Telling Stories: PUENTE Theatre and The Immigrant Experience

Story telling implies story listening. These two elements, telling and listening, are at the core of human communication and are equally important. The roles of the teller and the listener should be interchangeable, and everyone should play both roles. If a person remains solely in the role of either listener or teller, communication becomes incomplete, unsatisfactory and problematic. This is a simple concept, but a profound one. Communication should be interactive and involve both telling and listening. This idea of interaction between storytellers and listeners has influenced the way I have approached working in theatre.

When I came to Canada in 1976, I was already forty-three years old and I had a complete adult life behind me. I had been working in theatre for many years and had an established career in my homeland. Suddenly, everything changed for me. During my first years here in Canada I felt a growing need to explain myself to my new fellow citizens because I had lost all of my old connections. I was 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. This was particularly important because I came from a Third World country, namely Chile, which was known for its problems rather than its successes. Most Canadians knew that Chile had undergone a bloody military coup, and suffered under a cruel dictator, General Pinochet. Few knew that Chile had two Nobel Prize winning poets, that we had great architects, that the University of Chile was an internationally respected institution, and that our Social Security System had, at one time, been exemplary. It would be as if Canada was known in the world only by the clear cutting of its forests and the abusive residential schools. Consequently I wanted to tell my story the way I saw it. Most importantly, I did not want to be looked down upon nor did I want to be pitied – I wanted to be known and respected on my own terms. Interestingly, I found that this need to communicate was shared by all immigrants and expressed in different ways.

After spending several years of confusion searching for a place to put my energy, and trying to achieve the level of communication I yearned for, I realized that I had to start with myself. I had worked in the theatre all my life and it was natural that I looked to the theatre as my vehicle of communication. I was a Latin American woman, who was an immigrant in Canada. This was what my play was going to be about. My experiences as an immigrant were shared by others. And, since I didn’t want to do a one woman show, I worked with five women who were also immigrants from Latin America. We created PUENTE Theatre’s first play, “I wasn’t born here”, which was subtitled, “Stories of unexpected voyages”. The other five women had no theatre experience. But they all had an intense desire to tell their stories, and they were willing to learn the skills they needed to be able to do this in the best way.

“I wasn’t born here” was very important for establishing PUENTE (which means ‘bridge’ in Spanish) as a theatre company with a mandate to tell the stories of immigrants to Canada. During the preparation of the play, we decided on how to conduct our research. Each one of us had to interview ten other women, using a questionnaire that would elicit images, feelings and anecdotes, rather than simply facts. In rehearsal the answers to these questionnaires were retold, and in the retelling the individual stories were transformed into collective ones. We then selected the stories that resonated the most strongly in the group. We also created a methodology for our work that solved the challenge of training people who were not actors and in some cases spoke very little English. We looked for means of expression that were the most appropriate to our actors and topics. In short, we tried to overcome many difficulties in order to tell stories.

When PUENTE Theatre was working on “I wasn’t born here” in the late 1980s, the Federal Government provided grants to train immigrants in order to help them find work. We received one of these grants and it made our first project possible. At that time we did a lot of groundwork that shaped our future productions. I realized that with the help of an experienced director, a determined and courageous person, who was not a professional actor, could perform a show that would move, entertain and enlighten an audience. When I founded that first company with women who were not actresses, I did so because I could not find in Victoria trained theatre professionals who were also Latin American immigrants. PUENTE Theatre happened by necessity, not by choice. The fact that the actors in “I wasn’t born here” were really immigrant women, talking with their own voice about their own lives was something that truly touched our audiences. Moreover, a door had started to open for me. When I threw myself into this experiment, I was not at all sure how well it would succeed. As a theatre professional with many years of training, I had to overcome my own resistance and my own prejudices about non-professional actors. I wondered how anyone could just come off the street and stand on stage with authority. I began to learn that a different approach was possible, and that what had seemed a hindrance could become an asset.

