Marie Barlizo shares her journey as a playwright
My name is Marie Leofeli Romero Barlizo. I’m a Filipino-Chinese playwright, dramaturg, mentor and mother of two children. I was born in the Philippines and raised in Montreal. I was the first visible minority to graduate from the Playwriting program at the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) in 2002. I also have a BFA in Theatre from Concordia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC.
My parents settled in Montreal with my sister and me with big dreams and a hundred dollars in their pocket. We lived in basement apartments in Côte-des-Neiges. My dad worked during the day at the hospital in housekeeping, and my mom worked at night as a line operator.
I had a particularly challenging childhood. My father was an alcoholic and suffered from severe paranoia. At school, I was bullied by the Filipinos in my class. Every day after school from grades 1 to grade 4, I would get beat up by a Filipino boy and other Filipino children would form a circle around us and just watch me get punched and kicked. The beatings stopped when a group of older kids started to walk me home and taught me how to fight.
The thing that got me through that time was reading stories.
I read a book every night and every night my imagination would take me to a place that was far away. I loved stories. Stories were magical. They were places I could escape to, create magic and find justice. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to create that same kind of magic.
But my parents sacrificed their own dreams so that my sister and I could have a better life. The expectation to succeed and become a doctor was tremendous. I had to summon a great deal of courage to tell them I wanted to pursue theatre since I knew that this decision would disappoint them, but for me it would have been harder to live a lie. The moment I told them, I knew I would be on my own. I worked three part-time jobs while I was going to theatre school at Concordia University but I was determined, no matter what. It took me 6 years to finish my degree.
When I got a huge scholarship to go to the National Theatre School (NTS), I knew my dream was finally coming true.
I don’t think I would be a playwright and dramaturg today if it were not for the training I received at the National Theatre School. Being the first IBPOC to graduate from the program, however, I continuously felt like I wasn’t good enough and was an outsider. After all, I didn’t grow up privileged. I was just a poor girl from Cote-des-Neiges. At 27, I was the oldest student in my class and, with the exception of one Acting student who was half-Japanese, the rest of my class was Caucasian. At the time, the most successful NTS IBPOC alumna was actress Sandra Oh. The only IBPOC mentor I had in three years at the school was Alyson-Sealy Smith, who directed my final project at the New Words Festival.
I felt I was constantly compared to the other playwright in my year, a white male. It was clear that some classmates did not connect to my work, and that they did connect to his. It didn’t help that in my first year, a few classmates let me know that they didn’t think I would ever make it as a writer. I never dared say it aloud, but I often wondered if my peers couldn’t identify with my work because I didn’t look like them and my stories didn’t reflect their reality. My worst fear was confirmed when a Montreal director was hired to work on one of my projects, but declined. The director later confided that they opted to direct the work of the other playwright because they were told he was the better playwright.
I was crushed. But I refused to give up.
I stayed because I wanted to write more than anything… I stayed because NTS encouraged me to dig deep and ask hard questions and to push my stories further. They also pushed me to dig deep inside of myself and investigate my Filipino-Chinese roots because my stories didn’t yet reflect who I was. It was an awakening that was so unexpected and brought so much meaning to me not only to my development as a writer but personally – to my young family.
I also discovered my process at NTS. I was introduced to authentic movement by my mind-body instructor Tedi Tafel– which is a meditative, intuitive, improvisational movement practise involving a mover and a witness – I explore my work and my creative impulses through my body and it leads me to the story. I continue to work with Tedi today.
My instructors encouraged me to believe in my own stories and to find “My People” who would work with me to make my plays happen.
While at the school, I also learned discipline to meet deadlines and how to work on multiple projects, which now serves me as I juggle various writing projects, contracts, and family responsibilities to my children and my parents.
The experience at NTS prepared me for the professional world and gave me the strength to keep going despite the hurdles I faced. There was very little opportunity for writers like me in Montreal at the time and after my experience at NTS I truly questioned whether or not I would ever have a place at the table – whether or not my stories mattered – whether or not I would ever find the people to collaborate with. Like Philip Akin, former AD of Obsidian, I believe that in order for writers to become better, writers need to have opportunities and get produced. So I went to Toronto to get the experience I needed. I worked with companies like Factory, Cahoots, fu-Gen and Nightswimming to develop my plays and artistic practice.
