Theatre by, for, and about immigrants, based in Victoria and touring the world.
PUENTE (Spanish for “bridge”) Theatre is Victoria’s only theatre company with a mandate to perform plays by immigrants, with immigrants, and about the immigrant experience. The company is marking its remarkable 30 years of history in Victoria this fall. Founded by Chilean immigrant Lina de Guevara in 1989, the company began with de Guevara’s search toward finding her place in the Victoria theatre community. She had moved here from Toronto with her family when her husband was hired at Camosun College in the late 1970s.
De Guevara was a theatre professional in Chile who had taught and performed in both Santiago and the southern city of Valdivia. The military coup that violently overthrew the government of Salvador Allende led to her move to Canada, where she hoped to pursue her theatre career. Canadian theatre in the late 1970s and early 1980s was still a very monochromatic affair; de Guevara struggled to get cast in Victoria, beyond playing a German character in a Langham Court production of Dracula. So she set out to create a theatre company that would provide a space for immigrants like her to share their stories.
Puente founder Lina de Guevara
With the help of the Belfry Theatre’s then- Artistic Director Glynis Leyshon and General Manager Mary Desprez, de Guevara succeeded in getting a grant and she co-created her first show, I Wasn’t Born Here, with a group of Spanish-speaking women immigrants. It was very well-received and led to a series of community-based productions, led by de Guevara, on themes surrounding the immigrant experience. A number of these toured to acclaim in theatre festivals in Canada and elsewhere.
In the first decade of de Guevara’s leadership, these shows tended to be larger collective creations. While very rewarding, they’re also quite tiring to navigate for a director/facilitator who is working with large groups of largely non-professional performers. So, in her second decade running Puente, de Guevara moved toward co-creating a series of one-woman shows with female performers from various cultural backgrounds: Latina-Canadian, Asian-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, and Indigenous. Once again, these plays found appreciative audiences, in Victoria and beyond.
In 2011, de Guevara felt the time was right to step down from her artistic directorship, and Mercedes Bátiz-Benét was hired as her replacement.
Bátiz-Benét had emigrated to Victoria from Mexico in the late 1990s to pursue a degree in creative writing at UVic. There, she met students and faculty members in the theatre department and began to shift her interests toward performing in and writing for the stage.
Puente Artistic Director Mercedes Bátiz-Benét
I wanted to know what Bátiz-Benét had planned for the upcoming season, so we met in a Fernwood café, along with her husband and frequent collaborator Judd Palmer (also a core member of the Old Trout Puppet Theatre troupe), for what turned out to be a very engaging conversation.
I began with asking Bátiz-Benét why the next Puente show, Fado: The Saddest Music in the World (a remount of a 2018 hit Fringe production), has a much longer run in Vancouver than here (November 14-16). Was this a sign that the company was considering a move over the water? She assured me that after 30 years here, Puente Theatre was not losing its roots in Victoria. That said, her efforts have been focused on moving what was originally a community-based theatre to becoming a fully professional company. “This involves much greater expenses, as all artists need to be paid Equity rates.” She explains, “Victoria has a shortage of performing spaces, and the ones that are available have expensive rental rates. Theatres like Inconnu and Langham Court have their own spaces, but there is a disconnect for a company like Puente that has to rely on rentals.”
Also, in seeking continuing funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the company must operate professionally. She has received project funding from the Canada Council, has also succeeded in getting continuing funding from the BC Council for the Arts, and has tripled the grant coming from the CRD Arts Commission. As Bátiz-Benét comments, “We tour our shows nationally and internationally, but we are not as visible as we would like to be in Victoria.”
In dealing with this problem of not having a home to perform in, Bátiz-Benét has had to be creative. She has made use of the annual Fringe Festival to mount Fado in 2018 and Lieutenant Nun (a co-production with SNAFU Dance Theatre) in 2015. The Fringe offers artists performing spaces for free, so it is a great option for a company like Puente. A number of other Puente productions that also may have had only short runs in Victoria have proved very successful on tour. These shows include: El Jinete: A Mariachi Opera that won an award for Bátiz-Benét as Best Director in Toronto’s Summerworks Festival; The Umbrella, a children’s play that toured throughout Alberta and into Saskatchewan and was seen by over 15,000 young people; and another play for young audiences, Gruff, that toured to Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre.
Clearly the company has enjoyed some significant success under Bátiz-Benét’s leadership. I ask her to tell me more about Fado and she replies, “The play is by Elaine Ávila, who also wrote Lieutenant Nun. It is a woman’s story about immigration and the longing for home. This character is stuck in a boat, metaphorically, between two countries, Portugal and Canada. She and her mother go back to Portugal and, although the daughter has not understood fado music before, this inherently sad musical form helps her to find herself again.” The production features local singer Sara Marreiros playing famous fado singer Amália Rodrigues, who haunts the play as a ghost from Portugal’s past.
Puente has always had a strong interest in responding to the question, “What does it mean to be an immigrant?” Bátiz-Benét’s next project, a major one, draws on Mexican-Canadian artists from across Canada. The project is tentatively titled 43, after the 43 university students who disappeared on their way to a political rally in 2014. It is believed that corrupt police officers handed the students over to a drug gang and they were all executed. Bátiz-Benét says, “As a Mexican immigrant to Canada, I have had to see my country disintegrate over time. With over 170,000 dead in the endless drug wars, I am in a privileged place here to say something for catharsis in myself and with other Mexican-Canadian artists.”
The project is multidisciplinary, involving actors, dancers, musicians, choreographers and film/video artists. The ensemble worked together for two weeks earlier this year, with Bátiz-Benét as director and facilitator of this collective creation. She tells me, “We are taking a physical and visual approach to elicit feelings and emotions, so the less text we have is for the best. Our home nation is becoming a common grave.” The project also involves partnering with Mexican artists, so the next phase will take place in Mexico City in May of next year, where it will premiere.
I ask Bátiz-Benét if 43 will be performed here in Victoria, and she replies, fervently, “I will always do a run here. I want to honour Lina’s vision, and what she began 30 years ago.” It is a proud legacy that Puente Theatre has in Victoria. I am more than happy to celebrate the company’s thirtieth anniversary alongside de Guevara, Bátiz-Benét and everyone who has participated in or seen a Puente show over its long history here.
Monica celebrates Puente’s history in a recently published chapter in the book Theatre and (Im)migration (Playwrights Canada Press), an oral history interview with Lina de Guevara that captures her contribution to immigrant theatre in Canada.