“Sisters Strangers”: A community play about immigrant women.

I first heard about the community play concept in 1989 when I attended a workshop at the Bread and Butter Popular Theatre Festival. The workshop was led by Dale Hamilton who told us about her experiences as a community play student in the Colway Theatre Trust in England, showed slides and a video, and talked about The Spirit of Shivaree, the project she was starting to produce in Eramosa County in Ontario. I found her accounts of the community play process fascinating, particularly the concern of these plays with history and the fact that often people got the chance to play their own ancestors, their great grandfathers, their grandmothers… What an appealing idea!

I was interested in the very concept of community which generally is understood as a group of people sharing a territory, a history, an ethnicity, and so on. As an immigrant to Canada, I no longer belonged to that kind of community. Apparently, a community play, a type of theatre so rooted in the history of place, needed permanence to be developed (two years from start to finish, working in the same place, ideally with the same group of people). It seemed to me, as a director and producer of plays that deal with the immigrant experience, the community play was another one of the possibilities that you have to give up on when you become an immigrant and come to a new country where you don’t have connections to the history of the place.

I thought of producing a community play in Chile, my country of birth. I remembered many villages and towns with interesting histories that not only would be appropriate for a community play, but that desperately needed something like this to foster their sense of identity. I even made some contacts to try and make this happen. But living in Canada and wanting to work in Chile, the vast distance seemed to make this dream a hopeless impossibility.

In the meantime, my work with PUENTE Theatre continued to develop in many interesting ways. The plays we produced, from 1988 to 1994, had many of the elements, which characterize community plays. The plays which PUENTE had produced were written based on research done within the community of immigrants, mainly from Latin America but also from other countries; they were acted (in some instances) by non-actors who, because of their need to tell their stories, were willing to undergo special training to be able to perform on stage. In our work, we incorporated many elements of Theatre of the Oppressed: we did theatre forums, and image theatre workshops, where the input of the community of spectators was an integral part of the performance.

The work I did during those years reinforced my desire of doing a community play about immigrant women. But I still had doubts about the feasibility of the project. I didn’t know exactly how to define the community with which I would be working.  I read about communities of territory and communities of relation and this gave me some ideas. Immigrant women in Canada formed a community of relation: we are all women – commonality of gender, and we are all immigrants – commonality of situation. Our uprooted ness provoked strong feelings that we could all share and understand, no matter our racial and cultural differences.

In 1994 I decided to do the play. During the years of working in the PUENTE Projects, I had forged many contacts with a variety of organizations that serve immigrants, and they helped to provide a basic set of resources for this project. The name “Sisters/Strangers” was a working title that came to mind quite naturally, given the nature of the group with

which I was working. My next question was determining the format of the play and solving the logistics of how, where, and with whom to rehearse it. My community of immigrant women was not established in one place, but scattered throughout British Columbia. Time was a problem too: most immigrant women, especially when newcomers, are very focused on solving the practical problems of adapting to their new lives and recreating their homes. There’s little time to pursue artistic self-expression, even for those who had a background in the arts in their countries of origin. At this stage I realized that I had to create a format for the play that would work with this “community of relation”, formed by women that had at least three things in common: they had come to Canada to establish a new home; they had experienced a break in the continuity of their history and the links with their ancestors; and they had experienced separation from their culture of birth. The format would embrace this uprooted ness by making this a travelling production. I considered then to use a small core group of professional actors (five for “Sisters/Strangers”) interacting with a larger, local group or chorus of immigrant women. The main responsibility would rest on the core group and they would assure the professional excellence of the performance. The powerful presence on stage of the large chorus of immigrant women would turn them into true protagonists of the play, but their actions would be simple enough so that they could be learnt in a short rehearsal period.

The process of creating the play – generating stories, writing, exploring images through movement, making props and masks, composing the music – took place in Victoria, with intensive participation of the local community of immigrant women. The play was written based on interviews with immigrant women in Victoria and Vancouver and on image-theatre workshops where the women could express their experiences through images. As the play was being written, we held several readings of the play-in-progress, during which groups of women were consulted about their views on the content and form of the play. The script was revised several times following those readings. To start training the women for their participation in the play, we conducted workshops on different theatrical topics: music, movement, story-telling, visual arts, mask making, banner making and acting. Some of these workshops (such as the mask and banner making) served to spark on-going activities and eventually were incorporated in the play. The story-telling workshop was so successful that, in the future, I will use this sort of workshop as a basis for other projects.

