Driven Theatre: melding activism and theatre making with Pedro Chamale
What a contrast to write this blog now, during the heat of Vancouver’s summer, when reflecting on the cold January night when the Unscripted: Made in Canada live stream popped up on our screens. Having experienced an Unscripted live, it was hard for me to imagine how a livestream could replace the usually immersive event where community members, audiences, and the artists converge for meaningful dialogue and shared imagination. Despite my doubts, the things I love about an Unscripted event – connection, conversation, creativity and captivation – miraculously translated well on the digital stage. And from watching the tamale cooking show and participating in conversations with Pedro and Byron Cruz and much, much more were questions: What is the artist’s role with activism and politics? How do we start tackling social and political issues with our art? Are there best practices when making art as activism? Are tools from activists and social justice groups to create calls for action useful at all in our theatre making processes?
Can you describe in more detail what inspires you to create and write for theatre?
What inspires me changes all the time. I think at the beginning, it was about finding my way through classics, but through how I was seeing them, and adapting them, and what was interesting to me. And then switching into writing about the personal, a story of self-discovery in Small Town Hoser Spic. And then Mis Papás is about honouring my folks, you know. It just comes out of things that I’ve experienced or where I am in the moment, or things that I feel like I have to say something about. So with Made in Canada, it was this program that I was discovering and the injustices that were happening and how the structure of it is just so one-sided and beneficial for Canada. Yes, folks are being paid, but what is the cost of that labour that we don’t know about? How hard it is to have folks on our farms, and what the real cost to get food into our supermarkets, and the capitalistic nature which commercial farming has become, and how capitalism is the root of all evil. [chuckle] That was something that I just had to write about.
Then looking forward, the environment is forefront in everyone’s mind. And so the next piece is a bit of environmentalism, but also how do we have those discussions with folks in Canada’s North who are fed by industries that we need to shut down. And that they’re humans and in a capitalist society they need to pay for mortgages, they need to pay for their children, they need to pay for things. If our society does not support them to leave destructive extractionistic society or jobs, then how can we get them to change and move on without just telling them they’re evil, and what they do that keeps a roof over their head, makes them a bad person.
The piece you talk about, is it your play in development Peace Country you’re describing?
Yeah, Peace Country.
In the past, what was your relationship or thoughts about activism and politics?
Derek and I … our [company’s] motto is ‘personal, uncompromising and honest’, and if I’m honest and being personal and uncompromising in my values, then the stuff we’re striving for has inherent activism in it. Derek and I are both people who have been on the minority side of things or have been affected by the social structure of things in this country. In colonialism, like Hong Kong for Derek, and with the way my dad lost his family farm during the coup in ’54, and that’s through Canadian and American interests. Basically pushing folks off of their traditional lands all for money and power. And so, in reflecting on that and realizing that my voice as a playwright can be used for that, I just naturally tended towards that and realized that my activism is my art, and that’s what I wanna be doing.
Those past shows of yours that explore racial identity, social dynamics, and representation, which ventures into the realm of the political, such as Small Town Hoser Spic and Mis Papás, also resonated with me. In the Unscripted: Made in Canada live stream, you talk about performing in Jovanny Sy’s A Taste of Empire, a play about the globalization and colonized systems in contemporary food systems, as one impetus that got you into researching everything about migrant workers in Canada. So my question is: What made you solidify your decision in writing a show about Canada’s Agriculture Temporary Foreign Worker program and migrant workers?
It was through a failed grant application that I had written. I wrote this grant for when the play was originally called The gods detest you and it was a mash-up of the Bacchae and migrant or temporary foreign workers’ rights. When I had let go of the Bacchae, once I let go of it being an adaptation, I was able to really invest in the community. Realizing that there’s so much care I need to take, rather than worrying about adapting something, but simply going out there and collecting stories, and visiting people, getting to know people, and reading legislation, and reading news articles. Even applying as a temporary foreign worker myself to see what that process was like. There’s a scene in the play that is about what I literally pulled from the Government of Canada website’s application to become a full temporary worker.
