‘Altar’ a one-character play with a voice for many

Santiago Guzmán and the Resource Centre for the Arts seek to engage the community in unique ways with their show Altar.

Alex Wicks
Kicker

Candles and balled-up papers sit on the community altar in the Cox and Palmer Second Place room at the LSPU Hall. The Resource Centre for the Arts and the ALTAR team are taking donations to their community altar to donate to organizations in St. John's.
Candles and balled-up papers sit on the community altar in the Cox and Palmer Second Place room at the LSPU Hall. The Resource Centre for the Arts and the team of the show called Altar are taking donations for their community altar to donate to organizations in St. John’s. Alex Wicks/Kicker

The LSPU Hall in St. John’s was filled with smiles, laughter and a few tears as Altar took to the stage on Friday

Altar features voices, perspectives and stories of the community that its creative team says people need to hear. 

Altar is the fictional story of Eugenio, a young queer immigrant new to St. John’s. After being “ghosted” by Benjamin, a man he fell deeply in love with, Eugenio builds an altar to try to summon Benjamin’s ‘ghost’ to sort out the end of their relationship. 

The altar featured in the show resembles the Mexican tradition of building altars for the Day of the Dead by presenting food, tokens of appreciation, and photographs to celebrate departed loved ones. 

The Day of the Dead is typically celebrated on the first and second of November.

Santiago Guzmán, playwright and performer of Altar, says the fact that the play’s debut overlapped the Day of the Dead weekend was more coincidence than intent. 

Santiago Guzmán, playwright and performer of ALTAR stands in front of a sign featuring the show.
Santiago Guzmán, playwright and performer of Altar, stands in front of a sign featuring the show. Guzmán emphasizes the need for diverse voices on stage. Alex Wicks/Kicker

The show, which is set in March, was supposed to premiere in April 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. 

Azal Dosanjh, stage manager for Altar, said the coincidence makes it “a little more special.” 

According to Guzmán, Altar tells a story with important community significance.

Eugenio, the one and only character, is fictional but Guzmán writes Eugenio to feature a voice he says has always been relevant but not always seen.

“I am here, I live here. I am queer, I am brown, and I am an immigrant. Those three identities and their intersections really shape my experience in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Guzmán. “Newfoundland and Labrador is also my home.” 

Guzmán emphasized the need to make space for stories of people who are trying to find their place and understand their identity.

“We haven’t seen [the stories]. Or at least here locally.” 

Dosanjh says working on the show has been a really special experience. 

“It’s really nice to see that a show about immigrants and a show about cultural exchange involves a stage manager who has also been through a lot of that and experienced a lot of that,” said Dosanjh. 

Azal Dosanjh, stage manager of ALTAR downtown St. John's. Dosanjh says working on the show has been a really special experience.
Azal Dosanjh, stage manager of Altar in downtown St. John’s, says working on the show has been a really special experience. Alex Wicks/ Kicker

Community inclusion

When given the opportunity to feature this show, the team of Altar and the Resource Centre for the Arts realized there was an opportunity to feature more voices and engage the community. 

“How am I building community? How am I sharing the very little resources, the space, [and] the platform that I have to do something meaningful? Otherwise, what’s the point?” asked Guzmán.

Each performance of Altar will begin with a “curtain-raiser.” The curtain-raiser is a short performance before the show begins, which gives an opportunity for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) artists to feature their stories, poems and dances. 

Guzmán says when they called for submissions for the curtain raisers, they received 16 submissions. 

Each performance of Altar will feature one of the chosen submissions. 

The Resource Centre for the Arts is also accepting donations to what they are calling their “community altar.” 

The Resource Centre for the Arts is encouraging audience members to bring donations such as non-perishable food items, clothing, bedding, smartphones and personal items for the altar. Donations will later be given to local organizations, including the CNIB Foundation, the Gathering Place, the St. John’s Women’s Centre and Bridges to Hope.

The team is also encouraging people to bring photos of deceased loved ones to the community altar to honour their memory and pay homage to the Day of the Dead tradition. 

More information on the community altar – including the items requested by the various charities – can be found on the Resource Centre for the Arts website

Not a one-person show

Guzmán also stressed the importance of recognizing the work that happens behind the scenes. Though it’s a one-person performance, he says it is far bigger. 

“It’s not a one-person show,” said Guzmán, crediting everyone who has had a hand in making Altar possible. 

“As you can tell, this little show is way more than a little show.” 

Altar will also be making its way to Corner Brook for three special performances at the Rotary Arts Centre from Nov. 12-14. 

“I don’t think Corner Brook will ever get to see a show like this,” said Dosanjh. “I’m very happy to be a part of it.”

The team also hopes to tour junior high and high schools next year. 

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