The women who participated in the readings and workshops were from a wide variety of countries. They ranged in age from 8 years to 74. The participants’ attendance of the sessions of the workshop varied. Some women came to every session while others just attended one or two, but they all added to the fabric of the play. The women were never told that attendance was mandatory. Participation in the project had to be totally voluntary. We knew that immigrant women, for the most part, had a deep need to express their feelings, and that they would attend if at all possible.

“Sisters/Strangers” was created over a period of ten months. Once we had a preliminary script, we searched for, and hired, the professional actors. Even though the play was work shopped and created in Victoria, the actors were all from Vancouver because we could not find professional actors who were also immigrants in Victoria. It was interesting that it turned out to be difficult to find immigrant women with a background in the performing arts that were available to participate in the project. We contacted agents and other theatre groups, advertised in cultural organizations and community programs on radio and television, but in spite of our efforts did not get a big response. On two occasions, former actresses whom we interviewed decided against participating in the project because they felt that their language skills were not adequate enough to allow them to feel comfortable performing in public. To me, this reluctance indicated how hard it is for immigrant women to incorporate themselves into the artistic life of their new country, especially into theatre. Finally, we were able to find five excellent actresses who came to Canada from a range of countries. The acting core was from Chile, India, Japan, Russia, and a Canadian-born woman whose parents were from the Caribbean.

The rehearsal period lasted three weeks. During that time we rehearsed with the actors every day and, on weekends, we incorporated the chorus. Of course there had been quite a lot of work advanced with the chorus during the workshop period. The play took on a story-telling format, with the actors telling the story and the chorus serving as background, commentators, and “witnesses” of the actions. The music, mainly percussion composed especially for the play (and performed live by two professional musicians), served to unify, support and inspire the performers. Several times the whole chorus took up percussion instruments and “jammed” with the musicians. The musical talents of the women became evident and were used in several scenes.

To create other opportunities for community participation on stage, we included events in the performance in which the spectators could take part. One way in which the audience was involved was through the playback scenes in which members of the audience were asked to come on stage to tell a story of their experiences as immigrants. The actors then performed that story as a stylized movement and sound piece. Because this was such a risky enterprise, both for the actors and the members of the audience who shared their stories, it became a very powerful moment in the play and forged a strong bond between the audience and the performers together. We also had a banner which members of the audience were asked to help carry on stage. The banner, which had been made by the women in the show, was about 25 metres long and depicted scenes of their experiences as immigrants. It had several panels in different colours with each panel symbolically representing the experience of the immigrant. Some of the images were: a bird inside a cage; the Andes mountains and the Rockies; a giant toucan; a woman’s silhouette in front of the flags of Canada and Lebanon; foot prints climbing up a mountain with a maple leaf on top; a pregnant woman looking at a faraway landscape. This banner represented many hours of work and dedication.

The women made several masks that expressed their feelings as immigrants. Some of these masks were used in the play itself, often not by the same performer from performance to performance. Other masks were used in welcoming the audience. They were placed either on stage, in the lobby and corridors of the performance space, or in the street. An actor wore one of the masks, called “The Keeper of the Tree”. He stood in the lobby beside the Tree of Life, and encouraged the audience to write their names and countries of origin on cloth leaves and tie them to the branches of the tree. When the run of the play started the Tree had bare branches but at the end they were very leafy. Again, it was a way of incorporating the audience into the action of the play.

“Sisters/Strangers” was conceived as a touring production, to reach immigrant women throughout the province. Therefore, the chorus was different in each city in which we performed. This idea worked very well and created a lot of enthusiasm among the communities we visited. It was quite a challenge to incorporate successfully these new choruses into the production. The successful incorporation required that the form allow the core of actors to guide and support the newcomers and at the same time, forgive any “mistakes” that might happen. We managed to find a format for the play, which allowed the play to be a success even when sometimes we had just three hours to rehearse with the new chorus.

But the successful integration of new people into the play can’t be attributed to the play alone. It is my contention that the excitement of being on stage really makes people draw on resources they don’t know they have, so that they are able to do a good job in this new situation.