“I wasn’t born here” was very successful and opened the way to future projects. It seemed natural, after telling the story of immigrant women, to tell the story of immigrant men. Using the same approach, a second play was created in 1990, “Crossing Borders”, which was a musical exploring the experiences of Latin American immigrant men. After that came “Canadian Tango”, which tried to answer the question of how immigration affected the relationship of a couple. It used Latin American ballroom dancing as a metaphor of marriage. In these plays we always included a moment of audience participation, because we felt that it was a good way of building bridges. In “I wasn’t born here” we ended the play by setting the table and inviting the audience to eat with us. In “Crossing Borders” they were invited to sing, and in ‘Canadian Tango” they were taught to dance the tango in the final scene.

After “Canadian Tango”, our company felt that we needed to include the audience in a different way. During the research for this production, it became clear that violence against women was a serious issue in the Latin American community and needed to be addressed. To raise awareness and to educate the public about the prevention of family violence, we used “Theatre of the Oppressed” This theatrical form, created by the Brazilian director Augusto Boal, helps people who are victims of oppression to use theatre in order to find and rehearse strategies to overcome their oppression. One of Boal’s techniques is called ‘Forum Theatre’. Forum Theatre is a theatrical game in which a problem is presented in an unsolved form and the audience is invited to come on stage and to rehearse strategies to overcome their oppressive situations. PUENTE used this form very successfully to discuss a number of issues starting with family violence and moving on to examine racism, work related issues, human rights abuses, sexual harassment and all kinds of oppression. We were still telling stories, but members of our audience, our listeners, were coming on stage to change those stories and to express their views on how those problems could be solved. They had become, to use Boal’s expression, ‘spect-actors’ instead of spectators. As sufferers of many of the oppressions we discussed, they were the experts in saying how those oppressions could end! I acquired a great respect for the wisdom that I encountered in our audience. I also admired the acting talent shown by many of the participants. It was a genuine discovery that made me want to find additional ways to put the audience on stage!

I learned then of another form of popular theatre begun in England called ‘Community Play’. It was a collaboration between theatre professionals and a group of people from a neighbourhood or village who wanted to tell their community’s story on stage, to examine and celebrate that story, and to use this experience to guide the future. It was a wonderful way to facilitate community development. Immigrant women constituted a community, albeit a community with a shared experience rather than a common identity rooted in a geographical place. We had all left our countries of origin in order to establish ourselves in a new land, and we shared many feelings inspired by the experience of being uprooted from our homes.

Our shared feelings were powerful ones. They were sometimes positive: a feeling of accomplishment despite great difficulties, the excitement of living an adventure, a sense of broadening horizons and the freedom experienced after breaking away from strict traditions. The feelings were also negative: feelings of confusion, mourning the loss of familiar connections, feeling discriminated against and misunderstood, and feeling guilty at having abandoned the homeland. There are extreme feelings of loss and homesickness. Everything about the home country is idealized. Some immigrants reject the new country’s customs and will not learn the language. For example, I had a lot of trouble saying the name ‘Cordova Bay” because Cordova is a Spanish word that is written and pronounced differently. I just couldn’t give up my own pronunciation! All this doesn’t mean that I do not love Canada. I do – it’s a wonderful country that has given me many gifts – but “I wasn’t born here”.

The play “Sisters/Strangers”, produced by PUENTE in 1996, was born from the Community Play concept. In this play, women from different countries told their stories: how they had come to Canada and what this move had meant for them. Six professional actresses guided and orchestrated a chorus of thirty or forty immigrant women. The show was conceived as a touring production to reach immigrant women throughout the province, and this meant that the chorus changed in each city that we visited. The play was created in Victoria, where for almost a year we met periodically with women from many countries to write and structure the play in consultation with the community of immigrant women. They wanted to express how they had struggled and succeeded in overcoming difficulties, and they wanted the play to acknowledge both that they had lived through an ordeal and that they deserved to celebrate their lives. As one woman put it: “We don’t want to feel down, stuck in all the problems”.

The final scene of the play was very poignant. The performers lined up according to how long they had been in Canada, from the most recently arrived to the woman who had been in the country the longest. And when everybody was in line and had named the country that they came from and the time they had been here, a First Nations elder appeared and walked down the line, acknowledging and welcoming each one with moving and profound words. This scene has remained as PUENTE Theatre’s signature. At the end of our performances we invite the audience to find their place in the time-line together with the actors. Those who have been born here are asked where their parents or grandparents were born to establish how everybody in this country is connected to the immigrant experience. The exception are the First Nations people, who are asked to take their place as the first in the line. It is a powerful image of Canada.

