“Environmentalism, Playwriting & Taking Your Time” In Conversation with Rosa Labordé, playwright of MARINE LIFE
Interview by Brittany Kay.
Rosa Labordé is one of the finest examples of a multifaceted, multi-talented, many-hats-wearing fierce female artist working in this city. Her work as a playwright, actor and director is highly praised and respected in this theatre community. We sat down to talk about her current production Marine Life, playing now at the Tarragon Extraspace only until December 17th. We spoke about how she approaches environmentalism, playwriting and the importance in taking your time with your work.
Brittany Kay: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Rosa Labordé: Mostly, from the experiences that I have in life or what I perceive or observe going on around me. I’m usually interested in how we’re functioning as a greater society, as a greater whole and how that ties into how we treat each other as individuals. I don’t think they can be separated. I like to look at very big issues and then bring them down to their most essential level of human beings interaction with each other. In a world where can bully each other, I want to know what that looks like in the grand scale, like corporate bullying or the presidency right now in the United States and how that all ties in together and how they can’t be separate. Like the family is not separate from the greater society within which it lives… that’s usually what interests me most.
BK: How did you first get into playwriting and what brought you to where you are now?
RL: I always wrote when I was little. I think my first poem was published when I was seven in the local newspaper. It was always my thing and I always put on shows since I was really, really young. Then as I grew up, I got more into acting and I went to theatre school and they always said, “You know, it’s good to still write.” I kept writing and I found the playwrights who I most loved and I started to just do exercises in writing plays. I had a drawer full of plays that nobody ever saw that were just about differentiating character or how people speak to one another. I never went out and said “I’m going to be a playwright”, I was just like “I’m going to make a thing…” and that’s how it started.
BK: You’re also in television right now. How did that all happen?
RL: Well I was interested in it, for sure, and then I wrote my first pilot and my TV writing agent at the time said “You don’t write a pilot, you sell an idea.” Well how can I sell an idea? I need to know how to write a pilot. So I just wrote it and that went really well and CTV at the time bought it outright. We started going through development on it and then everything changed at the company. It didn’t end up going through but it was amazing to go “I’m just going to write and see what happens” and then it went somewhere.
From there, I went to the Film Centre. All of it ties into storytelling, whether it’s acting, writing, directing, writing for plays, writing for TV, it’s just about telling a story and the different medium that it works for. It’s all connected to story, even a voiceover job, you’re telling a story. That’s all my life has been, stories.
BK: Tell me about Marine Life? Where did the inception first happen for that idea?
RL: Aluna Theatre was the company who originally commissioned it and I wrote it in my residency with them with grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. They really wanted me to make a piece that I would direct. They wanted me to make a piece that was completely mine. I didn’t listen to that for a bit and I did some early workshops with other people directing the readings and presentations, until, I went “Fine, I’ll direct it”.
At the time they were looking at a lot of work around water and also human rights. I just started thinking about our relationship to the environment and our relationship to water and our seas. That got me into the world of the plastic ocean, the islands made of plastic, pollution in the ocean and what it’s doing to the fish and the marine life. And because it relates back to the way that I see things, I started exploring the question – what is the self-destructive path we’re on? What is it in humans that have the desire to self-destruct just on a personal level? I kind of put these two things together. The characters are allegorical. They are representative of aspects of our humanity that move in a direction that is not always healthy for the whole. They can be quite toxic and some of what we’re doing to our planet is quite toxic, so I wanted to explore that, but in a way that was playful and fun. I think as soon as you get that didactic about environmentalism people turn off.
BK: Some political and environmental theatre isn’t for everybody. If you find a way to present the information in a humanized way, I think it could be more accessible for audiences.
RL: I think when you get someone to leave their house now, when they are so busy (technology seems to have made everyone busier) and they can stay in to watch Netflix in pajamas, is it because you want to teach them a lesson? I don’t. I like to be entertained. I like it to be a fun thing, that even if it’s a sad play, I like it when there’s a little bit of kissing or love or levity. That’s my hope, that someone can come to the show and see all the deeper meaning in the allegory and then if they don’t want to, they can also just enjoy some of the “play” and what I mean by “play” is in the playful sense.
BK: Who are the characters in your play and what is their story?
RL: Sylvia is an environmental activist but her activism has moved into the world of fanatic because she’s so upset about what’s going on that she’s taken it quite far. She falls in love with a corporate lawyer, who is basically on the other side of the spectrum of what she does. She also has a very co-dependent relationship with her sibling, which gets in the way. It becomes a strange kind of love triangle.
BK: There’s also music in this show? How does that play a part?
RL: I almost always like music in my plays. I had a play True and written right into it was a piano player. I love it being a part of the world and not just added on, but it being a part of the experience. I think playwriting is music. It’s all rhythm. It’s a score, basically, that you’re writing. It’s inextricably connected to have both actual musicians combined with this world that is already living in a rhythmic musical place.
BK: That’s so beautiful. What are you, a writer or something?
BK: This play went through several development stages in different festivals over the years. How did it grow from those first iterations to where it is now?