The chorus was asked to wear clothing in muted colours, such as grey, brown, white, cream, or black, during the first act, and whatever they wanted during the second act. This enhanced the festive atmosphere of the second act, because the women wore traditional costumes, elegant party dresses or anything they fancied, creating a great variety of shapes and colours.

During the preliminary readings of the script, the women had made quite clear that they wanted “Sisters/Strangers” to be a celebration of their achievements, of the way they had coped with the different challenges they had encountered as immigrants. As a woman put it: “we do not want to feel down, stuck in all the problems.” So we purposefully looked for stories with a positive ending. Of course, to show the triumphs we also had to show the struggle. At another level, the play also looked at links between women, especially mother and daughter relationships, and the connections with the “mother” land, which, because they are so emotionally charged, sometimes seemed to assume the quality of myth.

In the first act, the play told stories of immigrant women, from different cultures, different walks of life. These stories conveyed a panorama of the immigrant woman’s experience. As one member of an audience in Vancouver commented: “This play has taken me through such a range of emotions, and we’re only at intermission. Thank you!” The second act had a celebratory nature. It started with the excitement created by a carnival parade that brought in the 25-metre-long banner to lively Brazilian “batucada” rhythms. Then the audience was provided with an opportunity to share the stage and was asked to tell their own stories related to the immigrant experience, which the actors act out in the “Playback” section.

Because many immigrant women have experienced war, they agreed that the message they wanted to convey to the other Canadians was not to take peace for granted, because it can be lost very easily, maybe forever. The beauty and vastness of Canada was celebrated with movement and sound, combined with a strong plea for peace and unity in this country.

The play ended with a time line in which all the women lined up, named their countries of origin and the length of time they’d been here. Some countries represented within the Victoria group were Lebanon, Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia, Tanzania, Chile, China, Japan, India, Kenya, Germany, Colombia, Yugoslavia, and Denmark. The women had been here

anywhere from two months to forty years. At the end of the line stood women who, as the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, declared themselves to be Canadians. Then a First Nations woman appeared, walked up and down the line, acknowledging the women and welcoming them to this land. It was a very strong image of what Canada is, and was received by the audience with standing ovations. People were very moved by this final image.

A special aspect of this play was the variants introduced by the different people who participated. For instance, in one section, a member of the chorus sang a song of nostalgia for her land of birth. There is a song of nostalgia in every culture, and so, the actual song and singer changed in every locale in which we performed. We had songs of nostalgia from Spain, Japan, Rumania. In every case the feeling was captured perfectly by the audience. The participation of the First Nations women was also very different from place to place. In Victoria, the welcoming was done by an Elder from the Tseycum

Reserve whose intervention was very emotional and spiritual. In Vancouver, a Cree woman did a smudge, to signal the beginning of a new life for the immigrant women. In Kelowna, the First Nations woman participated with her ten-year-old child, who on her own initiative made over 30 little pouches containing sacred herbs, and gave them to each participant.

“Sisters/Strangers” had a significance that transcended what is usually expected of a play. This, I think, is true of every community play because each produces a profound communion amongst actors and audience. It breaks new ground. It is an unexpected happening in which the sometimes untapped creative and emotional forces of all participants – actors and audience – are unleashed. I believe the community play is a necessary event for modem societies, and it probably will help keep theatre alive. Theatre professionals, though, must prepare themselves to work in the environment that community plays require. Actors are sometimes trained to survive in a very harsh and competitive world, and the attitudes that are necessary in that world are different from the ones required to collaborate truly with a community. Professional actors have to adapt to this new kind of play.

“Sisters/Strangers” was transformative because it reaffirmed hope. I am always struggling not to give up hope even though I think that we have many objective reasons to be pessimistic. But then you witness something like what happened in the process of creating and performing this community play. It was wonderful and life affirming. It gave everybody such energy! After the last performance in Victoria, all the participants got together. We sat in a circle, and we talked about what the whole community play process had meant for us. There were some tears as very powerful feelings were expressed. One Lebanese woman who had seen her home destroyed several times during sixteen years of war, said: “For six years I have lived alone here, feeling like a crazy woman. Now I feel healthy again.” I think this is very special. It has renewed my belief in the ethical, healing and transformative powers of theatre.

Printed in Canadian Theatre Review 90 – University of Toronto Press (1998)