A Love Letter To Ancon Theater Guild In Panama
In 2005, I arrived in Panama fresh from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina gave me very little to go home to. I am fortunate enough to have not been destitute or damaged from that storm, but my home city would never be the same. And there was me – a freshly minted expat that did not really fit in to the typical Panama expat mold. I was twenty-eight, spoke no Spanish, and only knew one person who happened to be in his 80’s and the great-uncle of an American friend. I had no social outlet at all. I am a strange, introverted person that has never felt comfortable in social situations. I make friends about as easily as The Swiss Family Robinson made ice. This worried me greatly. How could I be happy in a place where I am illiterate, have no friends and no social outlet? I have struggled with depression since childhood, so the reality of this was a frightening one.
I spent a year in Panama struggling with the adjustment to expat life. The simple things were easy enough – the basic day to day things, but the more emotional aspects were difficult. I made friends but they were the kind of friendships that sort of rotate in and out. People came and went. I never really felt close to anyone. Closeness is very difficult for me and always has been. That year in Panama was wondrous in it’s own way, but it was also very lonely. Then one day my husband saw a notice online for a theater in the city that was looking for volunteers. We gave them a call. Everything changed.
The Guild is based at a rickety old building next door to where the police station used to be. If you ask a taxi to take you there, they probably won’t find it. It is a remnant of the Canal Zone years, when Americans populated the majority of that section. Started in the early 1950’s, the Guild has produced hundreds of plays and performances, mostly in English with a mix of expats from all over and Panamanians. The theater could use a remodel, but a great part of it’s charm is it’s 60+ years of history that you can see and feel in the patina doors, the old theater seats and the wood grain of the stage.
It is a good theater, and it feels right when you’re there. I grew up in theater. I have been in hundreds of theaters from the Mid-West USA to New York and London. I went to performing arts school in Manhattan and performed at Lincoln Center. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful theaters in the world and performed in some of them. You wanna know what my favorite theater is? This little 115 seat, rickety, outdated little place full of volunteers and love. It is amateur theater, community theater basically, and it changed my life for the better more than the big places in London and New York. I made friends instantly with both expats, Canal Zone descendants, embassy workers, Panamanians, Americans, Germans, Brits, Canadians, Chileans, Venezuelans… this place welcome everyone as they are all out to do the same thing; be creative, have fun and put on a damn good show.
Performing at The Guild was always fun, always involved, always supportive and always the best cure for my bouts of depression. I made friendships that have lasted a decade and I expect will last a lifetime. I made friendships that are closer than any I have ever had. The Guild cast and crew were even kind enough to work around my schedule when it came to my illness, and fully supported me as an artist and as a friend. In summary- they are damn good people. Like all theaters, there will always be the inner politics, the bouts of bickering and the drama. Of course. That goes with the territory, but this little theater tends to always move past that and rise above it in the end. Somehow, eventually hugs always win.
The Guild does several shows a season (usually) and there are holiday shows too. More recently the theater has been host to Panama City’s “Improv 8” – an improv and sketch comedy troupe with many members coming out of the Guild. (They are fantastic- if you haven’t seen them, you are missing out!) and The Guild’s theater facility sometimes hosts events like jazz concerts, parties and art exhibitions. It has been a staple of social, creative and fun life for English speaking expats in Panama for over 60 years. Check them out. Support them. Get a membership – it is worth it. You don’t need experience to be in one of their shows (but talent helps) and there are plenty of things you can do if you don’t have the acting bug: costuming, lighting, set design, props, help in the box office, etc. You’ll meet people, usually really nice people. Sometimes crazy people. Sometimes eccentric people. It will most likely enrich your life. And don’t be shy. In fact, if you are nervous about the whole thing, drop me an email. I’ll go with you.
Check out upcoming shows, auditions and other information at TGA’s website:
And to all my friends in Panama who have changed my life for the better, sincerely, thank you.