Episode 4 with Luciano Iogna (Video, Audio & Transcript)
March 29, 2021
Luciano Iogna, I work in theatre for social change… Born and raised in Ottawa back in the 50s, early 50s… Predominantly in what is now in Ottawa as the Corso Italia, the Little Italy, but at the time we called it the village… Because there were a lot of different nationalities in there, and typically, growing up, you sort of stuck to your own community, so the Italians would stick with the Italians, and the French Canadians with French Canadians, and the Jamaicans with the Jamaicans, and so on.
But going to school, I would have to walk through a small French-Canadian part of town to get to my school, and it was like walking through a gauntlet. What we would consider today abuse, potential violence or assault was a daily thing. I’d have rocks thrown at me, whatever, being an Italian, and you know the whole “Wop go home!” Without papers, W-O-P: “Wop.” So that was sort of the initial reality of what my life was like earlier on.
When I started working part-time jobs… My father got me jobs working with him in the summertime. I was 13 years old working construction… Making precast concrete slabs and stuff like that, and then delivering them. A lot of them would be into areas like Rockcliffe Park, which is where a lot of the embassies and the more elite of Ottawans would reside, very upper class, very rich. They have their own… RCMP division looking after the place because there’s a lot of diplomats, and so when we would have to go out there delivering slabs for fences, patio stones, whatever, we were constantly trailed by the police, and… The staff would come out and… Sort of make disparaging remarks to us, which was ironic because they were new Canadians as well. So I had an early sense of being different, of understanding what a class difference was in Canada despite the fact that we’re supposed to be a very egalitarian society…
What we were based on, on colonialism, right? The English and the working class and the aristocracy, and that was made very evident, particularly if you’re a new Canadian, if English isn’t your primary first language. The irony is also that the French Canadians that everyone despised and had issues with, they were in a worse position than anyone else. Ironically, we were as Europeans, not as local French Canadians, we had a step up on them. I could see that there was a difference in treatment, particularly in the schools and classrooms and so on. If someone had a French-Canadian background or name, the teachers would regard them and treat them quite differently.
So that was… A sense of what class was like growing up and what my reality was like, and the way to get out of that was education, try to go to school, try to get a degree and so on. I didn’t succeed at that at first… I tried different colleges, whatever… I got into Carleton University on what they had as a biology-geology combination program… Couldn’t get my maths… And circumstances at the time… Weren’t going well for me, and I decided let’s get out of Ottawa, let’s get out of Canada. I planned to emigrate. So I worked for a while as a bartender, trying to… Save enough money so that I could immigrate to Australia, which was the other side of the world. I wanted to get as far away from Ottawa as I could. Working in a bar, particularly in a bar that served civil servants taught me another lesson in terms of class structure and who is more important as a human being, and again, emphasized working class against managerial, that middle class, and then of course the politicians, the law… The policymakers, the aristocracy and so on… I’m trying to remember the name of the author who… Used to be the director of Forbes Magazine, he had this wonderful definition that there were really only two classes in North America based on the Roman model; there’s the pedestrian class and the carriage class. You either ride or you pull the carriage… So I got a good sense of that.
