DBLSPK Curation: A conversation with Derek Chan and Pedro Chamale


Pedro Chamale and Derek Chan are the company known as rice & beans theatre.  They are curators, in partnership with Boca del Lupo, of a series of events known collectively as DBLSPK. Each event features the work of a theatre maker or group who has had a couple of days and a little budget to develop a “conversation” focused on some aspect of language exploration. DBLSPK has been responsible for raising some fascinating questions about language and meaning in theatre, so PTC sent Kathleen Flaherty to talk with Pedro and Derek about it as the next series is being lined up.

KF:  I’m going from early descriptions of DBLSPK as “explorations of language and culture”.  Is this what you are working from as the foundation for your curation, or is there something else?

DC:  Language for sure, in the sense that we’re looking to invite translators and people who write in multiple languages into the program to present their work. I guess by extension that has something to do with cultures and culture. Before every night we say that we’re interested in working across languages and with languages co-existing, and what’s gained and what’s lost when we hop between those languages and culture. Speaking of which, we should update our website to have a page for that.  Thanks for the reminder.

KF:  Tell me a little bit about DBLSPK. What is it? You’re working with Boca [del Lupo] on this.

PC:  It’s a partnership with Boca, we’re presenting it. It came from a question of when we were…

DC:… it must have been when I was finished translating Jovanni Sy’s A Taste of Empire. Around then, right?

PC:  Yeah, it was around then. Boca brought the bulk of the cash, but now that we have the funding, we have it. They had space at the Fishbowl and they were talking to people in the community about what we wanted to do and we floated this idea about language, because Derek and I had just started to put other languages in our plays. Jay [Dodge] loved the idea and we jammed a bit more on it, and we had the first one, which was Leanna Brodie and French, being the second official language of this country.

DC:  We wanted to start with an experienced translator so we could kind of kick off the series with a little more precision in the discussions after. And I remember the format that we came up with, with Leanna, was basically the format that we’ve been going with since then. Or, we’ve tried to. It depends what the playwrights and translators want to do during the event. But usually we suggest reading a passage and talking a little bit about it and reading another passage and talking about it, just to keep the evening changing up. Did you know her translation of From Alaska by Sébastien Harrisson is in Gateway’s season? That was the play Leanna presented with …

PC: …Sean Patrick Sonier.

DC:  He was the performer that night. That’s kind of how it started.

PC:  We kind of felt like we were onto something there because of what it could be. When we started approaching other translators in other languages, we realized the situations around them were different because of what has been presented, especially here on the West Coast, in other languages. And so, like with Carmen [Aguirre], she was very capable of translating it herself but she’d worked with a translator before her play went to Chile.

DC:  That was Blue Box.

PC:  So that was more of a conversation between Carmen and me about Spanish language. And that was great because there were questions about Spanish that I was able to ask her that I always had curiosities about and she was able to talk about the political relationship of the language in the context of the play.  From there it keeps going. It’s a little bit bespoke for each translator, which is kind of fun because each of these shows is different and so is each translator. They have different approaches as to what the language means to them now or what it means to put it onstage and how they want to see it represented. So every night the show has that basic format of the language, what’s happening, what’s going on. The translator, playwright adds their spin, flavour, to it, which both we as the curators and Boca kind of facilitate. Like for the Taste of Empire one, we added video and had a TV presence at that one.


DBLSPK session on translation of Jovanni Sy’s A Taste of Empire , with (l to r) Jovanni Sy, Carmela Sison and Derek Chan. Photo by Christopher Edmonstone


DC:  And for another Taste of Empire recently, with Carmela Sison translating A Taste of Empire into Tagalog, we spent a lot of time playing with Carmela’s research into Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog and English, because of all the colonial hierarchy in languages and class and things like that. So we spent most of the evening basically watching documentaries and interviews that Carmela found and then Jovanni [Sy] and Carmela would talk about mixing English in our… first languages. With Tagalog, like with Cantonese, we do that. So sometimes it’s not so much about the writing itself (laughs)…

PC:  Yeah!

DC:  … but about the reason behind why those artists want to approach their piece using the language.

PC:  Like with Aryo [Khakpour] and Arash [Khakpour], that piece [Suddenly, This God Lover Died in the Love of God, This God Slain Died by the Sword of God] was in Farsi, and Aryo and his translating of it discovered that, in a North American context, the play itself was dated and had these references that he did not agree with politically and so he was struggling with that. And the community that came out was reflecting that, what the background of the language was and what it does to certain sections of the community. The community kind of took over the discussion, even though it was a moderated thing, and it was great to have this community of Farsi speakers kind of debate amongst themselves the use and functionality of their language. As moderator, I just sat there and thought, “Well, my job is easier tonight.” (laughs)

And that kind of also speaks to what has happened with the access that Boca brings with the communities they’ve built, the audiences over the years that they’ve done work with and the communities we’re accessing with the work we do. It started with niche audiences and with people who are really there for translating and really wanting to know about theatre translating. Now each artist is bringing their community with them to these events. So you’re getting this mix of people who are there for the scholarly “what is translating” and others who are “I want to hear my language or see these pieces that I’ve only ever read.”  Seeing them performed or talked about.

