WorldPlay: Creating Connections through Play Readings

I have lived in Victoria, British Columbia for 24 years. In all this time I have seen few plays from Latin America, Africa or Asia produced in this city, and only the odd play from a non-English speaking European country. Theatre audiences in Victoria are not very multicultural, so the choices regarding repertoire that artistic directors make are understandable. It is very difficult to get the public into theatres at best and staging plays from other countries is risky. Unfortunately, the cultural and artistic loss is huge.

Since 1988 I have been the artistic director of PUENTE Theatre in Victoria. Our mandate is to explore the immigrant experience in Canada. We write our own scripts based on Canadian reality, but we haven’t produced and staged nearly enough plays from our homelands.

In 1988 we started producing staged readings of international plays. We wanted to include the immigrant communities in the selection of plays and as actors. Unable to find enough experienced actors in the immigrant community we decided to collaborate with mainstream theatre organizations. The Belfry Theatre agreed to host the readings and together with Full Spectrum Productions, PUENTE started Worldplay.

Each year, during fall and winter, we organize four or five staged readings with the participation of local directors and actors. In four years we have presented sixteen plays: one Jewish play, one each from Cameroon, South Africa, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Russia, Barbados and India; three from Chile and three from Nigeria. Five of these were specially translated for Worldplay and eight had never before been presented in Canada. We selected the plays carefully, taking into account several limitations: Some plays don’t lend themselves to a reading: others are unintelligible without a familiarity with the cultural context; in some cases there are no good translations available, and so on. Nevertheless, we found many remarkable plays: well written, original and profound.

We developed a special style for staging the readings. A presenter who explains the cultural and historical background of the piece introduces the plays. There is a reader of stage directions, while the actors are seated on stage. Every detail is meaningful: the way the chairs are placed, the slightest movement of the actors, and subtle elements of costuming. Whenever possible we include a musician. The very simplicity of the reading helps to focus the attention on the words and the content of the play. Many excellent actors have been attracted to collaborate with us and we’ve been able to do justice to some complex and entrancing scripts. Worldplay establishes a personal connection between the play and the immigrants. Rather than searching for scripts in libraries or through academic circles, we ask immigrants which plays from their countries they would like to see performed here.

As presenter we have writers, actors, translators and people connected with the play and the country of origin. In the case of the play “Mindaugas”, the presenters were a young couple from Lithuania who had studied with the author, Justuinas Marcinkevicius, an important cultural icon in their country. The South African play “No one’s died laughing”, by Pieter-Diork Uys, was introduced by a recent immigrant from South Africa, a psychologist of Indian origin for whom the play had been an instrument in their fight against Apartheid. “Mirad: a boy from Bosnia”, written v\by Ad de Bont from the Netherlands, was presented by a Croatian woman who spoke movingly about the tragic circumstances that led to the war in Yugoeslavia. One of the members of PUENTE, Comfort Ero, is a Nigerian playwright. She introduced us to African theatre, particularly to plays concerned with the status of African women. The fact that I am originally from Chile provided several choices from Spanish speaking countries.

Some of the readings have strongly mobilized the community. Such was the case of “The Dybbuk”, a masterpiece by S. Ansti, a pillar of Jewish culture. The interested displayed by Jews in Victoria in participating in this event as presenters, readers, musicians and audience was amazing. “Three suitors: one husband”, by Guillaume Oyono-Mbia from Cameroon and other African plays provided motivation for many Black people in Victoria to attend the Belfry studio. Similarly, the award-winning “Harvest”, by Manjula Padmanabhan brought many young people of Indian origin to the theatre.

The effects of Worldplay have been felt throughout the Victoria community. Every reading has been a powerful and unique experience, while the whole series painted a panorama of world theatre. The general public has been moved and entertained by plays from the countries of origin of immigrants who live in our city, finding connections with cultures that may have seen alien before. Hopefully, Worldplay will also help create an environment in which artistic directors consider a more international repertoire, allowing us to enjoy more diversity on the stages of our city.

Printed in Alt.Theatre June 2001