How I got involved in theatre was purely accidental… Through some personal stuff, I wound up not going to Australia. I ran into an old high school buddy who was actually going to Queen’s University… And he was taking drama, and he said, “Why don’t you move to Kingston? We’ll share a place,” whatever. So I got a job in Kingston, I lived there, but I wound up socializing with a lot of his friends who were in drama, and I got involved in theatre. And while I was there, I was working for some insurance company doing filing work or whatever, and I was taking night courses and part-time courses in drama… One of the courses that I was taking and got involved with was when Keith Johnstone, who was when he first came to Canada… He was the master of improvisation, in improv, and developed the whole school and methodology around improvisation. And so a couple of… His students and I, his sort of disciples, his early disciples before he moved out to Calgary and formed Loose Moose Theatre and… Became a little more famous in North America… We started doing improvisational work on the streets…
Kingston is a town that was at that time, it’s the 70s, the main economy of Kingston at the time was the penitentiaries, the Alcan plant (aluminum plant), and support workers for the institutions, for the penitentiaries, for the educational institutions of Queen’s University, St. Lawrence College, Royal Military College, and so on. Another working-class city with a working-class structure… It was a military town originally, so it had the officers and the common soldiers and the workers…
So again, where you looked at in Kingston, where the workers used to live, the support workers, and where the professors and the managers of the prison and the manager of the plant, very different community… And one of the things we tried to do as an improv group on the street, we had this idea to do a show about prisoners’ rights. I don’t know where they came from, there were three of us, and… We started doing this little improv thing on street corners, busking, just to see if we can make some money. And it was around prisoners’ rights, and the reaction was… A lot of the people who were mostly women, who were wives of the support workers, a lot of wives of the prison guards threw stones at us, spat at us… Told us that we were supporting criminals, that we didn’t understand what their husbands were going through as guards, correctional guards, and it’s true, we didn’t. We sort of had a romantic idea of what life was like. I’m, you know, 22, 23 years old, hadn’t had that experience. I’ve had friends who’d been through the prison system, but hadn’t been through there personally.
So that was another teaching for me in terms of… If you want to bring something to light, that it wasn’t going to be easy, that there was going to be a tremendous amount of resistance. And also to listen, because… Not understanding then at that time, but putting this all in perspective years later, the work that I was doing later was to understand the position that the workers… That they were in a similar position, whether you’re a correctional service officer, whether you’re a servant… A public servant, whatever, you’re also stuck in a system and the system is rigged to work a certain way. It’s to maintain the status quo. And so that was an early teaching that I hadn’t quite grasped at that time, but I held on to that experience later on, and I was able to reflect back on it of why these women and people who saw what we were doing were so angry… It inspired us, because we figured, well, we’re hitting the right buttons, but… The reaction was a lot more extreme than we expected, and we had to understand why it was that extreme, what triggered those kinds of emotions.
So that was sort of my foray, my beginning to understand… The separations within society, certainly starting from class as a child of new Canadians, of immigrants, having to understand English… It was not my first language, it wasn’t my second language, wasn’t my third language. So having to learn to communicate within that society at that time, learning where my place was, learning that I didn’t want to be at that level in that place, learning that I had to fight to do certain things to get out of that position, learning that there were… Even at that low-class structure that I was, there were people even below me, so… Earlier on, I started to understand… I started to see, maybe not understand what the differences were, and it wasn’t until much later, certainly into my 30s that I began to realize that I could use theatre, which by the time I was in my 30s, I’d been doing traditional mainstream theatre for about 10 years, not being very satisfied with it… Discovering that there was another form of theatre out there that was connecting with people, connecting with issues, that was being used to analyze what was happening in society, to challenge what was happening in society, to work with communities… That I was able to reflect back on my youth and the experiences that I had as teachings that I could then reapply to what I was doing or wanted to do.
So being dissatisfied with working in mainstream theatre… I was working in Edmonton… Late 70s into the early 80s… For a couple of years, I was working out of the Citadel Theatre, which is a main regional theatre in Western Canada… This was at the time when they didn’t have an artistic director, so they would have guest artistic directors coming in… And I would work with them, and they had me work and had me on contract as an assistant director. But I could see the road that they were paving for me to potentially take over the theatre, but they wanted me to operate in a specific way, the producers, and I didn’t quite see myself going down that road.