DC: Yeah, from in and around the first time we did A Taste of Empire when people were just there to see Jovanni [Sy] really, after that it was Aryo and Arash, and after that Maki [Yi]. It’s not so much that Maki brought in – she’s a Korean Canadian artist – it’s not that she brought in a lot of Korean speakers, but she did bring in the people that she’d made connections with in Canada. The people were there to see Maki. Then, after that, it was Gavan [Cheema] with Himmat. Her family and so many people came that night.

Image of people discussing HIMMAT at DBLSPK

DBLSPK session on translation of Gavan Cheema’s “HIMMAT”, November 5, 2019. (l to r): Translator Paneet Singh, Munish Sharma, Gavan Cheema, Pedro Chamale. Photo by Collins Maina

PC:  Maki was great because we had a couple walk in off the street who didn’t know what was happening; they saw people in the Fishbowl – which is a great thing about that space with those windows – you can see the crowd – especially with the blue paint they have now, it’s really eye-catching – they walked in and they bought a ticket and on their way out they mentioned, the guy mentioned, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard Korean performed.” And we said, “Oh, do you know Maki then?” and he said, “No, we just walked in off the street.”  “So you have no connection to theatre then?”  “No, we were just on a date, we saw this and we bought a ticket.”

DC:  I remember talking to him as he got in, when he said, “What’s up?” “We’re doing this and this.” “Oh, what language?” “Well, there’s Korean in it.”  “Eh, Korean! Great!” (laugh) Get a ticket. Sit down.  So, it’s cool when we get those random encounters that were meaningful for them as well.

KF:  You kind of alluded to this – because of the different styles of work that have been developing around the different presentations of the different languages – what has the effect been on the new callout and your curatorial vision?

DC:  I remember a part of one conversation about curating that year’s series, when Pedro and I suggested a few projects, people and teams, someone said, “Oh, they’re all emerging artists or translators. Is this how you want to brand the year’s programming? One of us said, “Well, they’re emerging because there has been no opportunity for that kind of work to be done. They’re starting now because there was no history of this.”

PC:  Yeah.

DC:  Ever. And I think that has definitely affected our curatorial choices. And, also the people that we approach for potential projects. At this point, we haven’t done any official callout. Which we should.

PC:  It’s in the back of my mind. Because we, the community Boca knows and community we know off the top of our heads, only goes so far, so it will make it more visible and accessible when we put out a call to translators who might have a piece. It’s not fully supported so we can’t fly in a team and things like that, but we can feature the work and Skype a person in.

KF:  And talk about whatever it is that they want to talk about in front of people.

DC:  Exactly. The process of solicitation helps to build relationships and sometimes we do need to build those relationships, but also, we don’t know the people we don’t know.

PC:  It’s also like people say, “I haven’t seen your work.” It’s because you didn’t know we were making work, so how can you know to come to our shows. So that’s what the callout will help with. We only know the people we know and can ask those people who they know and that chain of connection can only go so far. Even if we do reach out, someone can only trust so far. Because there is the thing about trust, too. Sometimes it’s something that you haven’t revealed to a lot of people. Say you don’t openly live in a bilingual way and now you’re asked to be put onstage in a bilingual way and it’s not how you’re used to presenting yourself every day. Maybe that’s more of a personal feeling that I’ve got. The way I sound and I speak English doesn’t automatically say ‘bilingual’, but I do live in Spanish, especially with my family, so to be thrust on the stage with someone I don’t know and told, “talk about it”, there might not be trust there, right?

KF:  That’s an interesting question.  I guess, then, turning it around, what do you use as criteria for your selections of what to program? It could be just “oh my god, this feels juicy”; I’m not suggesting a checklist. But can you talk a little bit about some of the things that attract you?

DC:  I guess the ones that I’ve strongly suggested so far, a lot of them come from some sort of recognizable experience from my end. I don’t even have to understand what it is. (we all laugh) It’s…if in any conversation, it doesn’t have to be related to DBLSPK really, I sense that “I think I know what this is and I think you want to talk about this.” Those are the people that I think more about when it comes to DBLSPK. What draws me are people who have not previously had the chance to work publicly in a language that they want to work in. Or people who have had their work, perhaps, hindered, with language being an obstacle, whether it’s the working language or their command of the language being perceived by the others. Those are the people that I am quite interested in. And then, honestly, just clever people who have wonderful things to say. And a particular interest of mine in relation to language, is in the hierarchy of languages – that is something that will always live with me and will always be in my mind. I do gravitate toward people who are interested in that as well.

PC:  For me, two things that I think about: when I think about a more senior translator – part of it is finding that person who does work as a translator, who lives in that world and has a mastery of two languages, when I struggle with my two. Or I perceive them to have a mastery in two languages. And the ability to apply that to artistry. And to work with a playwright and find an artistic way through the language. So, with senior playwrights, that’s what I think about, “That person would be really great to talk about it” because having that experience is a “thing”. And for more emerging translators, a lot of it is because of my personal journey with language, a rediscovering of what has, for whatever reason, been withheld or just not taught. The approaches to reclaiming that for oneself. And so for a lot of those projects, when I talk to people about that, it’s about the practices that they are putting into the research of the language. Or what that language means to the piece. I guess it comes down to what the art of that language is, the two languages in that piece, and how they’re playing together and whatever journey that is for them. “I’m really excited to hear you talk about that in front of people after listening to it.” What the artistry of placing those two languages on the same page or the same bubble and allowing them to live there, unapologetically and the effects that has on the art that gets presented.

