Play gives voice to refugee experiences

The Refugee Hotel follows the lives of 8 Chilean refugees after they arrive in Canada.| Photo by Emily Cooper.

In 1998, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested by the international police and charged with crimes against humanity. Playwright Carmen Aguirre says that this was a turning point for Chileans in Chile and in Vancouver as well.

“It led to all kinds of informal gatherings and Chilean refugees here started to talk about everything we’ve been through during the coup and coming to Vancouver as refugees,” says Aguirre who herself came to Canada from Santiago, Chile as a political refugee in 1974 when she was six-years-old.

Studio 58/Langara College will be presenting the West Coast premiere of The Refugee Hotel, a play inspired by actor and director Aguirre’s experience as a refugee, from March 23–April 9.

Portraying the refugee experience

Pinochet’s arrest was the impetus that drove Aguirre to write The Refugee Hotel, which premiered in 2009.

The play is set in 1974 and follows the lives of eight Chilean refugees who have just arrived in Canada and tracks their stay at the refugee hotel over the course of a week in February. Aguirre describes the play as a dark comedy about exile, trauma and healing.

“There’s a lot of humour in it even though there’s a lot of darkness,” says Aguirre.

The Refugee Hotel takes the audience through flashbacks as the characters get to know one another, hear about their lives back home and wonder what lies ahead in their future.

“It’s a very timely play because currently in Vancouver a lot of our refugee hotels are full of Syrian refugees,” says Aguirre.

Aguirre, who graduated from Studio 58 at Langara College in 1993 has worked as an actor, director and playwright across Canada, the USA and South America with eighty film, television and stage acting credits.

“I think you have to be drawn to the theatre; it has to feel like your calling,” says Aguirre. “I knew when I was about three that I wanted to become an actor.”

An untold story

Carmen Aguirre, author, playwright and director.| Photo by Emily Cooper.

Mason Temple, a theatre student at Studio 58 in his last year of studies will be playing the character of Manuel, a distressed Chilean refugee who was taken from a concentration camp. He describes Aguirre’s directive style as very research-based, providing the cast with many resources to learn from. Temple says that working on the play with Aguirre has taught him a lot about the Chilean coup, something that he never learned in school.

“It’s an incredibly important story to tell, especially with the refugee ban in the USA,” says Temple. “There is lots of ignorance, fear and hatred directed towards refugees and this piece gives a voice to that kind of person coming to this country. Being a refugee isn’t the same as immigration: it’s not a choice.”

In addition to her work as a playwright, Aguirre has also published two memoirs: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter and Mexican Hooker #1 and My Other Roles Since the Revolution. She is currently working on a novel titled Three Virgins about her family stories from Chile.

“It became obvious to me in theatre school to tell stories that I wasn’t seeing in Canadian books and media about working class people, people of colour and people in exile,” says Aguirre.

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