I was starting to feel dissatisfied with what the work was doing. They would have some incredible artists, you’ve had classics from the canon of Western theatre being produced there, whether it’s Shakespeare or Shaw, or, you know, in more current work of, you know, August Wilson and so on. And incredible artists at the time, theatre artists, or they would bring in, you know… More famous stars from screen and so on to highlight some of the shows, because the Citadel Theatre had money, it was the prime regional theatre of Western Canada. You would have the Manitoba Theatre Centre, you would have the Citadel Theatre, and that’s it in Western Canada, essentially, the big, big theatres. So was Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, and, you know, The Belfry in Victoria and so on, but in terms of operating on multi-million dollar budgets… So I was dissatisfied despite the fact that they have all these wonderful artists and terrific work. Coming out of a show, after seeing whatever it was… You know, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, you’d be impressed by the performance, but you’d still be left a little cold… At least I was… I would see multi-million dollar productions… I was loosely involved with the stage adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Duddy Kravitz. Fantastic Canadian novel, and that’s where it should lie… Made a pretty good film, you know… Richard Dreyfuss, I think, played Duddy… But we brought in Lonny Price and a vast array of great authors and actors, and… They got Steiber, the guys who used to write for Elvis Presley to write the musical score, because it was going to be a big musical… Horrible experience… Two-million dollar production at that time, 1982, 1983… And that was a turning point for me to say that I don’t want to be doing this anymore, that… Theatre could be for something else.
So while living in Edmonton, I was able to… Because I also worked in Winnipeg and in Calgary and in Victoria, one of the… Things that struck me most that I hadn’t had the experience growing up in Eastern Canada, was the Indigenous population… When I first went out to Edmonton, I worked at what was then Theatre 3… Then it became Phoenix Theatre… And Theatre 3 had this wonderful little space which was right by the tracks… 95th Street, and behind was a salvage yard, and unfortunately… And we’re talking, again, late 70s… Many of the urban Indigenous people would find shelter in the salvage yard, and there were days when… Particularly in the wintertime when, you know, there would there be sirens and interrupt our work. And we’d go and look at the back where the shop entrance was, and… You would have the fire department coming in with hoses because it was so cold that people would freeze to the ground, and when they died, they couldn’t remove them. They would ask the fire department to come in to basically wash them down to de-ice them so they can pick up the bodies and remove them. And, you know, for someone who… Lived a fairly urban lifestyle… Ottawa had its own subculture. There was a certain amount of violence that I’d seen, but there was never so much disregard for humans as I’d seen there. The treatment of the Indigenous people… The poverty, the consistent poverty, the willful disregard by policymakers and lawmakers to not address the issue of the separation of… White European, ordinary… What we‘d call ordinary citizens of Edmonton, of Regina, of Winnipeg (because I lived in Winnipeg for a year) and the systemic racism there was overwhelming… That brought home to me something beyond classism. I’d never faced racism before. I’d felt cultural differences in terms of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and, you know, the poor Europeans coming in… But this was my first experience of real evident racism… Inviolable, irreputable… And I didn’t know how to deal with it at the time… I was consumed, of course, early career, entering your early 20s, and you want to get that going… You’re not having time or having the tools how to deal with it. But that left an overwhelming impression for me so that when I wanted to change careers or at least start using theatre in a different way for myself, that was certainly one of the… Images, one of the influences for me…
The early years of my class awareness, that first introduction to a general racism… It wasn’t until a few years later, actually… I had an experience… That challenged my own racism… But this was in Italy, ironically. It was the year after my father passed away, my sister and I took my mother to Italy so that she could be with her family because we were the only one of our family here in Canada, and… For people who may not know, Italy does not have a great record in dealing with races. Their colonialist history in Africa is evident today within society, and at the time… This was 1983. Again, I hadn’t realized what a turning year that was for me…
I was on this bus on my own in Italy, and… The part of Italy that I’m from is, long story short, it’s a very different language. It has its own language, its own root of language. And I’m on this city bus that’s taking me out of this main city, Ravenna, to the little village where I’m staying with my mother and sister, and I’m one of two people on the bus. And the bus stops, and this woman gets on, and she’s obviously… East African, and she gets on and she starts talking to the bus driver, and I realize she’s talking in Friulana, which is a very different language from Italian, and I’m about halfway, two-thirds of the way down the bus and I’m listening to this conversation, and I’m starting to feel myself getting a little jealous, getting a little angry as to why this young Black woman is speaking my language to the bus driver, and that’s when it hit me that I have absolutely no right to think that way, to feel that way, that that woman was probably born there, she had more rights than I did. I was born in Canada, I’m the newcomer… I’m the trespasser there, you know? So that was another big, big teaching for me. I will always, always remember that, and that personal experience triggered into understanding… The class differences, how I treated French Canadians, the French Canadians’ treatment of me, my experiences with the Indigenous people in Edmonton and the community there… All started to interweave… And I wanted to see how I could use my theatre experience, my theatre work to try to make things different.
