Notes From the Lab: Carmen Aguirre

I am at the Banff Playwrights Lab working on a new play, Broken Tailbone. Brian Quirt, Artistic Director of Nightswimming Theatre and director of the lab, came up with the concept that we do a one-woman show in which I teach the audience how to dance salsa. We were at the end of a two-year tour of my play Blue Box (also developed in part at a past Lab, and later presented at the Banff Centre on tour). In that piece, at the halfway mark, we play a salsa song in its entirety and the audience joins me onstage for a dance party before moving on to the second act. We wanted to take that idea further. 

Salsa is my passion. I go to Latinx dance halls and night clubs regularly. I dance until I am possessed by the music. So I started the writing process by compiling a hit list of my favourite cumbias, merengues, salsas, boogaloos, sons, candombes, sambas and reggaetons. Each one of those songs has a story attached to it. Some of the tunes evoke memories from my childhood, others from my youth, and others are so current that the stories are unfolding in the present tense. 

As I teach the audience how to dance, I explain the roots of the forms, the history of Latinx dance halls in Canada, which began in the mid-'70s with the arrival of Chilean refugees, and some geopolitical history of Latin America, starting from the landing of European conquistadors over five hundred years ago, the bringing of African slaves, and twentieth century national liberation movements aimed at deconstructing neocolonialism. I also mix in some racy personal stories born in the dance halls. 

The development process for Broken Tailbone has been about testing the material with an audience. We have done this twice. The first time was in Vancouver in September 2015, organized by the Playwrights' Theatre Centre, and it was a huge success. There was a DJ onstage, and our relationship added another layer to the piece. We tried the material out again in November 2015 in Toronto, as part of Aluna Theatre's Caminos Festival. That, too, was a hit. A week was spent working on the piece, refining, shaping, and structuring, and we filmed the evening. 

That video has served as a template—a draft, if you will—that we worked from during my stay at the Colony. We have continued to clarify the narrative, fleshing out characters that make their way through the different stories, adding a key character, and translating every song very precisely in order to choose the exact verse I want to deliver. In this way, we have also found a through-line to the lyrics I share with the audience. 

Broken Tailbone fits into the Canadian theatre ecology as a piece that features a woman of colour taking up a lot of space. As verified by Canadian Actors' Equity Association just this year (after their 2015 census), only 3.7% of the people we see on professional Canadian stages are women of colour. Of that small percentage, almost none are playing lead roles. Mind boggling in a country where the demographics of its major urban centres are almost half of non-European descent. 

It is therefore safe to say that it is still a revolutionary act to have a woman of colour centre stage, telling her story, celebrating her politics, the history of her marginalized community, and her sexuality, while inviting the audience to make their bodies the temple with which they celebrate the music, surrendering to the songs until the dance becomes a religious experience, creating a Canadian Latinx dance hall together.