KF:  Hm. Since I was crawling through your website, I realized it’s right in your mandate, multilingual performance, and I was wondering what influence DBLSPK has had on your own work.

PC:  For me it’s been more liberating, to add more languages than English to my work. And let it be wrong (laughs). Because knowing that I’ve built now a community of fellow artists and translators that I can go to and that I have some money to ask for their help, that shame I once felt for my original language is still there but diminishing. DBLSPK is allowing me to hear thoughts that I’ve had in my head around my original language and have those out in the open and allow someone to say them…

KF: – about Farsi –

PC:  About Farsi, or about Tagalog – all those things that I’ve been saying to myself repeatedly and then saying, “Oh, okay, this is a thing, these are experiences that a lot of people who exist in multiple languages or have been presented with multiple languages as they grew up, live with.”

DC: On top of what you said, Pedro, from the other side of things, from moderating discussions and curating each event, doing that gives me the chance to reflect on what I am interested in when it comes to languages and people who are working in different languages and that definitely goes right into my practice. In the sense that, “Oh, yeah, I have shared these problems.” Just by being able to talk to the artists on the floor and also being able to hear the audience, actually facilitating the discussion gives me space to reflect on my own work, both artistically and linguistically.

KF:  It might be too early to tell, but are there further explorations you wish to undertake as a result of this work?

DC: Yeah.

KF:  I think you are already launched on that… it’s called Lingua… does it have something to do with that?

DC: It’s a working title.

KF:  That may be just presumption on my part.

DC: No. No. That project, Lingua, came from wanting to write a whole thing about the hierarchy of colonial languages and accents. I don’t know if that’s where the current play is going…. (they laugh)…but that’s definitely a play, a piece of something that will happen, in Lingua or if it will become just general…

KF: Your PhD dissertation.

DC: I have to get my Master’s first. (laughs) Like another undercurrent of my work, it used to be about home and defining home and identity, it might sneak up and provide a little peak, but it’ll probably just be another undercurrent until I either get bored of it or until it doesn’t occupy my mind anymore. And then, more practically, we do want to put more resources into DBLSPK until eventually we can make at least one of the three events a year bigger than a two-day workshop call for the artists. So we can give them more resources, both tangible and organizational, to help them put up a bigger performance. That would be grand. We’re trying to bring a couple of projects into the company that have gone through DBLSPK already.

PC: Or haven’t gone through DBLSPK but are dealing with multiple languages. Someone who has seen what we’re doing and seen that we’re a good fit. And Derek has heard me say this many times, we can only create work of quality as playwrights so fast. So it is nice when someone comes along with a piece and if it’s within what we do with the company, well then we can lend all the support we have that isn’t just becoming the artistic lead on the thing.

KF:  And of course you, Pedro, have never-ending ideas about what’s next. Do you see DBLSPK paying off in your own work?

PC: I think it has affected the work I’m doing as a playwright, what is piquing my curiosity. I mean (chuckles), the show after the next show, there’s a soft idea in the back of my head that…maybe I want to take classes before I do that…I want to write it all in Spanish first. And then translate it back to English.  See if I can do that both as a challenge to myself and just fully going there. And I think that’s a direct result of DBLSPK and thinking about other languages.

DC: And also I think it has helped rice & beans as a company to find a more concrete identity. For the longest time, people could say, “Great, I know Pedro and I know Derek, but what is a rice & beans show?” For the longest time, I couldn’t tell you because a Derek Chan show is a Derek show and a Pedro show is a Pedro show. And I think thinking about working in several languages, and about DBLSPK has become a catalyst in helping us find what this current iteration or life of the company is about. And I think that has been, besides us being able to work with fun people and talking about fun things, I think, looking inwards, that’s the biggest thing DBLSPK has done for the company’s work.

I said that because, Kathleen, you reminded me, our mandate on the website does specify working with languages and other things, and we included that some time around when all of this happened, when we started working in other languages.

KF: It was inherent in the concept of rice & beans, in a way….

PC:  Yeah, the concept of rice&beans as a name allowed us to move some things, say “we got that out of the way”. In the process of artistic exploration, we’ve pushed back that cultural exploration, and now exercising those artistic muscles, being able to bring back the cultural, and for me, thinking about the work you (Derek) do and the work I do, and thinking about my next play, it’s these points of friction between language and culture. We live on that thing… Derek having immigrated and having learned English and going through theatre school where teachers are, “Have your neutral accent” and stuff like that, and these points of friction. So even if it’s not a fully bilingual piece, the fact that characters in our plays exist in two languages creates these points of friction that resonates throughout the art.

KF: Thank you so much, you two!