Neworld Theatre's Chelsea Haberlin loves telling stories with a social conscience

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      Chelsea Haberlin's position as artistic director of Neworld Theatre has been a long time coming. As she explains on the phone during a break from rehearsals for the company's next production, Clean/Espejos, a career in theatre is one that she's yearned for all her life.

      "I was the kind of kid who was always making theatre," says Haberlin. "Like my basement was just full of costumes and props and things to play with, and whenever people came over they were always cast in one of my plays. So I had just kind of always done it, before I ever knew what theatre was.

      "And then I just became increasingly interested in it as I got older," she adds. "I realized at a certain point that I was not a good actor, and not interested in acting, and that really direction and producing and bringing people together around an artistic endeavour was the thing that was interesting to me."

      Haberlin's passion for theatre was fed by attending a lot of local productions; it helped that her parents had subscriptions to the Vancouver Playhouse and the Arts Club Theatre Company. Her journey to the professional stage came by way of earning a BFA at the University of Victoria and then an MFA at UBC.

      "I mean, I wanted to go to UVic because I wanted to move away from home a little bit," she relates with a laugh, "and actually what I did there was the applied theatre program, which is very unique. It was one of the first programs in the country like that when I went there. So it was an interesting opportunity to study something in addition to directing, like the application of theatre tools outside of a traditional context.

      "And a large part of the reason I went to UBC," she adds, "is that when I moved back from UVic it was very difficult to get a footing in the city. You really have to go to school here to get in here, I found. And so I thought, 'If I go and get my masters I'll really assert myself as someone who is pursuing directing professionally.' And it worked."

      Chelsea Haberlin.

      The first theatre job Haberlin scored, while still at UBC, was as assistant director on a Neworld Theatre show called The Idiot. Prior to that she had cofounded ITSAZOO Productions, which first got the local theatre community's attention with the shows Mojo and Killer Joe, the latter winning two Jessie Awards, including one for best production. All the time she had her sights set on a prized artistic-director position.

      "I was really interested in doing that on sort of an indie level," she says, "but I didn't know if ITSAZOO was gonna be able to grow to a level where it was gonna be sustainable for me as a professional career. So I started looking for organizations that I was interested in working with to try and figure out how to grow my own company. It was really to find mentorship, and Neworld really stuck out to me right away because they don't just make plays--they make plays with a social consciousness that really strive to say bold things about the way we should be in the world. They had a strong kinda social justice and interest in talking about identity, things that I was really interested in."

      Haberlin found that mentorship in Neworld Theatre artistic director Marcus Youssef, and started working under him as resident producer in 2013. Six years later she took over Youssef's AD role, a position which currently also sees her codirecting Clean/Espejo, which is being presented by the Cultch as part of its Femme Festival. According to the Cultch website, the play--written by Christine Quintana and codirected with dramaturg Daniela Atiencia, with translation and adaptation by Paula Zelaya Cervantes--"intimately explores different perspectives of female solidarity, secrets, and survival across two languages."

      "It tells the story of two women at a resort in Cancun," Haberlin explains, referring to the characters played by Genevieve Fleming and Alexandra Lainfiesta. "One of them is from Canada, there for a couple of weeks for her sisters' wedding, and the other character--the Spanish speaking character--works there as a manager of the cleaning service. And so they have a very different relationship to the place that they are at, and are in roles that traditionally don't overlap very much. If you go to a resort, the cleaning staff don't very often interact with guests, so there's a great deal of kind of hierarchy that's established there--unspoken hierarchy--and a lot of difference in privilege. It's kind of a complicated dynamic.

      "And so these two characters are dealing on their own with a lot of individual issues in their family and their personal life--I'm trying to say what it's about without saying too much--and they have an encounter one night that leads to their two paths crossing, and ultimately complicates this relationship that otherwise would be quite formally laid out, based on the rules of the resort. They sort of collide with each other in a way that's really unexpected."

      Haberlin is particularly pleased that Clean/Espejos is getting its world premiere as part of the Cultch's Femme Festival, the stated aim of which is to highlight the strength and power of female-identifying voices. (International Women's Day takes place two days before its run begins.)

      "The Cultch has been the home for Neworld's work for many, many years," she points out. "And we just love having our work premiered there, so as soon as we knew we were gonna do this we right away thought of that as the first home for it. There's all kinds of things about this play that are very unusual, and have really high demands on a presenting company, so we're really grateful to them for welcoming us.

      "And I think the stories that the Cultch is telling in the current [Femme Festival] series are stories that don't get enough air time," she adds. "In theatre there are lots of stories about white women--especially white women with privilege--but there are not as many stories about Spanish-speaking women working cleaning services in Mexico. So I really appreciate that they're making space on their stage for those stories."

      Neworld Theatre presents in-person performances of Clean/Espejos at the Cultch Historic Theatre from March 10 to 19, with online performances from April 5 to 10.