Featured Member — Santiago Guzmán
Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Santiago Guzmán, an award-winning playwright, dramaturge, performer, and director originally from Metepec, Mexico, now based in St. John’s, NL. He is the Artistic Director of TODOS Productions & the Artistic Associate for Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre.
His work has been supported, developed and/or produced by theatre companies and festivals such as TODOS Productions (NL), Resource Centre for the Arts Theatre Company (NL), Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland (NL), Rising Tide Theatre (NL), Neighbourhood Dance Works (NL), Eastern Front Theatre (NS), PARC (pan-Atlantic Canadian), Ship’s Company Theatre (NS), Theatre New Brunswick (NB), Boca Del Lupo (BC), Paprika Festival (ON), and the National Theatre School of Canada’s Art Apart Program (QC).
Santiago’s first play, ALTAR, was produced by the Resource Centre for the Arts Theatre Company in 2021 in St. John’s, NL, and adapted into a digital offering which was disseminated as a virtual school tour across the province in 2022. Urn, his first full-length play, received the Senior Dramatic Script Award of the Newfoundland and Labrador 2022 Arts and Letters Awards and has recently been shortlisted for the Newfoundland and Labrador Credit Union Fresh Fish Award 2022.
Santiago’s work is very gay, very brown, and very real.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
It was never my intention to become a playwright. Never. I turned to playwriting out of necessity, really. As an immigrant, queer, and Latinx actor in a predominantly white, English-speaking, and heteronormative theatre sector, I got tired of being constantly typecast in hurtful stereotypes, supporting white-focused narratives, and meaningless background roles. So, I decided to tell stories that were close to my heart; stories where I could see myself and my community represented onstage.
I had no idea what I was doing (and to this day, I am still figuring it out), but I was committed to writing these stories down. Although I still feel very much an early-in-craft playwright, I have been privileged to get a lot of opportunities that have helped me grow in my writing, focusing on characters and stories that are exciting for me to pen. I think my work as a dramaturge has deeply helped me understand the mechanics of storytelling and shape my voice as a playwright.
Can you tell us about your writing process and where you get your ideas?
Honestly, I write when I can. I am very deadline oriented which keeps me on track and pushes me to carve “writing time” in my day-to-day activities. I have come to embrace the fact that each play is unique, as it is the way that I write them. Some stories pour out of me, I struggle penning some others. Having clear images of the worlds I am creating is really helpful as I dive into them.
I say that my work is very brown, very queer, and very real. I aim to put local, under-represented Atlantic Canadian narratives and characters to the frontlines, whilst inviting audiences to appreciate the vibrancy of our provinces from a diverse perspective. I often juxtapose my two worlds, Newfoundland and Labrador and Mexico, where I explore themes such as identity, belonging, (dis)connection, heritage, and legacy. I strive to celebrate, honour, represent and learn from my own heritage and encourage others to recognize that the make-up of Atlantic Canada is diverse in culture and history.
You have said that your work as an artist is rooted in community, and your practice is to “foster, celebrate, and advance community.” Can you tell us more about what community means to you, and the impact it has on your work?
I define “community” as a group of like-minded people with whom I feel I share something in common. I identify as a queer, Latinx, immigrant artist, and I feel a deep connection to those, like me, who have been historically oppressed and silenced.
Not only do I write about communities that I belong to, but I also find ways to engage with them in the creative process. Often, I try to find opportunities of ‘opening’ my writing and dramaturgy process so that people can witness how I approach my work, with hopes that they can take away something new or be provoked/inspired to try applying something to their own craft.
When I first began writing, I didn’t know what a dramaturgy session looked like. No idea. And to be completely honest, I was overwhelmed by it, and I wish I had known what to expect from the getgo. So, when I am capable, I like inviting early-in-craft writers to witness the conversation with my dramaturge so they can learn more about what a dramaturgy session could look like and how I navigate them.
You are the artistic director of TODOS Productions, an organization that seeks to promote, produce, and support the work of under-represented artists in Newfoundland and Labrador. Can you tell us more about why you started that company, and the work that it has done/is doing?
