Reflections on Making Art in a Small City

In November, 2008, I participated in PRISMATIC, a conference organized by Onelight Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to discuss the situation and special challenges faced by culturally diverse theatre companies established in smaller cities, away from major Canadian urban centres.

It was an opportunity for me to, once more, reflect on my own situation, having come to Canada from Chile in 1976. I was already a performer, director and teacher in my homeland, born and bred in the capital city, Santiago. I used to think that you only “make it” in the arts in the big urban centres. But my experience living and working in Victoria, British Columbia, and becoming founder and artistic director of PUENTE Theatre has taught me differently.

Speaking for myself and other culturally diverse artists living in Victoria:

We do not feel handicapped by living away from major urban centres. This is who we are, it is part of our identity and what we have to take into consideration when we plan and assess our activities. Through them, we exercise our creativity and define our artistic personality. We have our own challenges, issues, and realities.

Here are some of these, how we have experienced them in PUENTE Theatre:

  1. We’ve had to create artistic and innovative strategies that provide opportunities for the immigrant population to express themselves in the Performing Arts and to communicate their experiences to the mainstream: i.e., community plays, storytelling events, theatre-forums, play readings, multilingual poetry readings, playback workshops, etc.
  2. We have had to diversify our work so that we can address the multiple needs of our community. So, besides doing our work as theatre artists, we find ourselves collaborating with social workers, teachers and social justice organizations; doing audience development; offering acting workshops; providing information on cultural diversity; mentoring newcomer artists; creating job opportunities so that our artists of diverse background can practice their skills, etc.
  3. We need to persistently educate and reassure our audiences about the value of our work. There’s a perception that diverse and community-engaged theatre will not have high artistic standards. Our audiences frequently express their “surprise” at how “professional” our shows are.
  4. It is difficult for us to find performers, directors, writers, and theatre people in general who are trained and come from culturally diverse backgrounds. Many of the artists trained by PUENTE must move to bigger cities in search of employment.
  5.      We believe we must be a socially accountable organization and respond to social issues that immigrants encounter in their process of adaptation. This led us to doing Theatre of the Oppressed, the techniques developed by Augusto Boal to use theatre as an instrument for achieving social justice and community development. We have done theatre forums on racism, family violence, work problems, cultural differences, etc. We do ongoing training of Theatre of the Oppressed facilitators to make this valuable technique available to the community.
  6. We promote theatre from around the world: in this way the culture that immigrants bring to Canada will be valued. “Worldplay”, our program of staged play readings, has presented about fifty plays in twelve years from countries such as Kenya, Mexico, Japan, China, Iraq, Syria, Lithuania, India, Chile, Egypt, Indonesia, etc. etc. Many of these plays had never before been seen in Canada; some received their first English translation through PUENTE.

When I look back at the work we accomplished in PUENTE’s twenty years of existence, I am surprised and proud. I realize that if I had remained in a big urban centre, my career in theatre would have been different- and perhaps not as rich and inventive.

Printed in Alt.Theatre – March 2009