RL: Where it started was at Buddies’ Rhubarb! Festival and it was like 20 minutes, so it was just a look at these characters and who they might be. It built and moved from there. I was always working towards a flood in the first incarnations and then I’ve moved past that into, well, what now? We’re flooding all of the time. It’s a reality right now. In Quebec, there are still people dealing with the fallout of it. These people are literally homeless because floods destroyed their homes. Their homes were underwater. The water damage is insane. They can’t live there again and they’re just at a point where the Quebec government said we will pay. For a while, they were paying for housing, subsidizing hotel days and now they’ve pulled out of that. There are people in Quebec who are homeless because of flooding and it’s something that we’re not talking about. Climate change deniers are saying that it’s not us, it’s just the weather but it’s actually not just whether it’s a real thing and I find that really interesting and sad. It’s directly related to our overconsumption as a society, which, in a sense, the lawyer in my play represents – that kind of corporate desire to make more make more make more, sell more sell more sell more, but it’s a destructive act.
BK: Why is development and workshopping beneficial for any type of play?
RL: I think it’s so important to develop pieces and take your time figuring out what it is. The development process for this piece has been over 5 years and, in that time, I’ve also had two other plays produced and written on numerous television projects. It’s not like you’re just writing all the time for one piece. You put it aside and go, “Okay, I don’t want to let that go because I think it’s really important for us to think about these things, but how do I see it differently?” Whenever you get a chance to have an audience and have a response you can kind of connect to what is it that’s working and what is it that isn’t. It’s really useful to have “the what isn’t”. Here in Canada, we don’t quite have the structure that some other countries have in terms of developing something over a longer period of time. It can be so beneficial, even at Tarragon we get a week of previews, which is amazing. Whereas in London or New York, sometimes you get a month to 5 months to really go “what’s working and how is it working?” I think stretching it out a little bit and trying to learn the piece is a really helpful.
BK: You are both playwright and director of Marine Life. How has that been difficult and helpful to wear both of those hats? How do you work between both?
RL: It can be a challenge. I really, really love directing and creating a world but where it can be challenging with new plays, is that if something is not working, the writer needs to rewrite it. Sometimes you actually just need to spend the time making it work. If everyone did their first few Shakespeare rehearsals and were like, “Ugh, it’s not working. We’re just going to have to cut those bits”, well, it’s not working because it’s really hard and you have to define every single moment of communication or it falls flat. One of my favorite Shakespeare productions was this group from the States who were dressed in all black clothes and wearing Keds. I saw them in high school and they were so great because all they did was play the action and make the story clear. Sometimes even with myself as a director, when we’re rehearing and something’s not working, I just say I’ll cut it. Only to realize later that, no, that was just a part of the process. We had a joke where I’ll say, “remember those lines I cut, you have to put them back in”. Most times you have to respect what the playwright is trying to say, but when I am both and I can be really self-critical, I go “It’s bad, what I was trying to say, I’m just going to change it.” To later think, no it’s pretty good, let’s make it work… that’s the challenging part of it.
BK: Why is Tarragon Theatre the right platform for this show?
RL: I love Tarragon and I think their audiences are really great and excited about going to the theatre. I think there’s already a lot of knowledge about environmental concerns for their audience, but this show does that in a playful way and allows them the space to think about it a little bit differently. It’s a smart audience that’s already thinking about these things and hopefully it allows their thinking to move in a bit of a different direction.
BK: Why this story right now?
RL: I think it couldn’t be more relevant because we are living our lives in a really dangerous direction and there’s a point at which we will not really be able to turn back. The depressing thing about doing the research for this project was talking to academics and environmentalists who are studying the effect of micro plastics on us. I was thinking this could get better and they would say no, it could be mitigated. That seems to be the overall place we’re at is this mitigation. It’s no longer reversible. It’s just what can we do to mitigate what we’ve done. A lot of it is about massive shifts in infrastructure and those shifts create massive economical shifts that people don’t want, especially the people who are sitting at the top of the economy where they’re benefiting from mass production.
BK: Are you an environmentalist?
RL: I care about our environment very much. I care about the world we live in. I kind of think I’m not anything. Am I a feminist, humanist, environmentalist? What am I? I can see all sides of a thing, which can be a blessing and a curse.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
RL: I hope that they’ve had an enjoyable time. I hope that they’re left with some beautiful images and thoughts about where we are and thoughts about the good in us, you know to realize our potential for change. I hope it makes you think more about the changes in policy that need to happen to make a difference.
BK: Advice for other artists?
RL: Don’t compare yourself to other people, just be on your own trip. Be yourself, that’s all you really got. All that really matters is what your personal experience is with the people in your life that you love and what difference you can make in that and being more connected to each other. We all want community and connection.
Produced in collaboration with Aluna Theatre
Written & Directed by Rosa Labordé
starring Nicola Correia-Damude, Justin Rutledge & Matthew Edison
sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne
lighting & set designer Trevor Schwellnus
projection designer Trevor Schwellnus
costume designer Lindsay C. Walker
stage manager Robin Munro
surtitle translator Bruce Gibbons Fell
surtitle specialist Sebastian Marziali
Save the world or save yourself? This romantic comedy sees Sylvia, an ecological activist, caught between her own environmental extremism and falling in love with a man who has a secret dependency on plastic. When the rains come and the flood water rises, who will survive the deluge?
30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto
On Stage now only until Dec 17, 2017