The Play’s the Thing
By Jennifer Moore
In the 1940s and 50s, journalist Tom Patterson became convinced that Shakespeare could help revitalize his hometown of Stratford, Ontario. The city languished as the rail industry pulled out and although inexperienced in theatre, Patterson dreamed that the arts could bring about change along the Avon River. Listen here:
Almost sixty years since the Stratford Shakespeare Festival held its first performance under a canvas tent, the arts have become a motor of economic development in the area with a world-renown festival and highly regarded training programs.
Today, Suchitoto, El Salvador hopes to begin a culturally-driven economic revitalization that will build on Tom Patterson’s legacy through a novel partnership with Stratford. With volunteer support from Master technicians and a professional director from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a theatre arts school called Es-Artes is being established that aims to transform this quaint, laid-back city just north of the capital San Salvador into a hub for arts education and tourism, and provide alternatives for young people who urgently need better options.
“This project has come about at an important time,” says Martha del Carmen Rivas, President of the Association for Arts and Development. The Association serves as Board of Directors for Es-Artes. Rivas believes the project could invigorate the town, which suffered greatly during the country’s bloody twelve-year war that ended in 1992. As a nurse who works at a local hospital, she sees young people starting families at an incredibly young age with few job opportunities when they get out of high school. Many migrate to the nearby capital San Salvador or to the US, while others rely on remittances from family members or take work outside of their field of study in order to remain in the city. Having harboured her own dream of studying theatre since she was a child growing up in the countryside, Rivas says this project gives her hope and states that their association “is going to make an effort because we believe that our youth deserve it… we care for our youth and we want them to develop and to have a broader outlook.” Board membership is principally composed of young people personally interested in seeing this happen.
El Salvadoran dancer Mario Salazar Toledo is part of the artistic team which trained a group of over forty young people for the project launch in late March. From his point of view, Suchitoto has a lot to gain from the arts both economically and culturally. He values the volunteer contributions of professionals from the Stratford Festival visiting Suchitoto — a collaboration facilitated by CUSO-VSO. The volunteers, he says, are not just carpenters, metal workers, or costume designers, but masters in their field with decades of experience. “This is a profession,” he comments as someone who has also made his living from the arts, “and it’s an example for us.” However, Salazar also believes that the arts can be transformative for youth who live in a society where gang violence is rife. “This is not just about giving them a tool for work,” he remarks, “but also about building greater awareness of the reality in which they’re living, what they feel, and what’s in their own community and society. Artistic work creates human beings, it isn’t a textile factory that squeezes the life out of people.”
At the time when Patterson was starting out, he had support from his town council and a small voluntary committee to get the festival off the ground. But it was the charm of the riverside town that also helped him secure a famous British theatre director, Tyron Guthrie, to become the festival’s first Artistic Director. With Guthrie’s arrival came a vision for authentic Shakespearean theatre in which the audience would be seated close to the actors performing from a low-level stage. Suchitoto’s slow pace and cobblestone streets seem to be working a similar appeal on Canadian volunteers such as Director-Teacher Edward Daranyi who helped create the launch production. With a collective approach to theatrical creation, Daranyi has lengthy experience in Shakespearean theatre and work with youth. As a member of Shakespeare Link Canada, he has worked internationally in Mozambique to produce theatrical works with a local troupe around HIV/AIDS education.
Only a week into his visit in El Salvador, the city was working its magic. “You know I pass the same people all the time,” he says, “and we always say hello. We’re not just friendly, they miss us when we don’t pass by. That’s the special thing about it. Like Stratford when I first arrived there, you didn’t feel odd waving to someone across the street.” Seeing tremendous potential in the project, but still years from knowing whether or not it will really fly, he says, “If the two cities and two artists organizations come closer together and there’s a bit more of an exchange, I think it will make the project better and the likelihood of its success that much better in the long run. Tom Patterson had to have those same things when he started the festival. If the town council wasn’t behind him, he would never have made it to New York City to start having conversations with people.”
With enthusiastic support from the municipality of Suchitoto, the project launched before a full house on March 27th and has kicked off a two-year training program with technical, artistic and arts management streams. With over forty students, Suchitoto will have its first professional theatre production in two years when it will begin creating several companies to sell professional theatre arts services. It is a big dream, but so was the idea of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.