When Rosa Labordé arrives, shifting effortlessly between a very Canadian English and a Chilean accented Spanish, she’s all apologies. She’s only a little bit late, and with a good reason (her cat was very sick and she had to run to the vet), but it’s not easy to convince her it’s all good. Truly Canadian. Truly Chilean, too: “You know, we people from Latin America, we have this reputation…”
After climbing a narrow flight of stairs we end up in the artistic director’s office, a small but cozy place with a nice natural light coming through the window (Toronto’s fall at its best), but probably not as interesting as the stage itself. “That would have been better,” she admits, “I’m sorry it’s closed.” Again, no big deal. We are at the heart of the Tarragon Theatre, one of the main centres for contemporary play-writing in Canada, so no complaints. Opened in 1970, the theatre has premiered over 170 works, including plays by Morwyn Brebner, David French, Michael Healey, Joan MacLeod, Morris Panych, James Reaney, Jason Sherman, Brendan Gall and Judith Thompson. We are, in other words, in Rosa Labordé’s most familiar territory.
And you can tell. It hasn’t been an easy morning for her, but, somehow, you could say that she’s reconnecting just by being in the building. On the wall outside, sharing space with two other plays, hangs the poster of her latest premiere, the already critically acclaimed Marine Life, on stage until December 17th.
Ottawa-born Rosa Labordé is one of those names you should have in mind if you care about what’s going on in contemporary Canadian theatre. Or even in television, for that matter. At only 38, she already has quite an impressive curriculum. A playwright, screenwriter, director and actress, she was a finalist for the Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award, the Dora award and the Canadian Screen Award, and she has also received the K.M. Hunter Artist’s Award for Theatre. She is a graduate of both The Oxford School of Drama in England and the Canadian Film Centre, and is currently playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre and the Aluna Theatre.
Her plays, including True, Like Wolves, Hush, Sugar (a Toronto Fringe hit, voted Outstanding New Play by Now magazine), The Source, and especially Leo (her approach to the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship through the filter of a teenager’s love triangle), have been produced throughout Canada. She has also developed numerous television and film projects for Sullivan Entertainment, Rhombus Media, Pier 21, Alcina Pictures, House of Films, Entertainment-One, Frantic Films, Big Coat and Force Four, and the networks CBC, Shaw-Global and CTV Bell-Media. In 2016 she wrote the first two episodes of the second season of HBO Canada’s Sensitive Skin.
Born to a Chilean mother and a Canadian father with German and Polish-Ukranian background, Labordé’s family past is deeply linked to stories of persecution and repression, with the Chilean dictatorship shadowing her mother’s side, and the Holocaust haunting the memories of the survivors on her father’s part of the tree. It’s probably a good antidote against cynicism, and also a reminder that, even if threats change, and some things are just impossible to compare, it’s never too late to care and to be aware of the fragility of the world we inhabit. That would be, adding some comedy to it, what Marine Life is about.
A radical ecological activist falls in love with a man who has a secret dependency on plastic… Marine Life, your new play, really works like a classic romantic comedy. And there are indeed plenty of cracking and funny moments. Why did you decide to approach something as dramatic as the environmental crisis of our time with humour?
To talk about something like our environment right now, it’s so intense and so serious, that I don’t think people will necessarily listen. And when you explore a topic that has such gravity with levity, you allow people to listen more. Also, I love comedy, and I think we separate too much the genres. People want things to be serious or funny, and if it’s serious it’s serious, and if it’s funny, it can’t be about very serious subjects. For me, in life, and I think that’s part of me being the daughter of a coup, there is comedy and there is tragedy. Always. Even in the darkest times. Someone makes someone laugh, and that’s part of how we live. They go together.
That freedom with genres seems to be a very distinctive characteristic of your career as a playwright. Sugar was pure comedy, then you dealt with serious family stuff in Hush, where you even touched on the challenges of mental problems, and you also wrote something very social and political like Leo.
