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Carmen Aguirre dedicated her youth to the Chilean revolutionary movement, running a safe house for underground resistance members seeking refuge in Argentina. Since then she has become a Vancouver-based theatre artist who has written and co-written twenty plays, including Chile Con Carne, The Trigger, and The Refugee Hotel. She has over sixty film, television, and stage acting credits and is currently appearing as Alcina on Showcase’s Endgame.
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) is her first book—one she wrote in her mind for twenty years, but only found the courage to write on paper in the last few. It graced many Best of 2011 lists including those of The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and Quill & Quire. It was selected as Book of the Week by BBC Radio in the UK, and long-listed for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. It also won this year’s battle on CBC Canada Reads.
Author Jenn Farrell recently interviewed Carmen about her new play Blue Box.
Jenn Farrell: First off, congratulations on the Canada Reads win, as well as the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize nomination for Something Fierce. The success of the book has certainly put you in the spotlight, but has it changed anything for you in your day-to-day work as an artist?
Carmen Aguirre: Yes, it has changed everything for me in my day-to-day work. Basically I spend half my day doing interviews like this one! It’s a wonderful thing on the one hand, to have the opportunity to talk about the work and to be able to answer people’s questions; on the other hand, the work itself falls to the wayside and I’ve had to become even more organized with my time. I have not been successful at it. Yet.
JF: Because of the success of your memoir, many readers are now going to be discovering your plays for the first time, including your latest Blue Box. What would you say are the fundamental differences between your work as a playwright and as a memoirist?
CA: Simply that writing prose is very different than playwriting. I find playwriting impossibly difficult, because it’s such a taut form. I feel that as a playwright I always fail, that I can never quite get the structure right, that I haven’t been able to go deep enough in the form provided. As you know, plays are short compared to books, and you have very little time to get to the core of the matter, usually only through dialogue. I find it almost impossible to do successfully. I found writing prose liberating. There was so much more room, and although the process was as gruelling as playwriting, I found it much more satisfying.
JF: There are some commonalities with Blue Box and _Something Fierce_—some of your experiences with the Chilean resistance are explored in both. Were you working on the two projects simultaneously? How do they differ?
CA: I wrote Blue Box before I wrote Something Fierce. I was not working on the two projects simultaneously. They are different because Blue Box is a ninety-minute monologue that examines two core stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. One represents the north, the other the south, as it were. And even though the two shall never meet, there are interesting intersections to be found in the stories, which are ten years apart and live within the same person. The theme of Blue Box is unconditional love, and the tension between revolutionary love, romantic love, and, ultimately, self love. Blue Box is all about revolutionary coitus interruptus, as it were. Something Fierce is a linear, chronological tale, which spans a decade in my young life. The theme there is political commitment clashing with personal desire, as well as living in a state of terror. And of course, the difference between the two is the form: prose is very different than playwriting. Once could say that the writer in me wrote the book and the actor in me wrote the play. The language in Blue Box is pared down, distilled, completely bare compared to the language in the book.
JF: Across all your work some similar themes emerge: exile and refuge, loss, triumph… and it seems to me that Blue Box is really exploring the idea of “passion”, both from a political and a personal standpoint. Is that a fair assessment? Is this what connects the narratives of the play, or would you call it something else entirely?
CA: Yes, I think it’s fair to say that passion is a big theme in the play. Youthful passion. And I think it’s interesting because it’s a 44-year-old woman telling a tale of passion from when she was in her late teens and early twenties, and then another tale of passion from when she was in her early thirties. It’s the kind of reckless passion that one (hopefully) doesn’t put to practice anymore once one reaches a certain age, but that one can look back on with a chuckle.
JF: In your previous plays the sets, staging, lighting, music, and multiple characterizations by single actors were all important elements of the overall productions. But with Blue Box you’ve stripped the play down to the barest essentials: you and the audience. What were your reasons for that choice, and what has the audience response been like, particularly when you invite them to dance with you?
CA: I was very interested in going back to exploring the theatricality in text. I studied acting at a Shakespearean conservatory, where I was trained to interpret text, with mind, body, and soul. So I wanted to write a piece in which one hundred percent of the theatricality was in the text. Where every event, every image, every sensation would be created solely by the text, and the only relationship would be between the actor and the audience. Hence Blue Box has a bare set, I wear street clothes, and we keep the house lights on so I can see the audience’s eyes, and they can see that I can see them. Every night I create a brand new relationship with them, depending on who the audience is. It’s a wild ride, it’s been working very well, and they’ve always loved coming up to dance.
JF: Can we talk about the title Blue Box? Because it’s something that can get overlooked in your work–the sexuality, the humour, that bit of rauchiness–in favour of the more “serious” aspects.
CA: Well, the play is actually called Blue Cunt, but for publicity purposes we call it Blue Box. It’s a play on the term “blue balls”, and I created it to describe the same state for a woman.
JF: When I read your work, Carmen, it seems there are always these intriguing “overlaps”. Whether it’s past and present, or horror and humour, or multiple characters, or tying together very different narrative threads, it seems to be intrinsic to your narrative style. Jerry Wasserman described this in his review of The Trigger as “exploring a consciousness rather than telling a story”. I guess my question then is whether you’d agree with that, and if so, how much of that is planned on your part, and how much of it is organic in your process?
CA: Sure, I would agree with that. And it’s a mix of planning and something that comes organically in the writing process. I grew up in exile in Canada, and I therefore have at least two identities. I’m bi-cultural as well as bilingual, and I have also lived in five different countries in the Americas. There are all kinds of seemingly parallel stories that live within me, in the sense that they are so disparate in terms of culture, hemisphere, language, social class, and yet they are all within me and they do intersect in my psyche, in my experience, in my body. And so they overlap, and it has affected my view of the world, my vision as an artist, and I have embraced that and allowed it to be the way I write.
JF: Is it true that there are two more parts to your memoir Something Fierce? Is this what you’re working on now?
CA: I don’t know if I’d call them two more parts to the memoir, but yes, I do have two other books in mind. At the moment I’m touring Blue Box and trying to crack open the first draft of a new play, which is not really happening for me.