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By Steve Fisher
Guillermo Verdecchia started chalking up playwriting awards over two decades ago; he earned his first Chalmers Award for i.d. in 1989, and went on to win three more (putting him in company with Michel Tremblay, George F. Walker, and David French)—one each with collaborators Daniel Brooks and Marcus Youssef (for The Noam Chomsky Lectures in 1992, and A Line in the Sand in 1997, respectively), and another for his semi-autobiographical solo show, Fronteras Americanas. It’s this show, which also won a Governor General’s Award in 1993 (and was turned into an award winning film, Crucero/Crossroads), that Soulpepper remounted in 2011. Verdecchia performed the show himself, for the first time in eighteen years.
In Fronteras Americanas, Argentinian-born but a resident of Canada since he was a toddler, plays two characters: “Verdecchia,” a reflective approximation of himself, and “Wideload,” a loud-mouthed jester composite of every Latino stereotype the play seeks to implode. In the process of examining his feelings of being torn between two cultures, “Verdecchia” introduces the concept of “living the border”—accepting both parts of his heritage, and learning to be at peace within the intersection of the two, like that of a Venn diagram.
We shared borders in conversation with Verdecchia, shortly after his show had opened.
Soulpepper’s been re-staging Canadian plays that the company thinks Toronto audiences should be familiar with, like David French’s “Mercer plays,” or Billy Bishop Goes to War. What is it about Fronteras Americanas that continues to resonate, do you think?
I think it’s this metaphor I happened to stumble on, that poets and scholars focus on, of “the border,” and what is a border? What do they mean, how do they work, do we need them, when are they visible, and when are they not? What does it mean to live between languages and memories of different places?
When I stumbled across this idea, it was like, “Oh my God—that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out all my life!” This metaphor made complete sense to me, and I tried to elaborate on the idea in the play, and it happened to make sense to a whole lot of other people—the metaphor remains very relevant today.
It’s a deeply Canadian play, and while I think it makes sense in other places—you could take this play to Mexico, or Argentina, or anywhere, because these borders and bi-cultural negotiations take place all over the world—it’s of ongoing interest to Canadians. It’s another way of looking at our nation; there are plays that have been produced in Canada that hold up an image that I don’t believe ever existed, but we like to think did; “Oh, there used to be simpler days, when everything was clear.” I don’t think that’s ever been the case, except perhaps for a very small group of privileged people. I think Fronteras proposes another image of our country, and tries to situate it in a larger context, and that continues to be of interest to Canadian audiences.
Were there any sections of the play you found you had a completely different viewpoint on, 18 years later?
I wouldn’t say there were any that I went, “Oh my God, I have to rewrite that entirely!” In some ways, the things that inform this play—globalization, migration, displacement, immigration—those things have accelerated in the last two decades. There’s more people on the move, displaced, and in exile; those issues are even more relevant.
The most recent example: I met two young women last summer, Turkish women living in Germany. They live on a very obvious and clear border, quite different from the one I live on, but nonetheless clearly a border they have to negotiate, between the two countries. So the metaphor—whether it’s as immediate to me or not—still applies.
It’s a really interesting—and still very novel—concept in the play, that one is “of the border,” and that the border isn’t a line where you can have one foot on either side, but that it’s an area where you’re situated.
I think—and these aren’t necessarily my ideas, originally—that the border is a process, or an action, rather than a thing. I think we need borders. I don’t propose we live in a borderless world, which I doubt is even possible. We need borders for our ego, for our psyche, so that we can have equal, healthy relationships, so that we can interact and work together, and get to know each other. Without borders, we get into unhealthy, messy wrecks of relationships.
Similarly, I think we want borders as peoples; we want to say, “Look, we’ve decided to live together in this way, and this how we’ve chosen to define ourselves.”
The problem for me is when the border becomes a wall; a fixed, hard boundary, that can’t be penetrated or crossed. It needs to be permeable, and it needs to be constantly erased and redrawn. It should be a site of encounter, where we meet each other and work stuff out—and I mean so on a individual level, a civil level, right to a geopolitical level. When it’s a barrier, you rot, you run out of ideas; it’s unhealthy.
It can be weird to deal with ideas well outside your sphere of recognition, and I’m not saying we should accept every idea and concept that comes our way. But the border is the place where we should examine those things, and talk to one another, and figure out what something means to us.
The flip side of an unyielding border—one which rejects all things— might be a melting pot then, which can lead to a dispersal of cultural identity?
Yeah! Realistically, I don’t know how accurate the melting pot concept is anymore. The border theory, in many ways, originates from the Mexican/American border, where a lot of people ask, “What is this place? It isn’t Mexico, it isn’t the US. What is the zone we live in, and who are we in relation to these two countries?”
Let’s talk a bit about your career since you first performed the play. You’re currently working on your PhD in Theatre and Drama Studies at the University of Toronto, you’re an associate artist here at Soulpepper; you spent some time in Vancouver before moving back to Toronto, too?
I’ve worked a lot with Neworld Theatre in Vancouver, and I ran Cahoots Theatre here in Toronto for many years (I’ve been “back” in Toronto for eleven years). When you say “career” you have to put that in quotation marks, because I don’t know if there is such a thing as a career in the theatre, in Canada. I don’t know what that is, really. [Laughs]
Okay, your involvement in theatre in Canada.
I’ve been interested in a set of questions about identity and representation, about media and power, and so I’ve explored those questions in a variety of ways. I’ve done so in theatre with a handful of people whose work I really enjoy and respect, and that’s what I love to do the most; work with my good friends, and on things we’re passionate about.
In theatre, it seems like my career has been, “Hey, I’ve got this weird idea, you want to do a show in the basement at Factory, and see if we can scare up $50 for a set?” I don’t know if that’s a career. [Laughs] I don’t know what you’d call that.
I don’t think it happens much in Canada where you do this, which leads to this, which leads to the next thing. I’ve never been able to plan well, but pursuing these questions I like—that obsess me. That’s what theatre is, for me: a place for thinking about things, for thinking with.
Are there companies right now you can think of that are doing work that could be classics 20 years down the road—companies you’d give a shout out to?
Volcano Theatre, Neworld Theatre, Chris Abrahams and Crow’s Theatre—Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra was really smart and interesting. Daniel Brooks is always up to something interesting, and so is Daniel MacIvor, and Artistic Fraud in Newfoundland.
There’s lots of great work going on, and sometimes it’s given due recognition, and some support. But often it isn’t, and it’s “make do with this”—theatre on a shoestring. It’s not just a question of money, it’s resources and a place in the landscape that’s lacking.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of Soulpepper.