Yes. What’s more interesting to me is the story that needs to be told. More than whatever genre that story fits into.
What was that story, in the case of Marine Life?
Marine Life is about these two people who should not really be together. I know, like every romantic comedy… She’s an activist, he’s a corporate lawyer, they’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum. But what the play is ultimately about is the fact that we all need to work together. More than anything allegoric, it’s a metaphor for this time, and I thought the way to do that was to be playful, and to make the whole thing a metaphor. They’re also fish out of water, just like me, when I’m not home here, and I’m not home there either.
Would you say that the use of humour is also a way to avoid the temptation of being didactic, or even paternalistic?
Exactly. I’m not a fan of didacticism. I don’t think it’s fun to go out to the theatre, and pay money, and be lectured.
No ‘Save the whales’?
Absolutely not. This is about our flaws as human beings, our self-destructive tendencies, and how they reverberate into the way that we treat our planet, and that they’re not separable. It’s about becoming more human and more kind with each other. And that is at the bottom, at the heart of the play. But I meet so many people who used to go to the theatre and don’t go anymore, because they were tired of feeling bad. They were just tired of going to plays and leaving feeling bad. There are so many serious subjects! And these are people who would go, who had subscriptions, who would pay their money to go and decided they didn’t want to do that anymore. I really think that to create something that is entertaining, but still about something, is the direction to go if we want to make people leave their homes.
How present is your Chilean background in your life and your work?
I was born in Ottawa, and I’ve been in Toronto for about fifteen years. I came here to make my career, because there was more work. But I go to Chile very often, I still have a lot of family there. It has always been been a part of my life. Mi primera lengua fue el español, todas las comidas, todas las canciones que conozco, everything in my niñez was primarily Chilean, in many ways. En mi casa, with mi mamá (she was very young, seventeen, when she came to Canada), we spoke both English and Spanish, and Spanish is still the language of our love. Cuando nos sentimos cariñosos, that’s what we speak.
Your play Leo is about three teenagers living through that tumultuous part of their lives in the very troubled moment that was Chile before and after the 1973 military coup that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed General Pinochet as dictator. How did the situation in Chile during that dark period become a significant part of your work, and why teenagers?
I began writing Leo when I was in Thailand, in Bangkok, where I was volunteering with a foundation that helps orphans, really in the slums of Bangkok. And there it became apparent to me so much of what my mother and my grandmother had been fighting for, which was basic human rights in Chile at that time, things that in Canada we take for granted. I just thought about how much you believe that you can make a difference when you’re young. And I could see already in Thailand (also very rich, very wealthy) the disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. So I thought of that notion of being fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and thinking, “This isn’t fair, we’re going to change it,” but at the same time seeing these corporate giants, these huge corporate and political entities that won’t really let that happen. That was what really inspired me to write it. Salvador Allende said that to be young and not to be a revolutionary is a contradiction in terms, and I thought that was a beautiful statement that I wanted to explore in the play. The desire to make changes in a world that in many ways can be unchangeable.
I don’t care about opening nights. Attention can be both frightening and pleasant, it depends. But making things, just making things, is so exciting to me.
Your family also plays a very important role in your plays.
My family is the most important thing in my life, so it would be surprising if they didn’t end up in my work. It happened with my play True, which I didn’t think was about my family at all, since it was very specifically a take on King Lear. My sister came, and my tía came, and they said, “Oh, so you wrote about the family,” and I said, “What?” And then I looked to it and they were right. I hadn’t even been aware of it, which is scary. I don’t think we can escape our origins. At some point we have to completely embrace, explore, understand, and that’s what makes us interesting humans, different from the animals. Where do we come from, why, who we are. How did that shape the way I see things, versus how that shaped the way this person saw things, and how one is more right than the other just because of how our perception have been moulded by the experiences we had growing up.
What are you working on now?
