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Island Voices: Theatre pioneer is willing to do things differently

Thousands of students and theatregoers in Victoria have appreciated the work of Lina de Guevara for more than 30 years. Originally from Chile, Lina is an actor, theatre director, drama teacher and storyteller.
A puppet show for the International Day for the Elimination of Racism in 2010 at St. John the Divine church in Victoria was directed by Lina de Guevara. De Guevara altered her very-visual style to work with the blind this year.

Thousands of students and theatregoers in Victoria have appreciated the work of Lina de Guevara for more than 30 years. Originally from Chile, Lina is an actor, theatre director, drama teacher and storyteller.

Twenty-five years ago, Lina taught a weekend workshop called Theatre of the Oppressed. She took people with no theatre background and gave them skills to voice their concerns about social justice issues that affected their lives.

I was working as a systems analyst in the Ministry of Finance and registered for fun. I was so struck by the possibilities and potential value of the forum, that I wrote about it for the employee newsletter in my office. Aside from offering an effective way of learning, I thought the theatre games were ideal for team-building.

I encouraged my colleagues to consider taking the workshop (on their own time and at their own expense) and suggested we might band together to explore some of the issues and challenges as understood by government finance staff. I explained that Lina encourages workshop participants to understand that theatre is not just for specialists, but for everyone who can learn to trust their intuition.

There was not a single response. Ministry of Finance workers in the 1990s were not interested in using theatre work to express ideas and look for solutions to organizational problems.

A few years later when I was working in the Ministry for Children and Families, I pitched the same idea. A dozen social workers eagerly stepped forward and we worked with Lina to develop a theatre piece that won an innovative leadership award from the provincial government in 2002. Working with Lina was such a great experience, I planned to do more of it when I retired. I admired her uncanny ability to enliven even the most rigid of participants in her workshops.

After volunteering with the Canadian Federation of the Blind over the past decade, I had hoped to convince a group of blind people to consider taking the workshop with Lina. I thought it might be an ideal way to express issues about blindness to sighted people.

I attended one of Lina’s University of Victoria courses with a blind friend, and Lina used the opportunity to think about the adjustments she would need to make to teach a class of blind students. Most of her instruction over the decades has involved visually oriented theatre exercises.

Finally, a workshop came together with five creative pioneers from the blind community in Victoria. Lina explained how Theatre of the Oppressed works and gently introduced the participants with a transformational storytelling workshop over a total of 12 hours on three Saturdays.

It was a smaller group than I had hoped, but the efforts resulted in an important success.

One of the first exercises we did involved exploring the room with white canes, finding an object and coming back to tell the group a story about the object found. The range of observations was striking.

It was a fun start, and then things really got interesting. Through her powerful style of coaching, before they knew it, in the second class, each participant was standing in front of the group, absolutely alive and telling a seven-minute story that was important to them. In the third class, Lina worked with each individual to help them polish their performance.

The participants were committed, and a succession of five poignant stories about blindness emerged to express a collective voice featuring issues that sighted people rarely perceive. The topics were serious and charming and frightening and philosophical, and one story was filled with hope.

It was an extraordinary beginning and all because a woman who is 85 but looks 60, was willing to rethink her way of teaching the subject that is her lifelong passion. In spite of all of her successes, with her trademark vitality, Lina leapt into something she had never done before.

An innovative blind theatre group is quietly finding its simmering and fragile roots in our community. I hope you get to observe the results one day. If you do, you will never see blindness in the same way again.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a potent tool created by the late Augusto Boal, a world-renowned Brazilian theatre practitioner, drama theorist and political activist. After observing Lina’s results with several very different groups, my feeling is that we don’t use Boal’s ready instrument nearly enough.

Boal was a teacher and friend of our very own Lina de Guevara. We are lucky to have Lina in our community — still thriving.

Thelma Fayle is a freelance writer and a volunteer for the Canadian Federation of the Blind.