My husband and I came back to Montreal because we wanted to build a life here. Despite the politics in this province – ironically this is the place I feel most at home and creative.
After I had my second child in 2013, I began to notice a significant shift in the Theatre in Montreal. It felt more open. I felt for the first time that there was space for me and my work. I finally felt that I didn’t have to return to Toronto to work. That's when I knocked on Quincy Armorer’s door at Black Theatre Workshop and things started to finally come together.
Becoming a parent changed my life. It put things into perspective. For instance, when I had my first child, I considered making my maternity leave from the theatre permanent. But then my daughter became obsessed with Frozen and told me she wanted to be Anna. It was a heartbreaking moment. But that’s the moment when I knew why I had to keep writing.
I have to keep writing for my children and for my children’s children and their children and so on and so on. So that there will be stories for them. Stories that are about them. Stories in which they can see themselves and their experiences reflected on stage. So that they feel acknowledged that their stories are also being told.
I write about things I don’t understand and that I want to make sense of. I write in order to have more Asian stories, and specifically Filipino stories, on Canadian stages. The plays I create give Asian female actors the opportunity to challenge themselves in their craft and redefine Asian Canadian characters on our stage for contemporary audiences. As a community, Filipinos are neglected and our history is too often dismissed. For example, the fact that about a million Filipinos died in World War II is left out of most historical accounts. Manila, after Warsaw, was the most devastated city in that period. I also write about survival, hope and the complexity of people and the decisions they make. Filipino women are stereotyped as obedient, submissive and highly sexualized. I want to challenge those stereotypes. I also write about survival, hope and the complexity of people and the decisions they make. I am inspired by the people I grew up with from Cote-des-Neiges who were very complicated. One of my best friends who used to protect me from getting beat up went to prison for gang rape. I also want to understand how we cope with difficult things.
My play The Little Mighty Superhero, which was a commission by Geordie Theatre for kids ages 5 and older for their 2Play Tour, is now being virtually streamed in schools. Mike Payette, the artistic director of Geordie Theatre, approached me to write a play that featured Filipino characters because he recognized the lack of Filipino stories in Canadian theatres. The play is about intergenerational sharing, fear and loss. It explores how kids can use their imagination to cope with their fears. The project was inspired by my son's deep and special relationship with his Lola – which means grandmother in Tagalog and his fear of the dark. My mom passed on stories to my son and my daughter. In the play, the Lola passes on the story of The Bakunawa, a myth that dates back to pre-colonial times in the Philippines. The story is about a sea dragon who falls in love with the seven moons in the Sky and swallows them. When he swallows the last moon, the ancient Filipinos rise up and scare the dragon, who spits out the moon back into the sky. In the play I mythologized my son’s story to show him he has strength and wisdom of his ancestors to face his fears. He can access his strength by remembering what he's learned from his past experiences with fears and the stories shared by his Lola.
Presently, I'm developing the play The Warrior, inspired by the atrocities experienced by my family when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in World War II. On September 16, 1943, about twenty-five members of my great-uncle’s family were hunted down by the Japanese army and systematically beheaded on the fields of Buntal in Barotac Viejo, my father’s birth town. They were targeted because they supported the local anti-Japanese guerrilla movement. There are many theories about who reported them and why. In The Warrior, I am exploring what people, in particular women, are willing to do to survive in the extreme circumstances of war and how and why they betray each other.
I’m also continuing to develop my play The Healing which was a commission by Carlos Bulosan Theatre in Toronto and was virtually launched this past summer. My play centers around my challenging relationship with my father who lives in a long-term care facility (a CHSLD) in Montreal, and how almost losing him to COVID -19 allowed me to move past our previous issues and my feelings of anger and resentment. It is a new beginning with my father - something I never expected I would ever have. I’m writing this story not only to advocate for people who are the most vulnerable in our society, but also to explore questions of what we inherit, what we have to confront in ourselves to move forward, and what we need to let go of to find peace and a family of one’s own.
This is my third season at NTS, but my first year as the Playwriting Mentor. It is an honour to have this opportunity. I bring with me my experiences and the challenges I faced over the years both personally and professionally. I also bring light, hope and courage. I'm here to support you as students and your artistic interests but also help you navigate a system that can be overwhelming especially during these uncertain times.