So it was around 1982, 1983, I was finishing up my term at Citadel Theatre, and at the time in Canada, there was what was called a Popular Theatre movement, “popular” as in “of the people,” and there was an alliance across Canada of theatre groups and individuals who were doing this kind of theatre. At the time it was called Popular Theatre, then it became… Theatre in Education… Today it’s called Applied Theatre… But essentially, you’re using theatre to work with particular communities that are disenfranchised or having struggles within society to tell their stories, to try to change policy, to find some sort of equanimity within society. And every second year, this alliance of Canadian popular theatres and theatre workers would have a little conference, a little festival in different parts of Canada. That year, ’83, it was in Edmonton. And I’d heard of it circuitously, I can’t remember how and where, but I was able to attend some of the events and workshops that some of these people were doing and that’s when things tweaked for me where I began to understand how art could be used differently, theatre could be a tool that could change things… That working within a community, it would change not only within the community that reaffirmation that they have purpose… They have a right to be there, to exist… But that they can take that message out to the rest of society and try to get society to open up as well to them, to understand what was happening, to challenge the status quo.
I moved back to Ontario in ’85. I got connected with some friends who were doing some community work and suggested we could start using theatre to do some work with communities… Art involvement and so on, and it started to happen.
A year later, I took a workshop with someone who had been working with Augusto Boal… Boal was a Latin American out of Brazil, and worked in Argentina as well, developing a methodology of theatre called Theatre of the Oppressed, which is… A whole arsenal of different theatre techniques… Image Theatre, Newspaper Theatre, Invisible Theatre… And the more famous of the methodologies, of the disciplines is Forum Theatre…
Forum Theatre is a form of interactive theatre, very egalitarian, very democratic, where the audience gets to replace some of the characters on stage. You pose a problem, a scene, you create a scene with a problem that a community is facing, so if you’re dealing with the homeless, you’re dealing with problems with someone living on the street, and they can’t get out of that situation. You present this play, then you repeat the scenario and the audience then gets a chance to replace some of the characters to try to find answers, options, possible solutions to these kinds of things. So it’s role-playing options, problem solving… Very effective! The United Nations has… Acknowledged that the Forum Theatre is a great tool to fight literacy, or illiteracy, and homelessness around the world… So Ionesco is a hundred percent behind this methodology. It came out of… Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed… And Freire is as an icon of modern education. And this tweaked me on to… This could be a great tool to work with communities. This is a fantastic tool, how we can instigate… Initiate social change. And that’s when I began focusing more and more on my work since then, from 1986, 1987, working with diverse communities…
One of the first projects I did actually was with actors. Since it was a lot of theatre practitioners who took this workshop, we looked into ourselves and said, what are the problems that we’re facing? And that was… One of the first productions that I was involved with was looking within Toronto, what young actresses were having to deal with, what female actresses were having to deal with, which was the famous casting couch; if you want to get a role, you may have to put out at that time. There were a lot of young men who were facing the same thing at the time as well… But ironically, very little has changed since then. And I’m ashamed to say that it took the whole Me Too movement for this issue to finally explode, to become public… We tried to address it… Back in ’86, ’87, here in Toronto anyways, but it’s interesting that it took people within the arts community, within the film industry and theatre community to make it known that… Sexual assault, sexual manipulation within the workplace is unacceptable… So that’s one of the things I’m a little bit proud of, that we were sort of on the cusp of that going in.
