first by Ann Jellicoe and Jon Oram in England, and brought to Canada by Dale Hamilton. In 1996 PUENTE produced “Sisters/Strangers”, one of the first community plays in BC. It was about a community not of geographical location as it was the norm, but a community of situation—that of being an immigrant. In “Sisters/Strangers,” a core group of five professional actors took on the most difficult roles, while 20 or 30 immigrant women formed a chorus, which could be present and participate actively, without requiring an intense rehearsal schedule, impossible for recent immigrants who had so many demands on their time. This is a model we have repeated several times. In this play, we started to include immigrants from all over the world, not just from Latin America. Later on, we also included Canadian First Nations performers and themes.
One of PUENTE’s goals was to promote the rich culture that immigrants bring to this country, in particular the excellent theatre created all over the world. I realized that Victoria’s audiences didn’t have many opportunities to experience international theatre, since few plays from other cultures are featured on our city stages. So I then created our successful program “Worldplay”, where we presented staged readings of plays from all continents. To this date in its 15 years of existence, Worldplay has brought to Victoria over fifty outstanding plays from countries such as Nigeria, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, China, Portugal, Kenya, Lithuania, Iran, Egypt, among others.
There are many other examples of how reality has shaped PUENTE’s mandate over the years, while still keeping its core values. Openness, flexibility, trust, integrity and respect are some of the qualities critically needed to nurture the creativity of each participant, to honor each person’s contribution. I began doing applied theatre and community based theatre in 1988, at a time when these concepts were just starting to be formulated, and when there was still doubt about the legitimacy of this form as art, or even as theatre. I guess the discussion must still be going on. It is not necessary for me to go into this, as the keynote address of my friend, Dr. Ted Little, will amply cover the topic of community-based theatre.
As you all well know, theatre is a collective art. It is created by many people who join their efforts to produce surprising results; at best, many times better than what each person could have produced on their own. That’s the miracle of theatre! During my 23 years as artistic director of PUENTE, I have had brilliant collaborators. I cannot thank them enough for all the joy they have brought to me with their work, their inspiration, their friendliness, their tenderness, their insights! To day I cannot name them all, but be sure you are not forgotten, but remembered always with warmth and admiration.
I will just mention three as an example:
Enrique Rivas, who was part of the cast of Crossing Borders, PUENTE’s second production in 1990, and stayed on until recently, as PUENTE’s main musician and sound scape artist, sharing quietly and with enormous generosity, his great talent and his unique viewpoints.
Penny Joy, friend, mentor, supporter, guiding influence, produced at least five beautiful, broadcast quality videos of PUENTE’s early work, contributing to its promotion and documenting its legacy. Penny was also, for fifteen years, president of PUENTE’s board of directors. Again, the words “enormous generosity” come to my mind when I think of her contribution.
Theatre is a hugely practical art: a play is something that you have to create, to construct, like a house. However, you can build a beautiful house, but, without a solid foundation, it will crumble. In a theatre company, the general manager provides that solid foundation to support theatrical dreams. The third person that has been so instrumental in helping PUENTE achieve maturity as a theatre company is Paulina Grainger, who for nine and a half years was PUENTE’s most efficient and devoted general manager.
PUENTE has a signature event we call TIMELINE, in which we ask the participants to line up according to where they come from, and how long they’ve been in Canada, all the way to First Nations participants, whose forebears have been here since time immemorial. TIMELINE is a moving image of Canada! Paulina told me that the first time she stood in PUENTE’s TIMELINE she said: ”I am Paulina, I am from Tanzania, and I have been in Canada for four months!” And that was it: at that moment PUENTE started casting its spell and Paulina became more and more involved in its work. As an immigrant, Paulina brought to the General Manager’s job a visceral understanding of PUENTE’s mandate. She also brought great practical skills, a clear head, an organized mind, artistic sensitivity, grace, and humour. On top of all that she’s also a darn good actress and storyteller, willing to step in on stage whenever it’s necessary. Paulina established great relationships with all the funding agencies and with our theatre colleagues in BC and other provinces. She was always a beautiful ambassador for PUENTE in all cultural and professional events. I was lucky to work with her in perfect harmony and mutual trust during those nine and a half years! Thank you, Paulina, for your professional talent and your friendship!
I am coming to the end of what I wanted to share with you this evening. My time with PUENTE has been a time of discovery, a joyful time. My wish for the new artistic director Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, is that her time with PUENTE brings her as much richness and enlightenment as it did for me. My wish for all of you, participants in this Symposium, is that you will enjoy your time in Victoria. Please remember that, if you wish to know anything else about PUENTE’s history and legacy, I’m only one phone call away. I hope that you have productive, exciting conversations, that you can learn and be inspired by each other, and that you will rejoice in the knowledge that you belong to one of the most wonderful, complex, and profound of human professions: the Theatre!
Please receive my most heartfelt welcome!