In the second act of “Sisters/Strangers” we used a technique of story telling called ‘Playback’, wherein members of the audience are invited on stage to tell a personal story and, after listening carefully, the actors recreate it and act it out right on the spot accompanied by a musician who improvises the music. In “Sisters/Strangers”, we asked the public to tell stories of their immigrant experience. Some suggestions were to tell the story of your first job in Canada, your first day here, your worst or your best experience as an immigrant, and so on. ‘Playback’ is a powerful technique that creates a great bond between the actors and the audience. In using this technique, everybody is taking a risk. The teller opens up and shares a personal story. The actors recreate the story from the inspiration of the moment and from their wish to serve and honour the teller. It is a true communion. Here we have an example of telling and listening with open hearts. This is not a superficial experience. It is a deep and significant moment for all of the participants.

During the preliminary work for “Sisters/Strangers”, I developed a special format for a storytelling workshop in which participants are divided into small groups. Each person tells a story that they find especially meaningful. After each member of a group has told their story, the group chooses the story that had resonated the most with everyone within the group, and that story is then shared with all of the participants. In this way every participant in the workshop is both a teller and a listener. This format is a simple and effective structure that eliminates barriers like language difficulties, shyness or cultural difference. It includes simple rituals that stress that this is a transcendent occasion and that help everyone enter into the appropriate frame of mind.

The effect of this kind of workshop is extraordinary. The participants are always surprised by the fact that they do have a story to tell and that their experiences are both valued and listened to. I have heard many times the phrase, “I didn’t know I had a story in me!”. After the workshop there is a feeling of excitement. A bond has been established and something special has happened! In these workshops I have been privileged to hear unforgettable stories that have enriched my understanding of the human condition. Every storytelling workshop confirms for me the importance of combining the roles of the teller and the listener, for these workshops foster genuine interactive human communication. If we really want to be in touch with one another, we need to create opportunities for this kind of communication to happen more and more. Nowadays we have many ways of telling stories through film, video and the Internet. They are all excellent, but there is still something uniquely valuable about two human beings talking face to face.

In the past, only the stories of the powerful were considered worthy of being told. The main characters in literature were kings, queens and aristocrats. Nowadays we regularly hear in detail about what happens in the lives of the rich and famous. But each person’s story is important. There are lessons to be learned from the stories of minorities, marginal people and those who are the ‘other’. There is a truth in the stories of the disenfranchised and oppressed that is not generally found in the stories of the powerful. This is an important reason why we have to listen to the voices that have been silenced, either because they don’t speak the language, because they are not eloquent, because they don’t belong, or because it is not convenient to hear them.

In this era of globalisation and big business the arts have become a commodity, not a means of expression. Culture has become primarily a product to sell and has been turned into an industry. Always assuming a passive role of spectator creates a feeling of unworthiness. In the current climate, the only role for the audience is to sit, watch, admire and pay. In saying this, I do not want to devalue the importance of professional artists whose talents, mastery and dedication as musicians, painters, dancers or actors illuminate our lives. But there needs to be a balance. In the past, everybody danced, sang and created beautiful offerings. But today, society has moved dangerously close to promoting passivity and inhibition among those who are not professional artists. This passivity has provoked a deep unhappiness in society. Depression is rampant and suicide is one of the main causes of death among adolescents. One of the causes of this unnatural situation is our denial of a fundamental aspect of our being: our creative and inspired souls. Exercising our creativity through the arts is a powerful way to find balance and fulfilment.

To summarize, both ‘storytelling’ and ‘listening’ describe very important activities that need to be legitimised, promoted and developed. I am encouraged because I believe there is a growing awareness of this and many people are thinking along similar lines. This is the aim, after all, of our collection, Untold Stories of British Columbia . In Canada we are in a privileged position to hear and tell stories that can create for us a microcosm of the world. In this meeting place we can encounter every culture and every experience. It is exciting to think of the far-reaching possibilities of the fantastic opportunities available to us.

Appeared in “Untold Stories  of British Columbia”, edited by Paul Wood, Published by the Humanities Centre, University of Victoria – 2003