The Refugee Hotel : Interview with Director Paulina Abarca-Cantin

The Refugee Hotel. Photo James Douglas The Refugee Hotel. Photo James Douglas

Montreal based Teesri Duniya Theatre presents its latest offering: The Refugee Hotel is a dark comedy chronicling the aftermath of the brutal Chilean coup d’état of September 11, 1973. Rampage spoke to the director of the play Paulina Abarca-Cantin

Karan Sinj (KS): Can you please speak to the text of the play and what drew you to it?

Paulina Abarca-Catin (PA): The Refugee Hotel is the kind of play that drew me to the theatre in my youth in the first place and that sealed my desire to become an artist. It is theatre that addresses the state of the world and the effect of major events on human beings. It’s Brecht’s idea of theatre as voice for the oppressed not as a forum for the bourgeoisie looking for diversion. While this play is occasionally very funny, its purpose is not to entertain or to enrapture audiences with aesthetic excellence. It is a play crafted to inspire you to think about politics, about the world and your role in it.

KS: Without divulging too much, can you speak to how (if at all) the play critically engages with resettlement of refugees, in this case in Canada?

PA: This play takes you directly into the resettlement experience of many waves of displaced people from many nations who have arrived in Montreal over the past 40 years. Audiences will experience life from the point of view of an eight-year old girl arriving at a hotel with her family and with many other refugees fleeing the vicious Chilean coup d’état of 1973. Some of the characters were liberated directly from concentration camps as a result of Canadian government intervention. Audiences will also meet the extraordinary Canadians that welcome the group and fight for their right to start a new life in Canada. Again, as dramatic as the situation is, there is joy arising from them being together, in being alive. And, there is humour for the audience watching them navigate cultural differences.

KS: Given the refugee crisis the world is facing today, how does a story like this contribute to the dialogue that is on-going and in some cases needs to be had, to bring a larger social discussion about the issue?

PA: The circumstances of the exile of the refugees in this play are rooted in the same political, economic and philosophical forces that underpin the displacement of millions of people around the world today. Irrespective of race, religion or historic and political global positioning, countries experiencing war, internal conflict and political instability either fail to protect their own citizens or actively participate in their persecution and human rights abuses. This is the kind of persecution that involves the horrific violence, brutality and inhuman acts that are referenced in The Refugee Hotel. The play also questions the distinction, often made by the West when reporting global conflict, that some victims are innocent, thereby implying that others are guilty and that the abuse of their human rights is somehow, therefore, justified.

KS: Do you have an opinion of how relevant and effective refugee settlement programs in places like Canada (taking in 25,000 Syrians) and Germany (close to 1 million) are, given the magnitude of the crisis we face?

PA: By the end of 2016, Canada will have taken in 50,000 refugees. Of these, a large number have been privately sponsored and are not, therefore supported fully by the Canadian Government’s Resettlement Assistance Program. For Canada, this 50,000 represents 0.14 Syrian refugees for every 100 Canadians. By comparison, the 1 million Syrian refugees taken in by Germany represents 1.29 Syrian refugees for every 100 Germans. Although Canada could clearly do more, it is worth considering that if the USA accepted 0.14 refugees for every 100 Americans, they would accept 454,756 Syrian refugees. Any criticism and backlash that the Canadian government receives from the public about the number of Syrians arriving in the country needs to be put in this context. However, expecting existing health, social services, employment, language training and other settlement programs to cope with such a jump in the number of people needing services and supports will not lead to a successful settlement process for these (and other) refugees. Settlement services and the related health and mental health services have been cut to the bone over the past ten years so Federal investment will be essential to ensuring the health and wellbeing of these often vulnerable and traumatized new residents of Canada. In addition to this, it is a race against time for the newly-arrived refugees and their supporting agencies to complete as much of the settlement process as possible within the first 12 months, after which the government support ends and most of these refugees will end up on welfare without adequate health coverage as well as struggling to pay rent and feed their families in the cities where they have been settled.

KS: Do you think that plays like The Refugee Hotel and other artistic works are doing justice to the discourse that surrounds this issue? Are we really looking at the historical context of how we have come to where we are in 2016, or is the analysis still isolated to a very contemporary prism?

PA: The overthrow of the world’s first democratically-elected Socialist President – President Salvador Allende – by means of a CIA-backed coup d’état on September 11, 1973 marks the world’s first 9/11. I have worked hard to mount this particular play – a two-year journey alongside Teesri Duniya Theatre’s Artistic Director Rahul Varma – precisely because I do not see other plays that contextualize the disempowerment of nations and which speak to this important real-world crisis. The number of films is also limited, given the crisis and what is at stake. I have been fortunate to work with and watch Ottawa’s health community as they resettle the most recent wave of Syrian refugees and to witness the generosity of a great number of Canadians. It’s an unbelievably inspiring real-world story and it needs to be told. So, that was my goal. The recontextualization of this discourse will come from the response and dialogue with / from the audience after the play. We will host talk backs, some with incredible guest speakers, after every performance. This is theatre intended as a starting point for dialogue and new ideas.

KS: What was your greatest challenge in directing this piece and how different were those from challenges you faced when working on other productions?

PA: The play features a cast of eleven actors. Finding the right top-notch actors was the first challenge. Writer Carmen Aguirre has crafted complex characters. The next challenge, as a director, was seeing the play through each of the eleven characters’ eyes. That perspective also had to extend to costumes, set design and the overall world of the piece. It has been much more of a joy than a challenge to work with each and every member of this passionate, creative team. Everyone has a point of view about the work and about the importance of this story.

The Refugee Hotel runs: October 26-Nov. 13, 2016, Segal Centre Studio, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd. Click HERE for tickets. NB: There are no shows on Friday. Tickets $18-$26 (various discounts: students/seniors/groups/Segal Subscribers). Half-price preview tickets: Wed. Oct. 26. Halloween Special- Remember the souls from the refugee hotel: tickets for Sun. Oct. 30 8pm & Mon. Oct. 31 are 2-for-1 if purchased by Oct. 26 with the code word ‘refugee’. Box Office: 514 739-7944 or online There will be moderated talkbacks after each performance.