Apart from Marine Life, which is now on stage here, at Tarragon, I’ve created a web series about social media and how we wish ourselves to be seen versus how we are in reality. I’m also writing a couple of television shows, Five Eyes [a one-hour intelligence thriller created by Paul Gross and John Krizanc] and Killing It [with Susan Coyne, co-creator and co-star of the award-winning Slings and Arrows], both for CBC.
You write, you produce, you direct, you act… Is there a need of being in control of the whole process?
In a good way?
In a good way.
It’s the European way, I guess, to do more than one thing, I mean. Here people want you to just be a writer, just be a director, just be a producer. I’m really interested in every aspect of creation, and I love the process of creation more than I love anything else. I don’t care about opening nights. Attention can be both frightening and pleasant, it really depends. But making things, just making things, is so exciting to me. So every aspect of it that I can be a part of, I’m excited about. It can be a lot, though, sometimes. But, also, in this business you have to stay busy.
Having been on both sides of the stage, what’s the main difference for you in the perceptions you have when you’re acting instead of directing?
It’s a completely different experience. You are in it in a completely different way. You get to be very self-focused, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. You’re thinking about how do I feel, how’s this affecting me. Everything is about keeping the instrument in a very good emotional shape, to be prepared, to work. I really love it, and it’s also a great relief of the adrenaline.
You are currently playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre and also at Aluna Theatre. How has the experience been so far?
I’ve been in-residence at Tarragon for a long time. It’s one of my favourite theatres in the world, I love it here. And I was in-residence in Aluna when I was writing this play [Marine Life]. It’s great to have relationships with theatres. You can come to shows, you have artistic feedback, people to talk to…
You said once in an interview: “The theatre is my life. It’s where I’m going to stay.” Is it still?
I suppose it is in the sense that this is all I’ve done and all I do, but at the same time I do spend a lot of time thinking about what life is. In theatre sometimes we try to distill moments of life that are beautiful, or moving, or important, the touchstones of our lives, and we bring them into a space to share them. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. I think life itself is the most important thing. I think a lot now, especially, about how we live, and what’s most important. And if we are making something for people to come and see, why are we doing it? The theatre used to be everything, but now I think life is everything, and how do they fit together, and how do I offer something that is meaningful, or, at least, enjoyable.
I really think that to create something that is entertaining, but still about something, is the direction to go if we want to make people leave their homes.
How do you see the current Canadian scene? Do you think it’s having a good moment or do you think it’s kind of stuck?
Maybe a bit of both? What’s very exciting, especially in Toronto, is that there’s always new companies, there’s an extreme desire to make work, and there are these wonderful young companies coming up, and independent companies. When it comes to new work, though, a lot of these companies are really just bringing in plays that have been produced in other countries. They’re bringing American or European plays, so it doesn’t really do much to build our culture. What it does is to give people an opportunity to hone their craft. When it comes to the creation of new work, there’s some really interesting things happening, but I would say the level is not where I would love it to be. I wish that people cared more about it. Even in Toronto, where Tarragon is one of the premiere theatres in Canada for new work, I can meet people every day who’ve never heard of it, and they live five blocks away. That’s hard. I mean, people know who Robert Lepage is, maybe in artistic circles, and he’s incredible, because he’s been international, but that’s something I think we need to develop in Canada.
Going back to your Latin American roots, could you name a few of your favourite Spanish speaking authors?
Isabel Allende. She’s my favourite, always, since I was very little. I had a little bird that I named Eva Luna! Or Paula, the book about her daughter, about the death of her daughter… I think of that book so often. She taught me about magic realism, and about life and love and how you see yourself. I started to read her books when I was eleven, and she became a huge part of my trajectory. In some ways, it was very exciting, because I grew up in a home that was very Chilean, Spanish, South American, but I also grew up in a culture that wasn’t. And Isabel Allende brought all that back to me… And then, of course, Gabriel García Márquez, Borges… There are so many. But it would just be unfair not to mention the influence that she had on me.