That’s when I was like, this is it. This is where it needs to be. It doesn’t need to have anything else on top of it. I don’t need to, for a lack of better words right now, ‘art it up’. I just need to grab everything around this subject and talk to the people who this is about, or who this is happening to…and get their permissions, and really find the community activators and activists to connect me with and get working with them.
Can you also talk about the importance and process of building proper relationships with, and earning the trust of, communities or advocacy groups when creating theatre about the causes they care about?
I had the opportunity to work with Carmen [Aguirre]. Having been in some workshops for Anywhere But Here, we brought in these community and cultural consultants, and Rocco Trigueros [one of the consultants] was the one who I was like, “Oh, I need to talk to him ’cause he seems to be in the know.” So I reached out to him and he almost had to vet me. So we had a meeting in a Starbucks, then he asked me all these questions, “Alright, what are you doing? Okay, what do you wanna know? What is it for?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s for this thing, and I just really wanna meet some folks who are from here”. [chuckle]
Then after he heard my reasons for making this piece and what I wanted to do with it, he was like, “Great. Call this person, call this person. Okay, don’t tell this person you’re talking to this person because they wanna think that you’re only talking to them.”
Then he gave me all these phone numbers, and so I started contacting folks and then they started talking to me. Then we got queued up to Byron Cruz, who connected me with people in the interior, which led me to Javier at KCR in Kelowna, who connected people to the [Made in Canada] podcast, saying: “Let me text the people I know” and he texted the people he knows, and suddenly I had three WhatsApp messages being like, “Hola Señor, Señor Pedro? I hear you’re doing these things.”
So it was all about building trust and connecting with those folks who have put in so much more work than I have because they are constantly in the community because they’re very much more invested. [For people like] Javier, that’s his job, to make sure the workers on the farms are getting the things they need, or someone to talk to; so of course, he’s way more connected with the people. Once those people vetted me, essentially, it was really easy to talk to folks or to get information from them about what’s going on.
You created Made in Canada from a really clear perspective. You wanted folks to know about the unjust labour practices that these foreign workers are going through, despite their integral contribution to our society… I think back to your Unscripted live stream, during your interview with Min Sook Lee. The question around art as a form of utility to drive social change, and its use to inform. Rather, I guess, art for art’s sake.
Art for art’s sake is also fine. I’m trying not to shit on that because we need art for art’s sake. Art inspires us as well in different ways, and it might inspire us to do social change. For me, art is for social change.
Kendra Fanconi [AD of the Only Animal] has taught me how audiences are inspired to action. I’ve talked to her a few times, ’cause I was a part of SLIME, an environmental piece; they do environmentalist theatre. I was talking to Kendra, and she’s talking about how people are tired, and that the research has shown that telling people the thing, like “80% of your waste goes un-decomposed blah, blah, blah,” is not the way. Now we need to work within art and social change, in order for people to realize that artists are needed to make people realize new things. That through art, we are able to accept these concepts or to approach these concepts, to begin the dialogue of these concepts, that’s what I wanna be doing right now is having folks, and that’s why the music [for Made in Canada] was integral, because I wanted people to start popping their heads, and I don’t know, start singing along and then go, “Oh, oh, this is really shitty. Like, oh, what did I… Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah.” What are you gonna do about it when you have that feeling?
You create great segues, Pedro.
Can you just go more in detail: what is your hope for theatre as a vehicle to create calls to action?
Yeah, yeah, that’s a great way to put it in the theatre or I love to make theatre that hopefully makes people do something about it afterwards. All of my work, I have never left you feeling good, and that’s to say that you don’t feel like bad, but I don’t wrap it up with it a nice bow, and ‘that was my show, thank you. Happy times!’’ It’s more like I leave you with a moment that leaves you, hopefully, it leaves you thinking.
