Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Deborah Pugh and Charli Dubery: Bucket List

By | Published on Thursday 9 February 2017

We’ve been fans of Theatre Ad Infinitum for some years now, and their latest show did not disappoint when our reviewer saw it up at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. It’s a highly charged piece of physical theatre which, while telling a personal story, also shines a light on the complex politics of the North American Free Trade Agreement and its effects on the people of Mexico.
To find out more about the show, which begins a run at Battersea Arts Centre this week, I spoke to two of the play’s performers, Deborah Pugh and Charli Dubery.

What is ‘Bucket List’ about? What’s the story?
DP: ‘Bucket List’ is set in Mexico, in a fairly typical US border town dominated by the huge factories or maquiladoras that sprang up in the 90s as a result of the signing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which allowed US and Canada companies to make the most of cheap Mexican labour to produce their goods.

The workforces in the factories are almost entirely female – women are deemed easier to control – and the work is hard, long hours for low pay and workers’ rights are often overlooked if a factory is covered by NAFTA. We follow the story of Milagros, the daughter of a factory worker who was killed for protesting against the conditions and pollution caused by the maquiladoras. Years after her mother’s death Milagros is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, most likely caused by the pollution from the factories, and she sets out to get her revenge on the people responsible.

The piece was developed over about a year, with long periods of writing, researching and thinking in between time in the rehearsal room. A lot of the work went into finding the appropriate storytelling language for the piece. Ad Inf. doesn’t really have a company style as such, we try to find the specific style to tell that specific story and here we wanted to create a world where America/Hollywood/iPhones/Disney and, by extension, most of the western world could bump up against the story in a Mexican factory town.

CM: What inspired it? Is it based on truth?
DP: The original idea came from a conversation between Nir Paldi (creator and director) and her Mexican friend and collaborator, actor Vicky Araico Casas; Vicky had said that in Mexico people are so frustrated and angry with corrupt governments and officials that they would say if they had only three months to live, the first thing that they would do is go out and kill a politician.

This raised a number of questions… not least the question of what that would actually achieve. Even setting aside the moral issue of killing, what would be the actual consequences? Is that what it takes – something that extreme – to elicit change? Would it change anything? or is the system too big to fight? Either way, what it gave us was the starting point of a character with nothing to lose who wanted to put an end to some bad guys….

CM: Other than the obvious ones, what wider themes does the play address? Would you say it has a political agenda?
CD: It is very interesting having worked on and to be performing this piece within the current political climate. We see our heroine, Milagros, battle her way through different ways of achieving justice as she watches the protests led by her mother lead to nothing but death, and is forced to evaluate what difference it will actually make. We encourage the audience to root for Milagros, the underdog, and want her to succeed in killing the people on her list against all the odds. But does this make her a terrorist? Where does that leave us? What is our moral standing ground? It raises a lot of difficult and very present questions.

The cast, and our audiences are watching the show from a very privileged position in that we are all consuming the things they are producing – our costumes, our phones, the keypad this is being typed on, the chairs the audience are sitting on. You could also argue that we are making money out of these people by telling their stories, and ask what right do we have to tell them? But then what is better, not to make this work at all or to get it out there and make people speak about it?

CM: What roles do you play in the show?
DP: I play Maria – Milagros’ mother, a factory worker and an activist. She instils in Mila the importance of fighting injustice, of holding people to account for their actions. Importantly she is a non-violent activist – the world they live in is an aggressive, dangerous one, where drug money runs through local government and life is cheap and dispensable, she is fighting for a way out of that.

Before her death, she identifies five people she sees as responsible for the suffering and corruption in the town, the names on the list range from local – the factory manager, who sexually abuses his female employees and releases chemical waste from the factory into the local river – to the global: the Presidents of the US and Mexico who signed NAFTA. It is this list that becomes Mila’s bucket list.

CD: I play Teresa, who is one of Maria’s very close friends, and is continuously raped by their factory manager and subsequently murdered because she tried to get help and make him stop by reporting him to the police. She fuels Maria’s protests – she is just one example of the impossible quest to find non-violent justice within a corrupt system.

CM: The cast is all female, isn’t it? What’s the reason for that? How does it shape the production?
CD: Yes, the cast is all female. Interestingly (and also quite horrifyingly) we are 7 women on stage, and that is the exact number of women that go ‘missing’ in Mexico every single day.

The factory environments and the surrounding towns are predominately populated by women perceived to be ‘vulnerable’. They are over worked, under paid, prone to abuse and left to raise their families. Factories are specifically interested in hiring women as they have smaller hands (which is better for assembling small parts) and are apparently less likely to stand up for their rights by opposing factory managers or creating unions when they are forced to work 12-hour shifts with no breaks and wear ear plugs so they cannot communicate with their colleagues. This is just a tiny, tiny glimpse of the ways in which women are treated in the border towns and factories.

As well as being all female it is also an international cast; it’s a global story and we wanted audiences to be able to recognise themselves and the parts they/ we all play in it.

CM: The show was on in Edinburgh in the summer, and our reviewer was really impressed by it. How did the run go from your perspective?
CD: We felt that the run went really well. It was great to be able to do it every day and keep putting it in front of audiences to see what was or wasn’t working, and for us to keep getting a sense of what the show is, does and how it can affect the audience. We are all really looking forward to performing it in London, and touring it afterwards.

CM: What has changed since its early performances?
DP: Well! When we were first making it there was some concern that in the UK especially, no one would know what NAFTA was, plus Mexico wasn’t particularly making any big headlines at the time – not that you should only make work about stuff that’s already in the spotlight but, y’know, Mexico wasn’t necessarily at the front of everyone’s minds over here. However! a lot has happened since then… and whatever else you say about Donald Trump he certainly has brought Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement back into the collective consciousness. Famously he’s not such a fan of NAFTA either, of course, and as gross as it feels to even share a grain of an opinion with that man, it perhaps makes for a richer debate to be critical of the same thing from such wildly different positions. I think. Urgh.

We are also joined this time by three brilliant new cast members; Tamsin Clarke, Shamira Turner and Luisa Guerreiro.

CM: What’s happening with the show after the London run?
CD: After the run at the Battersea Arts Centre, ‘Bucket List’ will be touring around the UK until 30th April.

CM: What’s next for you?
DP: This year is the 10 year anniversary of Theatre Ad Infinitum so keep your eyes and ears open for our celebrations…..


‘Bucket List’ is on at Battersea Arts Centre from 13 Feb-4 March. See the venue website here for more info.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Alex Brenner