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Directors Notes: The Refugee Hotel by Playwright Carmen Aguirre

We asked director and playwright of The Refugee Hotel, Carmen Aguirre, to give us her notes on her play. Aguirre shares with us some of the details around the “fictionalized autobiographical” elements of the play, as well as the deep “universal truths the victims and survivors of political oppression” that the story is based upon, and the hope the lies within.

Carmen Aguirre: I wrote this play seventeen years ago, after Pinochet was arrested in England in 1998 and charged with crimes against humanity. News of the arrest rippled across the Chilean diaspora that lead to gatherings where people shared personal stories of being victims of Pinochet’s state terrorism. I decided to write a multi-character play about exile exploring the themes of trauma and the healing power of love.

More than a dark comedy about a group of Chilean refugees who arrive in Vancouver after Pinochet’s coup, this timely play is my attempt to give voice to refugee communities from all corners of the globe. Laid bare in the fictionalized autobiographical details of The Refugee Hotel (I am a Chilean refugee who arrived here in 1974 at six years old and stayed at the refugee hotel on Denman Street) are the universal truths the victims and survivors of political oppression continue to experience everywhere: the terror of persecution, arrest and torture; the exhausted elation of escape; the trauma of learning to live again with the losses, betrayals and agonies of the past; the irrational guilt of the survivor—even the tragedy of surviving the nightmares of the past only to have them return to challenge any hope of a future.

The Refugee Hotel received its world premiere in Toronto in 2009, even though I have been shopping it around to professional theatre companies in Vancouver for the last fifteen years. I am elated that my alma mater, Studio 58, is producing its west coast premiere, and has asked me to direct it. It is an awesome opportunity for this talented cast to explore a story and a culture that is foreign to them. None of the cast members are Latinx. In fact, most of them are white. In the professional theatre world, this would be unacceptable. And rightly so. But in providing a space for this story to be told on a Vancouver stage, Studio 58 has given its students the chance to conduct extensive research on a culture, a country, a history, an experience they knew almost nothing about. This research has lead to empathy. In embodying non-stereotypical Latinx characters, the cast has been forced to learn things about Latinx culture that go beyond what they’re fed in the media everyday.

In the professional theatre world, casting The Refugee Hotel with an almost all-white cast and not a single Latinx actor would be cultural appropriation. This is a student production with a Chilean vision, as the director (myself) is Chilean. It being a student production, no jobs are being taken away from Latinx actors or other actors of colour. And, it being a student production, it is about the students learning how to serve a story. I think it is fair to say that they have learned a great deal. As for me, I am grateful to see this play finally take the stage in my hometown, the city in which it takes place. To quote Che Guevara: Until the final victory always. Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

The Refugee Hotel at Studio 58 runs March 23–April 9. Tickets here.

Carmen Aguirre is an author, actor, and playwright. She was born in Santiago, Chile to parents who were teachers and activists. As an actor, Carmen has worked extensively across North and South America, with over eighty film, television, and stage acting credits to her name. Carmen has written and co-written twenty-five plays and also written two books. Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, and a second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1 and My Other Roles Since the Revolution.