Alum interview with Marie Leofeli Barlizo, MFA ’13

Marie Leofeli Barlizo

Marie Leofeli Barlizo, MFA ’13 (Photo credit: Sabrina Reeves)

Marie Leofeli Barlizo is a Filipino-Chinese playwright from Montreal. She is a graduate of UBC’s Creative Writing MFA Program and the first visible minority to graduate from the National Theatre School’s (NTS) Playwriting Program (2002).

She is the playwriting mentor at Black Theatre Workshop’s Artist Mentorship Program, an instructor at NTS and their 2020-21 Artistic Associate for Playwrighting. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Imago Theatre where she is developing her play The Warrior. Geordie Theatre commissioned her to write The Little Mighty Superhero and it is part of their 2020-2021 2Play Tour.

Why did you pursue a career in writing?

I had a very challenging childhood because I was bullied and my home life was unstable. Reading helped me get through that difficult time. To me, stories are magical and they helped me escape to another world. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was possible because of my parents’ expectations that I become a doctor, and my own doubt that someone like me, from an underprivileged background, could be a writer. It wasn’t until I was in first year University, pursuing a science degree and failing, that I realized I had to make a change, even if it was the hardest thing I had to do in my life. Despite not having my parents’ support, I pursued writing anyway because it is the only thing I want to do.

You were the first visible minority person to graduate from the National Theatre School’s playwriting program. How has being a person of a visible minority impacted your experience as a playwright?

The reality of being a racialized artist has been both a challenge and a privilege in my career. When I decided to pursue playwriting, I was confronted with a lot of barriers. Because Asians are stereotyped as a model minority, I was told that I was a good and smart student and that I should pursue medicine or law rather than playwriting. When I first graduated from NTS, there were very few opportunities for racialized writers especially in Montreal. I had to develop a network and support for myself by working in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada, so that I could get the experience I needed to keep working in the Theatre. I received many development opportunities, but very very few production opportunities, so I had to produce myself. It’s only been within the past few years, and especially now during the pandemic, that being a racialized playwright and screenwriter writer has opened more doors. My identity has also inspired so many of my stories that I feel blessed to be who I am.

“The reality of being a racialized artist has been both a challenge and a privilege in my career. When I decided to pursue playwriting, I was confronted with a lot of barriers. My identity has also inspired so many of my stories that I feel blessed to be who I am.”
MFA Creative Writing

It has also impacted my process as a mentor because I share the experiences I’ve had as a racialized Theatre artist with others to give them an understanding of the challenges in the industry that they might face: insights which I never got when I first entered the industry. At the same time, I give them a perspective on how the industry is finally making changes, and I really try to find opportunities for them so that they can work with a particular company or artist that will help them transition into the professional world.

Why did you get a degree from the Creative Writing program?

Before being in UBC’s MFA optional residency program, I wrote exclusively for the Theatre. I wanted to be able to explore other genres and disciplines, especially screenwriting, and the MFA gave me this opportunity. At the same time, I could do it from home, since it was an optional residency program and I wanted to take time off from working in the Theatre to have a family. I wanted to make sure I kept writing and developing as a writer, so the program was a great fit for my needs.

How did the Creative Writing program help your writing practice?

The program really helped me learn about structure and how to pitch my work. The teachers were amazing, especially Sara Graefe, who really encouraged me as a writer and made me feel like my stories mattered. I was also able to explore comedy in my writing, which I had never done before.

You wrote several plays that were performed in 2020 or will be this year. How do you decide the storylines of your plays, and what do you want audiences to take away from your work?

Both The Healing and The Little Mighty Superhero were commissions and were produced in 2020-2021. Although the theatre companies had an idea of what stories they were looking to produce, the stories I write were very much inspired by my own life, or by questions and situations in my life that I’m struggling to understand and that I want to make sense of. I also write in order to have more Asian stories on stage, specifically Filipino stories because, for the most part, our stories are largely ignored. I believe that with more Asian stories on stage and screen there will be less hate toward Asians because stories will help others empathize with our experience and understand and connect with our struggles. These stories will also challenge stereotypes that people have about Asian people. But most importantly, my hope is that the next generation will see themselves and their stories reflected on stage and feel acknowledged that their stories are being told.

“I also write in order to have more Asian stories on stage, specifically Filipino stories because, for the most part, our stories are largely ignored. I believe that with more Asian stories on stage and screen there will be less hate toward Asians because stories will help others empathize with our experience and understand and connect with our struggles.”
MFA Creative Writing

Can you share a challenge that you’ve faced, and how you overcame it?

The biggest challenge I faced in my career is that I didn’t get a professional production of one of my plays until 18 years out of Theatre school, and because of this I felt like I wasn’t a good writer. For a long time, I didn’t feel I would get produced and I felt like quitting. But what kept me going were my children and other Asian children. I wanted to create stories that they could see themselves in. I also had a very wise advisor at NTS who kept reminding me that if I didn’t believe in my stories nobody else would. So I really challenged myself to create plays that mean something to me; stories that are urgent, that I want to share with others; plays that, despite maybe not getting support from a theatre company, I would find a way to produce anyway.

Do you have any forthcoming writing or projects that you’d like to share with us?

It’s a really exciting time. I’m writing 5 plays and developing a number of TV shows. All are at different stages and three of the plays are being developed at theatre companies next season. One of my TV shows is being considered at a streaming network. I’m developing a full-length version of my solo play, The Healing. The play is inspired by my challenging relationship with my father, who lives in a long-term care facility and almost died as a result of contracting COVID-19 last year. The Healing was initially a seven-minute solo play commissioned by Carlos Bulosan Theatre. Centaur Theatre accepted the play for further development for their Catalyst Reading in January 2021. The play in its current form not only explores my challenging relationship with my father, but also examines the questions of what we inherit from others, what we have to confront in ourselves to move forward, and what we need to release in order to find peace and a family of one’s own. It’s a story that shows how mental illness and addiction can destroy dreams and relationships, and that investigates how the cycle of intergenerational trauma can stop.

Do you have any suggestions for students or new graduates pursuing a writing career?

  1. Write, write, write
  2. Take risks in your writing
  3. Develop your networks
  4. Establish a relationship with a mentor to help bridge the gap between school and the professional world
  5. Find the people who you can collaborate with to make your projects happen
  6. If nobody produces you, produce yourself
  7. Learn to write in other genres
  8. Have a life outside of your writing

List of Select Productions

The Healing play development at Centaur Theatre 20-21; The Betrayal 20-21; The Little Mighty Superhero production by Geordie Productions (2020-21); The Warrior developing at Imago Theatre; Happiness public reading at Carlos Bulosan Theatre’s Tales from the Flipside Festival; Like Father Like Daughter commissioned by fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company for their 2019 Fearless Project; produced in June 2019; Lucky at Next Stage Theatre Festival (TO) at Factory Theatre (2019)