With the [Made in Canada] podcast and the compendium and the website, we give you those tools. We make it more clear, the team. Jessica Oostergo designed the website and Shizuka Kai did the illustrations. You should check it out because the work they did was fantastic. And there we have PDFs you can print off, so you can email or mail a physical letter to your local member of parliament or legislation. We have the resources to go to the activist groups that are providing help. I’m not just asking you to do something in this ambiguous way. I’m going, here are also these things you can do. I’ve given you the step to your next level. What are you going to do about this?
I always describe your shows as getting into the guts of things and getting into the guts of me, the audience member, watching it. Which I think is great; it has a lasting effect. And it does make you want to take action.
Awesome. That’s so nice to hear. Thank you.
You spoke already about some key folks, but are there other activist artists or social justice leaders that you find inspiring? You already talked about Carmen Aguirre. Is there anyone else? Or should we just talk more about Carmen Aguirre?
No. I can always talk about Carmen.
She’s one of the forebearers of Latinx theatre in Canada and the reason why I am working, why I can write Spanish into my work. She and the Latino theatre group here in Vancouver did so much work in the ’90s that not a lot of people know about. And Rocco, I think was part of that group, actually.
Also, there’s the work that Kendra is doing, working with scientists and trying to bring scientists and artists together. I look at the movements of Afro-Canadian artists over in Toronto, such as Syrus Marcus Ware who is just a force! I met him through the Banff Leadership Program, he came in and lectured us. I follow his Instagram, and the work he does with BLM and he’s also an artist, so he puts that action into his work and his activism.
And Heather Lamoreux here in Vancouver, who has built the Vines Art Festival as an outdoor and a low environmental impact festival, while also providing social commentary on environmentalism and the need for change, and working with artists who have been marginalized or not given opportunities in other places. And now [Vines is] taking over the whole city and that is inspiring. And I mean, Derek inspires me with his love for Hong Kong and his passion for the rights of Hong Kong and its sovereignty. So that too inspires me to fight for what I believe in.
Going through this whole process of creating the right relationships, creating care for the folks that you’re writing about or collaborating with… For all your past shows, and more theatre from you to come, what are some best practices artists need to consider when thinking about trying to weave advocacy or calls for social change in their art? Where should they start?
I don’t think I’m an authority on this at all, but…I think you need to know what your values are as a person… and then what your values are as an artist, ’cause they could be different. Always be reflecting on the causes you’re choosing to fight for, or if you’re using your art to tell stories that are for a cause. I mean, for myself, I was constantly checking in with the folks I was working with to ensure that, it’s not about asking their permission, but to ensure that this was wanted. That my help was wanted in the way that I saw that I could help; and be able to let go of something that you think needs to be told. But, if the community is telling you it’s not for you to do it, or that’s not the way we want this to be broadcasted or you’re close to what we want but, no thank you… To listen to the community and to not drive forward, with your artistic blinders on and be like, ‘Well, I’ve already created this piece.’ But how can the piece then change to make sure you’re respecting them? And, who were you making this for? And, who are you in service to? ‘Cause I think that’s the big thing: Where I am now as an artist, it’s who I am in service to my community. My community is different in the different things I do, but in the end, I am in service to them. Especially now, as you know, I make art with public dollars. I am in service to the public, as an artist, and I have to constantly remember that, and sometimes that means listening to the public. It’s just so nuanced, but I think you have to constantly be in communication. Communication is key. I hope that makes sense.
It makes sense. Communication is key. Be an accountable artist, right? Thanks, Pedro.
No, thank you. Thank you for wanting to talk to me.
Missed out on the Unscripted: Made in Canada live stream back in January? Watch it now on our Youtube channel, now with English Closed Captions and Spanish subtitles.
And Made in Canada: an agricultural song cycle, written by Pedro Chamale and music by Michelle Cuttler, is hitting the road for a live, in-person concert performance near you! Starting Thursday, September 2nd @ 7 pm PST as part of Firehall Arts Centre’s Music in the Courtyard and more tour dates and venues coming soon. Visit riceandbeanstheatre.com for more details about the concert and tour venues.