And a lot of the earlier work we did was with landlord / tenant issues and dealing with homeless youth and homeless adults, and the difference, certainly in Toronto, between adults who’ve been living on the street and street youth… Certainly for homeless adults, it opened the door to psychiatric issues and then starting to work with psychiatric survivors, and… Workman’s theatre that operated out of the Queen Street West mental health institute, and working with them, and issues that psychiatric survivors faced every day as opposed to street youth where a lot of the issues that forced youth out on the streets, that… Pushed them out of their families was issues of gender identity and sexuality, which later developed into mental health issues. Having to live on the street when you’re 16, 17 years old, and to survive, it’s going to cause a certain amount of mental stress. But the initial push of why they wound up on the streets was around a gender identity, and so starting to work with youth around and in the LGBTQ+ community around issues like that. So using theatre as that tool, as a voice for them to not only express themselves, but to show society outside their own community what is going on and forcing policymakers, lawmakers to address these kinds of issues…
Another project that I’m really proud of was… Working with newcomer women, women immigrants who experienced a lot of sexual harassment, particularly on public transit… And we did a piece that… We took around to community centres and so on, to… Places that had English as a second language, where these women were learning… English so they could operate better in Toronto… Society, and at one event, we had some public officials show up, some representatives from the TTC and so on… This would have been ’93, ’94… And one of the scenarios we had was that a woman was being harassed on the bus, didn’t know what to do. And so one of these officials got up and said, “Well just go to the bus driver because the bus driver will help you out. That’s what they’re there for.” And the response was, well, no, because look at the way they’re dressed. They’re military, and for a lot of these women, where they came from into Canada, the military was not a good source… A sense of fairness… A positive influence in their society… The military was a sense of oppression. They’ve come from countries that were controlled by the military, where the military killed their family and so on.
So the TTC was at that time undergoing a review of their uniforms, because at the time… The TTC had very military uniforms, they had the epaulettes and they had the peaked hats, very military. They had slacks with the stripes down the sides. They had to wear their jackets with the cravats because they came out of a military background, and they wanted to continue that. But when they heard that people, citizens of Toronto were put off by the uniforms, they had a turn-about-face, and what we see today is very different from the uniforms that they intended. So I’m kind of proud that we had a little bit of an influence in changing that. They also… Incorporated at the time… You don’t see it now, but at all the ticket booths at the subway stations and above the drivers on the streetcars and buses, they had signs in four different languages posted that if there was any problem, that you could please address the driver. It was in Italian, Portuguese, French, and I believe Mandarin… Chinese… So that came out of a Forum Theatre performance using theatre as a tool for social change.
So we had a lot of… Influences, certainly here in Toronto in the early years… We were able to remove doors… A lot of the younger generation won’t… Connect with the fact that there used to be telephone booths, public pay phones… Bell Canada used to have these payphones on street corners and so on, and… You’d enter these booths… They used to have these folding doors to push in so you’d have some privacy when you make your phone call, and what happened was that if you were visually impaired, you would often have a problem trying to get out. You push your way in, but trying to find the lever to get yourself out because the doors pulled inward, it was often problematic. So people who were visually impaired were often trapped in these phone booths. And again, similar situation, we did this performance around that kind of issue, and within a year, Bell went around and started removing all these doors from the telephone booths. So we see that at that, kind of on a municipal level, certainly, it can have an effect.
The goal was, of course, to change society as a whole. How else can we go from helping street youth in one particular city resolve their issues? How can we deal with street youth, the street youth across the country? How could we deal with communities who are having issues around gender identity and homosexuality around the country, beyond the country? How could we deal with it around the world?
Now what I’m doing more and more of today is creating online Forum Theatre… Work, to be able to have audiences around the world participate in issues that… Can reverberate for them as well, you know? Dealing with gender rights isn’t just a Canadian issue, it’s happening around the world… It’s taking backwards steps in certain parts of the world, certainly in the Middle East. For every step forward, you take two steps backwards… We’re seeing that in sub-Saharan Africa… Even in, you know, women’s rights, simple reproductive rights… We see where Ireland just this year has allowed women the right… To decide whether to have abortions or not, it’s their right… So these kinds of things can connect us that we’re seeing, that people around the world, our different communities around the world are being united in our struggles to find… To deal with the systemic oppressions, and we’re finding ways to use our art, adapting the technology to our art, to the art that we’re doing, to the theatre that we’re doing to be able to address these kinds of issues.
