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Documentary theatre to highlight stories of Temporary Foreign Workers

An upcoming Calgary theatre production of Parts & Labour is translating the experience of documentary film onto the stage.

The show is the culmination of more than 10 years of interviews by documentarian Col Cseke with members of Canada’s Temporary Foriegn Worker community. The play highlights the lives of people internationally who came to Brooks to work in the meat packing industry.

“The handy phrase I always use is it’s ‘real people in their real words, reenacted by really good actors,'” said Cseke.

“It feels like quite a responsibility, and a privilege to be the caretakers of these stories, and share them because they’re very intimate.”

Actors Mike Tan, Meg Farhall, Rico Pisco, and Isabella Pedersen will be acting out the interviews. The show is directed by Mieko Ouchi.

Cseke will also be doing additional live interviews with new Canadians, on stage, in between the documentary scenes.

“These are all Calgary newcomers who may not have the exact same experience as the folks in the show, but have some kind of related or resonant experience,” he said.

Parts & Labour is being held by Field Work, at the West Village Theatre, from July 1-9. Tickets are available online starting at $26.

Backbreaking, and stranger than fiction

Cseke said that some of the stories that will be told at during the show will, quite literally, be stranger than fiction.

“There’s things that folks have shared that if I wrote these fictionally, I think you just wouldn’t believe them,” he said.

One the major stories revolves around a man named Ronaldo, played by Rico Pisco, moving to Canada after running a butcher shop in Mexico.

“[He] literally picked up a package of steak, saw that it was packaged in Brooks, Alberta, started googling, and now and now he’s a Canadian citizen,” said Cseke.

“In the same story, we get a sense of the—for him—literal backbreaking work that he does at the plants: like back surgery, physiotherapy, permanent injury, so not an exaggeration to say backbreaking work.”

The show also features stories of a Filipino philosophy student. The students tries to find the meaning to slaughtering thousands of cows daily.

There’s also the story of a family man who tragically brought Covid home from the plant in the early days of the pandemic.

What it means to be Canadian

The show opening on Canada Day was intentional.

The show represents the complexities of what it means to be Canadian, both the hope and the tragedy, said Cseke.

“There are real challenges and broken aspects of the many systems, but particularly this temporary foreign worker system,” he said.

“But at the same time, continually every time we talk to a worker, they’re talking about these challenges and hardships that they’re going through for the promise of becoming Canadian, and the level of safety and opportunity and community that they see in Canada always shines through as well.”

He said that for many Canadians, like himself, who have become increasingly uncomfortable with Canada Day, the show gives them a chance to re-engage with the national holiday.

“Doing this project is a chance to sort of reengage with that sense of national pride, or understanding what our country really is,” Cseke said.

“Having these folks who continually talk about like, ‘yes, it’s hard, yes, these are the sacrifices I made, but if it’s a chance to become Canadian, and have my family live here in this country with me, it’s worth it,’ I find very compelling.”

Diversity in Alberta

The show will also be featuring the voices of long-term residents of Brooks, as they have watched their community evolve for the past few decades. He said that Brook’s tagline of the “city of 100 hellos” is particularly relevant.

“It’s one of the most, on a per capita basis, diverse cities in the country.”

The show will be continuing on to Brooks after the conclusion of its Calgary run. Cseke said that’s exciting.

“I think we’re quite fair and open to those longtime residents as they’re trying to understand just what it feels like now to walk down the main street in Brooks. Or, what it feels like to have these different community organizations welcoming them into their space when for the longest time they’ve been used to being the ones to invite people in and be a host,” he said.

“I’m excited to bring this show back to have that conversation with folks down there. I’m curious to hear how they feel they’ve been as a city represented by the stories that we’re telling.”

For more details on Parts & Labour see www.fieldworkstories.com.