November 16, 2007

Bill Virchis, a living legend in performing arts education

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

One of the oldest photographs that William “Bill” Virchis has of him in the performing arts, is where, at nine years old, he appears with his mother holding a $5 guitar she had bought him in Tijuana.

“There I was, with that little guitar, and today, more than 50 years later, I never imagined I was going to help other children like me become involved in the performing arts,” said Virchis, who’s considered one of the founding fathers of Chicano theatre and one of the most important performing arts educators in San Diego County.

Virchis will retire from his job as director of the Visual Arts and Performing Arts Department at Sweetwater Union High School District in April. He had planned to retire in December, but due to several projects that came up, such as him directing a musical on the life of campesino leader Cesar Chavez, he’ll wait a few more months.

“It’s time to leave the ship for another captain,” said Virchis.

On November 29, the Southwestern College Chicano Latino Coalition will have a banquet and tribute for Virchis as a recognition for his more than 30 years in performing arts education. Among the invited guests are actors Edward James Olmos and Mario Lopez, and comedian Paul Rodriguez.

“This celebration isn’t just about me. It’s about everybody who has supported me,” he said.

Virchis truly deserves this tribute—and many more.

Born in Mexico City 63 years ago, he and his family moved to Tijuana in 1951, when he was seven years old. The family moved to Chula Vista a year or so after that. Here in San Diego County, due to the racist climate of the 1950’s, at school his name was changed from his original “Guillermo” to the Americanized “William.”

In Mexico, his father was part of the initial management of AeroMexico. He traveled a lot in Mexico and the United States, meeting people from different backgrounds. His mother was a declamadora who instilled in Virchis a love for poetry and the spoken word.

This diverse and nurturing environment for the arts helped young Virchis develop a strong background in the performing arts.

His house was always visited by his parents’ friends, which included artists, politicians, and writers in Mexico.

“I was always surrounded by art at home,” he said.

He was able to share that great background in the arts with other students through his work as a professor at Southwestern College, from which he moved on to Sweetwater six years ago to direct the Visual and Performing Arts Department.

Resides teaching, Virchis has directed numerous productions at theatres across the U.S., including The Old Globe and The San Diego REP.

In six years, the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Sweetwater has become a model program for other school districts in the state.

“This opportunity of working with young students has been an incredible opportunity and gift. It’s never really been work. I would’ve done this for free!” he said. “When you work with young people you live each moment to the fullest. It keeps me young”

In the ‘90s, when Chicano and Latino students began to enroll in large numbers at Southwestern, Virchis said that it changed the way he was teaching theatre.

“When Chicanos started filling up my classrooms I had to change the curriculum and include more Chicano plays with which they could identify and relate to.”

Dr. Jorge Huerta, professor of theatre and associate chancellor and chief diversity officer at the University of California, San Diego, met Virchis in 1975.

Years later, their love for theatre led them to found and co-direct Teatro Mascara Magica in 1990.

Eastlake High School hosts a play directed by local legend William Virchis. Photo by JD Hawk.

“Bill has trained so many wonderful students not only in theatre, but also in film and television. He created opportunities for so many people. He’s had an incredible impact for students from every background, but for Chicano students, especially, he’s been a role model. He’s a true, true teacher. He’s become a legend in his lifetime.”

Craig Noel, former artistic director of The Old Globe Theatre, said he worked with Virchis for many years. He added that Virchis was able to reach out to young people from disadvantage backgrounds.

“He´s done a great deal for the education of kids in the South Bay,” Noel said.

Jaime Mercado, board member of the Sweetwater Union High School District school board, said that Virchis has changed the performing arts scene for thousands of youth in the South Bay.

“He was a visionary, and not only that, he has a tremendous talent. He’s also very charismatic,” said Mercado, who has more than 30 years in education at Sweetwater. “It’s been great to work with him.”

Virchis said he’ll try to find a permanent home for Teatro Mascara Magica. He also said that the theatre company will try to begin staging Spanish-language plays, bringing artists from Mexico.

“I’m going to retire, but I won’t just sit around. I have so many plans. I have so much energy.”

The tribute/dinner for Bill Virchis will be on Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. at Chuey’s Restaurant & Cantina in Barrio Logan. More information at (619) 482-6508 or (619) 421-6700, Ext. 5669.

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