Finding healing in theatre - New Canadian Media
Part of the cast of "The Selfish Giant," Daniela Romero, Jaime Alba, and Raúl Pinto, promoting this family-friendly production at a Christmas event in December. Submitted photo.

Finding healing in theatre

A resident of the GTA, Raul found a unique way to cope with loneliness during the pandemic: write a musical that will entertain fellow members of the Hispanic diaspora community.

After 15 years as an immigrant in Canada and close to turning 40 years of age, I decided to do something, let’s say, crazy. 

Since I’m also a massive nerd, I did not go for fast cars, a conspicuously unconventional hairdo, or anything that would risk my family or my finances. Instead, I adapted a famous story into a play, wrote songs for it, started directing it, and now starring in a community theatre musical with a bunch of other immigrants, in two simultaneous languages. Let me tell you this story.

After a difficult, yet rewarding career as a journalist in Canada, starting from volunteering in local media to hosting my own TV show on national television, I found myself in lockdown during a pandemic. It was April 2020, my family and I were doing okay, with my wife and kid at home, and none of our jobs were compromised, thank God. 

On a cold night, around 2 a.m., I decided to write a play. In my spare time, I was part of an awesome theatre company, The Mississauga Players, which put up a comic play in English and Spanish the year before. The experience was more than great, and I yearned to direct, as long as I wrote the play or found a nice, cute, free-of-charge script we could produce. The artistic directors, Alexandra Montealegre and Vicky Chiappari, are two forces of nature that have graciously created a strong theatrical legacy in the Hispanic community in the south of Ontario. 

“El Gigante Egoísta/The Selfish Giant” boasts an all-Canadian-Latinos cast and is presented in both English and Spanish at the same time, reflecting the rich cultural tapestry of Canada’s immigrant communities. Submitted photo.

So, I started writing this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” one of my favourite short stories of all time. I thought of a play for children. My children. I said to myself, “I’m going to write the story in rhyme. The whole play will be a big, extravagant rhyme.” In Spanish, of course. Taking Wilde’s awesomely-structured short story, I did some parts as poems to be recited, in a play that I didn’t want to be longer than an hour.

Then one day, you know, I just took my guitar and I started putting some music on those verses, which then became songs. 

“Que felices somos aquí (how happy we are here)

Jardín de organdí en alta franja. (oh, beautiful and big garden)

Que felices somos aqui, (how happy we are here)

Primavera de miel y naranjas” (oh, springtime of honey and flowers!)

That converted my play immediately into a musical. Rather than translate the entire production into English, I and the actors decided to make it a bilingual production in Spanish and English, where you can hear part of the story in one language and then in another. The script took me months to finish. Sometimes, when I read the script, I sweated profusely and felt like a part of me was dying every time. I cringed and closed the file, waiting for a few more weeks to take another look. It was nerve-racking, and my wife, already worried about my mental health before the pandemic, noted my struggle with deadlines was getting worse. 

Between raising two kids, marriage, my job, thousands of Canadians dying from COVID-19, and all of us waiting for the first vaccine, I changed jobs during quarantine and started the long process of getting my mental health checked out. I had to convince my family doctor to send me to a psychiatrist. I paid for a counsellor, and checked online for ways to deal with what I thought was a product of past traumas or probably the pandemic itself, although despite considering myself an extrovert, I got oddly happy about being in lockdown, hanging out with my family, watching lots of movies, working, and getting into more and more projects, including the writing of the musical. 

The results? A late diagnosis of ADHD. At 39. I was happy to finally put a name to my “things,” but I was also devastated. A column by Prof. Rob Whitley indicated that an alarming number of Canadian men where at high risk of substance abuse, suicide or just loneliness. I was always an optimistic guy, as many men told Statistics Canada, even when studies have shown that the reality is different, so the idea of having to be in constant counselling and take my medications, and joining the line of people waiting to be treated was dreadful. 

Also, I had a play to direct. 

“The Selfish Giant: The Musical” went into production in 2022, with smooth rehearsals with a bunch of very happy and committed actors. We all did local productions in our high school years as well as community theatre, all of us came from Spanish-speaking countries, and we all have full-time jobs or full-time families. It has been a challenge to get together and practise a musical, which requires learning lines, acting, songs, and dancing. And to me, that also included orchestrations, rewrites, promotions, and production duties. 

To me, the story about a giant who comes back to his garden to discover that children have been playing in it every afternoon sends a powerful message of acceptance and love, as long as we decide to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of our character traits.

“No, no vuelvas a hablarme así, 

No, no, no, don’t be so mean to me,

No, no, no, solo queremos que nos escuches, 

No, just listen to me and believe”

I really love what our theatre troupe is doing. We have on our hands a very cute play, with a lot of heart. We also have the incredibly supportive Hispanic Canadian Arts, who rented the Maja Prentice Theatre for us, allowing us to have the chance of having three shows in one day only, January 27th. You are all invited to get a ticket or two. Or 10, c’mon. 

Two months ago, I kicked off the celebration of my birthday with a very early morning rehearsal of my play. It was awesome. I got to have breakfast with my family, then a little celebration with my theatre family, and then again with my family in the afternoon. 

I don’t complain about my life, but the immigration experience has been hard and fulfilling in equal parts. So being one of the 1.1 million Hispanic/Spanish/Latino/Latinx people in Canada, putting out a musical with my people, in my adopted country, in the two languages I speak, has been part of my healing.

Please share our stories!

Raúl A. Pinto is a Chilean journalist with a decade of experience in Canada, working for radio, television, print, and digital media. During his career, he has interviewed a variety of people, from undocumented migrants to the Prime Minister of Canada, as well as movie stars, writers, artists, business people, politicians and others, with coverage almost exclusively directed to the migrant community. He has been nominated twice for Journalist of the Year at the Canadian Latin Awards, and won in 2019. He is married to Sandra and is the father of Ana and Lucas.

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