When I was in theatre school, I had a very hard time believing I had a future in the Canadian Theatre Industry since most of the plays I was studying were white. It wasn’t until I was tasked in my Canadian Literature course to prepare a seminar on a topic related to Canadian Theatre that I did a thorough examination of culturally-diverse theatre companies across the country. My findings were thrilling and exciting, as the work they were producing had a range of experiences, but I was really disappointed there were none in Newfoundland and Labrador. I saw that as an opportunity to carve space in my community for stories that we weren’t seeing onstage. The problem was that we were not only missing culturally diverse narratives in Newfoundland and Labrador but also queer narratives, disabled narratives, immigrant narratives… So, I wanted to support and develop that work.
Primarily, we have focused on new play development, because I realized that we didn’t have diverse characters onstage because we didn’t have enough diverse writers. In every project we embark on, we try to support local artists that belong to these communities we intend on representing to further their craft by providing professional opportunities they are not given otherwise. And, of course, we are trying to move away from colonial structures and practices that perpetuate harm in the way that we create theatre.
You are originally from Metepec, Mexico and are now based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. What was it like to make that move, and how has it impacted you as an artist?
Well, I don’t think I knew what I was doing back then. Haha. I am serious! I saw moving to Newfoundland and Labrador as an opportunity that I jumped on as soon as I could. And I guess that was because studying abroad was a dream that perhaps I had buried in me…
I moved to Newfoundland and Labrador because of the acting program, but my whole reasoning was that I knew I would be taught Greek theatre and Shakespeare in any theatre school, but since I didn’t speak Greek and I thought I was fluent in English, I decided to move to an English-speaking country. Now, I never thought it would be that difficult to perform in my second language. Ha! Spoiler alert: it was. But over the years, I have developed a technique that helps me base an emotional journey on my Latinx configuration while speaking English.
I do have to say, though, that moving to Newfoundland and Labrador entirely changed my path as an artist. When I arrived, I wanted to be only an actor. As I’ve explained before, I was forced to shift that goal, but I think that Newfoundland and Labrador was the perfect place to do so. The arts community in our province is very vibrant, and it is not uncommon to see artists diversify their own skillsets. We see lots of artists writing, directing, performing, producing- we do it all! And I think it’s simply because if we want to be doing theatre all the time, it is helpful when we know how to do more than one thing.
The community in Newfoundland and Labrador embraced me and supported me as I was developing other skills within my own craft. That’s why I feel like I owe back to Newfoundland and Labrador, because without the encouragement and support from the community I wouldn’t be the artist that I am today. I am very proud to champion Newfoundland and Labrador work, especially the one that broadens the understanding of what our province looks, sounds, and feels like.
What are you working on now?
I am getting ready to start rehearsals for my play Urn, which will be produced by TODOS Productions and presented at Eastern Front Theatre’s 2022 STAGES Festival on June 23, 2022, in Dartmouth, NS, starring Vanessa Cardoso-Whelan and yours truly, directed by Nora Barker and assistant directed by Robyn Huxter; come July, Rising Tide Theatre will be premiering in Trinity Bay, NL, my bilingual kitchen-sink dramedy, Seis Grados en Mayo, directed by a great collaborator of mine, Meghan Greeley; I am also co-writing with Vanessa Cardoso-Whelan and Nabila Qureshi a verbatim theatre play titled NewfoundLanded, which explores the journey of immigrants and refugees to our province and their decision of making it their home, and I am in the process of planting some seeds for a new TYA for a super-secret project happening in the winter of 2023 (the announcement will be coming out soon!!)
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
I think my favourite plays are Canadian.
I love Latinx-Canadian work (I wonder why). I am drawn to Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel for the fascinating use of language and Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas will always have a very special place in my heart because that was the very first time I saw myself represented in a play I had read; Andrea Scott and Nick Green’s Every Day She Rose is a play I would love to bring to Newfoundland and Labrador; I remember seeing Yolanda Bonnell’s moving performance of bug at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2020 and thinking “yup, this is why I love theatre.”, and I got to see recently a digital offering of Makambe K Simamba’s Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers by Tarragon Theatre (directed by the brilliant DM-St. Bernard) and I think that is one of the best theatre plays I have ever seen in my entire life (AND I can only imagine what it was to see that play in person!!!!!!! Grateful for the digital offering, though.)
So, yes, I love Canadian theatre.
Visit Santiago’s website http://www.sguzman.ca/
Or follow him on Instagram @santig1 or Twitter @santiguzjan
And find ALTAR on the Canadian Play Outlet: https://www.canadianplayoutlet.com/products/altar-by-santiago-guzman
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.