Theatre program puts spotlight on cultural challenges
Kids say the darndest things but, thanks to a groundbreaking initiative by the Enable Theatre Project titled Where is Home?, 15 immigrant youth are making heart-stopping waves with their tales of coming to Canada.
The actors, ages 14 to 18, are from countries including China, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Israel, Cambodia, Peru and Korea. But, despite the geological differences, what all these kids have in common is the extreme sacrifice, cultural challenges and, above all, pride for Canada.
Monday spoke with theatre director Yasmine Kandil, a 35-year-old immigrant woman herself, about what it was like working with the youth and how the project — now in its second successful year — got off the ground.
Monday Magazine: Can you tell us about how this project found its form, and how you selected the actors?
Yasmine Kandil: This project really started through the efforts of Negin Naraghi and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) in an effort to give immigrant youth a chance to address what the experience of coming to Canada is like. We were able to choose youth actors from families and children involved with VIRCS, all of who had incredible stories to tell.
It was first proposed that we do the production as an offshoot of “forum theatre,” which originated as theatre of the oppressed and was meant to ignite unrest in the audience. The problem is, it requires very skilled actors, since there is a level of audience participation. In the traditional form, the crowd actually gets to instruct actors on how they should act to solve the social problems presented. I took huge exception to this form, however, as I don’t believe you can recreate real oppression, and I didn’t feel this was appropriate either for the age group, or for the issues presented — these are young people’s real life stories, and you don’t want to mess with that. So, I suggested we adjust the form to make it less interactive, but more intimate. The result was wonderful, and we get to hear live story accounts of what these kids went through.
MM: Why is a production like this important, and what may people in the audience be surprised to learn?
YK: Many of the challenges immigrant youth face are not addressed in the school system. Issues like living between two different cultures, bullying, cultural barriers, family problems and more come up every day, but there are very few resources for immigrant children struggling with these challenges. Most of all, these kids are so grateful just to live in Canada and be part of the culture that their first response is not to talk about what they’ve gone through, but how thankful they are to be here. Sometimes it’s almost as though they try to erase themselves — I want to be all Canadian so I can fit in. But some of their stories are heartbreaking, and this is their chance to tell those stories.
MM: What is your own background in theatre and in immigrating to Canada, and why is this production important to you?
YK: As a woman of colour from Egypt, I know how important it is for me to celebrate my own Egyptian-ness. And when I see something performed it hits me more than when I read about it. But when it really started for me was when I was working with youth garbage collectors in the Middle East on another performance project. I had the opportunity to find out about the traumas and abuses they went through every day, and the way these little businessmen were always looking for the next step. The performances were a chance for them to have a little fun, and people who came to the productions were shocked and moved by what they said. I decided I wanted to lean more for those boys, though, so that I could come back with the knowledge of a great director. That was what set me on my journey when I came to Canada seven years ago to study theatre — first my Masters of Fine Arts in directing, then my PhD in applied theatre, both at UVic.
MM: How does the theatre production itself help with that mission of giving kids the space to tell their stories?
YK: This production was meant to be a place for the kids to come and share and know they are not alone. Theatre itself can be a very validating experience. To be a star for one night, that experience can leave the kids — and even more so the audience — forever transformed. You wind up feeling very humbled in their presence. You hear stories about the pressure these kids face with school, and how a B, even an A-, is often not good enough. You hear stories about kids who’ve watched members of their families being murdered, or about having to sell everything just to make it to Canada. You hear how these kids always know the stress their parents are under, because of the sighs.
MM: What will the audience walk away with from a production like this?
YK: For some people who come and see the play, they will see themselves and remember their own stories about how they immigrated to Canada. You see the bravery of these young individuals who were willing to give up everything to be here. They speak with so much pride about Canada, and being a part of this country, and I want everyone to see that. It really puts things in perspective. M
Catch Where is Home? March 18 and 25, 7 p.m. at the Intrepid Theatre Club (2 – 1609 Blanshard). Tickets are $10. For more info, check out vircs.bc.ca.