And living in the digital age, it allows us to communicate much easier… And broader around the world, so it gives us access to see what other people are doing, the success that they’re having, the challenges that they’re facing reflect back to ourselves. And one of the things that… I’m noticing is that so many of the people doing this work today are of the younger generation… I’m fortunate enough, I’m… As I keep telling people, this road that I’ve taken was never of my choosing… It seems that I’ve fallen into this path all the time and other people have prepared for me, and… I feel blessed that I’ve been able to take this route, and one of the blessings that I’m having today is that I have… People asking me to work with me to train young people… I’m working with a couple of young people right now… They’re calling me their mentor… I don’t want to wear that mantle. I don’t think I deserve it… But I do want to share whatever I can, whatever experiences I have had and I’m doing with them right now. And I see this incredible energy, this will, this intensity to make a change that’s coming from them that I don’t think I ever had, you know? I was more of a sit-back-observe kind of guy, and if I saw things happening… I might lean that way, and then suddenly someone would push me in that direction and I’d be involved, but what I see now is that this wave of a couple of generations coming up behind me who really are pressing… They want to make changes. They see things in a light that I haven’t had an experience in seeing before.
So the modern technology has allowed me to connect with a variety of groups and individuals around the world who are doing some outstanding work today… And I’m inspired by where they’re going and how they’re doing it, and the intensity and the purpose… Whether it’s working with Theatre of the Oppressed work, or whether it’s working with non-violent communication and different problem-solving techniques, using theatre in that direction. They’re clear, they’re articulate, smart. They have a much, much better grasp of issues than certainly I had when I would… Enter and work with a community. So I see a lot of positives, a lot of potential for the younger generation in dealing with our problems that we’re dealing with today. I think communities are fortunate to have a younger generation who want things to change, who see that there is potential, that can identify with the problems, have a better grasp of the problems.
But at the same time, it’s always that flip of the coin, the double-edged sword… That where the problems are still there and getting worse… Or at least as I’m seeing it, the… Worse thing that’s reflected in politics and the extremism in politics, there doesn’t seem to be middle ground anymore, you know? And that’s reflected in how issues are being dealt with, whether, you know, the Black Lives Matter, the extreme opinions that has exacerbated… And now it’s happening with the Asian community as well, there’s been such a polarization that we really need something to bring us together, a platform that’ll allow us some sort of discourse.
I think theatre and the arts is a tool to be able to do that… That will allow us to see these kinds of issues in a new light, to be able to show both perspectives so that people can understand both sides. And I think the younger generation has a means now. There have been a couple of generations, decades of these various tools that are out there, different theatre disciplines, different art forms, and the technology that allows the expansion of these different kinds of art forms and the birth of new art forms that they can utilize and try to address some of these problems, try to address the extreme issues, try to bring people together. But it’s a tremendous challenge because people seem to be locked into their ideologies, and I don’t know where, how those ideologies were formed, that’s beyond me… I just know that they’re there, that they’re within the system… And that using theatre and arts as a tool can mediate these different bodies to deal with one another.
So I think that in the 35 years or so of working with Theatre of the Oppressed and different kinds of theatre as tools for social change, I’ve seen the effectiveness of it. It’s efficacious, it’s consistent. It’s dangerous, because what it does do is not only strip away the obvious… Layers of discrimination and oppression within society… But it reflects back into we, as a process, what are our layers of bias that we bring into the work as well. So it constantly challenges us, and I’m delighted that there are generations coming up who are going to be using this work and expanding it and adapting it to face the challenges that they’re going to be facing long after I’m gone, and hopefully to continue using these tools, continue using theatre and the digital arts and mainstream theatre and song and dance and whatever it takes to make a better world for themselves, for us.