Rosa Labordé, the refreshing voice of Canadian theatre

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.

Rosa Labor­dé. Pho­to by Julio César Rivas / Lat­tin Magazine

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.

Rosa Labor­dé is cur­rent­ly play­wright-in-res­i­dence at Tar­ragon The­atre, in Toron­to. Pho­to by Julio César Rivas / Lat­tin Magazine

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.

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…

Pho­to by Julio César Rivas / Lat­tin Magazine

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.

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.