Representation, empathy, joy and, most importantly, hope: This is what Calgary playwright Col Cseke wants audiences to take away from his new show about temporary foreign workers, Parts and Labour.
Mr. Cseke has spent the past eight years collecting the stories of temporary foreign workers in Brooks and High River in southern Alberta, where large meat-packing plants employ people looking to gain citizenship in Canada. He describes Parts and Labour as a “live documentary” featuring stories of workers he talked to. The format is similar to Mr. Cseke’s The Dandelion Project, which looked at doctor-assisted dying.
Mr. Cseke spoke with The Globe about Parts and Labour and what audiences can expect.
What is a live documentary? What do people actually see?
A live documentary is essentially a documentary film experience on stage, where the real words of real people are re-enacted by actors. When I’m going out for interviews and research, instead of video-recording everything, I record the audio, and then the transcript of that audio interview becomes the literal text of the script. We have this brilliant cast of four actors who are representing or recreating 35 real people.
So, they’re seeing actors on stage having the exact same conversations that I had over the last decade or so, which includes, at times, actors playing myself. Which is kind of doubly funny to experience because I’m also onstage every performance holding a live interview with different guests. Every night we have someone join me and we kind of go back and forth, listening and watching the documentary scenes, and then having an interview where we get to know this guest and we reflect together on the stories that we’re hearing.
Why did you decide to focus on the issue of temporary foreign workers?
I started to hear about temporary foreign workers working in meat packing plants in 2011, where I was creating a show with an ensemble of teenagers. I borrowed my mom’s minivan so I could drive half a dozen kids home at the end of every rehearsal and one of the teens I was driving home, she was from Vietnam and both of her parents worked at the Cargill plant. As we got to know each other, making this play together, she was telling me about her family and her parents’ work life and some of the concerns that they were having. Hearing about them felt pretty shocking, it felt like pretty dangerous, brutal work.
That’s when I started understanding the prevalence of temporary foreign workers in meat-packing plants and getting a sense of the some of the challenges and working conditions. But also, I really loved this family. They were just very sweet to one another and what I saw in that family is what I’ve seen now in dozens of families where these parents are putting themselves through a lot, accepting a lot of huge challenges and hardship so that their families could have a safer, happier life in Canada.
You said when you collected these stories, you didn’t record video, just the audio, right?
Yeah, which was a real advantage, because the status of a temporary foreign worker can be quite precarious. A temporary foreign worker’s permit to stay in Canada is held by their employer – they don’t hold it themselves. And there’s a real and perceived fear as stepping out of line in any way can jeopardize your permit status. And so the chance to just record things on audio – which also comes with the offer of changing names, or anonymizing stories so that they’re not attributable to individuals – gave a lot of people, I think, freedom to speak more openly because they weren’t worried about their employers finding out that they were sharing these stories and risking their jobs.
What do you think the audience takes away from the show?
We’re expecting quite a diverse audience and so I think there’ll be quite a diverse set of reactions. My hope is that they’ll feel seen, or some of their lives will resonate with what they’re hearing and they’ll feel that validation or comfort in having stories like these included on stage. Some folks may be completely new to questions about either the labour practices of meat-packing plants or some of these particular challenges of the temporary foreign worker program, and so I want those folks to be enlightened and empathetic towards our neighbours. Just about any industry in Canada has some contingent of foreign workers, and to get to see the inner emotional lives of those folks I think can be very moving and hopefully can engender a good sense of empathy and also hope.
What did you learn from the whole experience?
I’ve learned a lot about these two very huge, I think very flawed systems in the temporary foreign worker program and the meat-packing industry, and part of that learning is realizing, in my opinion, how people can be exploited kind of in plain sight if their stories and experiences are overlooked. And so that’s been the most fundamental bit of learning for me: that this has been happening for years and years and years.
We had massive COVID outbreaks at meat-packing plants in Alberta and there was a very short window where a lot of attention was paid to the industry and its dependence on foreign labour. There was real hope for a little bit that this attention would lead to change, and I’ll tell you, I feel like that hope has dissipated in a lot of ways. These are very stubborn programs that are very reluctant to change in any ways that don’t directly benefit them. That was a less hopeful bit of learning: how even when a lot of the problems are exposed, actually effecting real change is not as easy.
You chose to open on Canada Day. Was that intentional?
It was very intentional. For me personally, every year for the last number of years I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with Canada Day, particularly an uncritical celebration of Canada. And these stories I find quite compelling because they show quite a range of attitudes and experiences in terms of what Canada stands for and what it represents for a lot of people. It’s quite critical of many of the systems that Canada is built on as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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