Behind the screens of TST’s staged reading of The Refugee Hotel

Cast members of The Refugee Hotel host a virtual performance over Zoom. (Submitted: Patty Saad)

Sara Lamk sat behind the computer screen at her last rehearsal for The Refugee Hotel, Theatre St. Thomas’s latest play. It’s her first play and she’s playing a Chilean refugee seeking asylum in Canada after fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship.

Lamk is an international student from Chile majoring in human rights and English. She said when she auditioned for TST, she didn’t know they’d be doing a play about Chilean refugees. Lamk said she feels touched that TST chose the play.

“Especially right now with everything going on in my country,” said Lamk. “The timing was perfect.”

Protests against the Pinochet-era constitution worsened in Chile in November 2019 and on Oct. 25 this year, the country scrapped the over 20-year constitution.

The play by Carmen Aguirre is a fictional story based on her experience arriving in Canada from Chile. The play focuses on a Chilean family in 1974 who fled to Vancouver from the Pinochet regime. They reunite with their two children and find themselves housed in a hotel for refugees where they’re joined by other individuals who fled Chile.

The Pinochet dictatorship began on Sept. 11, 1973 when the socialist government of democratically-elected Salvador Allende was overthrown. Pinochet proclaimed himself president of the military junta after Allende shot himself to avoid becoming a prisoner. He retired in 1990. In 1998, he was detained to answer to charges of torturing Chilean citizens during his reign. He died in 2006 without answering to those charges.

As an international student, Sara Lamk said she feels touched that Theatre St. Thomas chose The Refugee Hotel. (Submitted: Patty Saad)

Lamk plays Manuelita, one of the family’s children.

“It’s one of those cases that you see how children kind of lose their innocence and are forced to grow up very fast,” she said.

Lamk said there’s a content warning for triggers like sexual assault, torture, PTSD and attempted suicide.

The play will be a staged reading over Zoom on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Carter Scott, president of TST, plays Bill, a Canadian who helps the family settle in Vancouver. He said his character sits back and listens to the stories.

“[Listening is] really what we can do as allies or supporters with people going through these serious situations in their home country,” he said. “The role of a listener is really crucial.”

Scott said TST wanted to choose a show that was more diverse and inclusive this year. Out of the 14 cast and crew members, 11 are Latin American. 

The play is directed by Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert, a St. Thomas University graduate who is making his directorial debut.

He said it was important to cast people of colour for many of the roles. He said he often hears stories of people being pigeon-holed into playing certain characters or only being able to play characters that are emblematic of their race.

“We are very often overlooked in the theatre community,” said Gutiérrez-Robert.

He said as a Latino director, people of colour need to see a project led by another person of colour who has the same kind of life experience or empathy.

“That’s not to say that [a non-POC director] can’t do a good job. But I think in general, there is a lack of support for BIPOC productions,” he said.

Gutiérrez-Robert said the production put things into perspective for him. His father came to Canada in 1994 after marrying his mother in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert said directing The Refugee Hotel put things into perspective after his father came to Canada from Argentina. (Submitted: Kelly Baker Photography)

He said his family didn’t have to go through the asylum-seeking process and his father had someone with him who spoke the language. Gutiérrez-Robert said that doesn’t undermine what his father went through with a similar military dictatorship in Argentina, but he’s happy his father had someone with him because the people in the play didn’t have that.

“It really kind of set a lot of things in a new light for me,” said Gutiérrez-Robert.

Scott said on Sunday around 7 p.m., the live stream will start. Before the show begins, Reinaldo Cascante — who plays Jorge — Gutiérrez-Robert, Lamk and him will have a conversation about the history of the show, the writer, Gutiérrez-Robert’s experience as a director, the Chilean revolutions and the show’s context.

The show is pre-recorded on Zoom and will be played after the pre-show discussion. Lamk said she was sad they couldn’t do the show in person because of COVID-19.

“No matter that this is going to be online, it still holds so much power,” she said.

“You almost don’t miss that it would’ve been live.”