Annabel Soutar and Chris Abraham are, respectively, the artistic directors of Montreal’s Porte Parole theatre and Toronto’s Crows Theatre. Between 2012 and 2014, the two collaborated on producing and touring Seeds, a play about the use and spread of genetically modified organisms. I spoke to them last weekend about their new play, The Watershed, funded by the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Parapan Am Games.
The Watershed explores the controversial change in ownership of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) after the federal government cut its funding in 2012. In 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization in Manitoba, took over the ELA, amid questions about its continuing capabilities. Soutar began research for a play on watersheds and narrowed it down to the controversy over the ELA. She discoursed with activist scholars, government officials and her family to enter into the tense interactions between our need for sustainable watersheds and an economy based on their harm. “We share the responsibility … to protect and revitalize [our] shared and lived watersheds,” Soutar says.
As part of this journey, Soutar and her family travelled to the oil sands in Alberta. Her children dialogued about what our society does to and needs from our watersheds, while her father spoke to a resource-driven economy and the supposed need to cut government expenditures.
Soutar is a “documentarist.” She approaches people who are “trying, through action, to overcome something they can’t reconcile” and brings their stories to the world – stories that often receive limited attention either from the mainstream media because of time, money, editorial choice or because of the selectivity of social media.
If the media is often her first portal into a story, her main source is the people involved. She shares their stories in their own words. The name of her theatre, “Porte Parole” means to carry spoken language. She brings people’s language, verbatim, to the stage. She goes “behind the scenes,” into life, to discover the moments of struggle and enter into the actions they use to overcome what they are going through. She builds a network of interested participants that grows into a community of ongoing engagement as the plays are toured across the country.
As director and dramaturge, Chris Abraham has guided the writing of The Watershed, worked with actors to advance it and has now created the current production – all to fulfill the playwright’s quest to bring life to the stage and then, in turn, alter life.
“We are used to consuming stories about our public, social, our political life through screens.” In contrast, he says, the experience of having human beings stand in front of you to bear witness to somebody’s experience through verbatim language is akin to gathering around the village square and talking to somebody about what they’ve experienced.
Each actor plays multiple characters of varying interests and politics – a reflection on “a common human route,” despite Canadians’ diverse interests
For Soutar, the stage tests the truths of her script. Stage artists are creative human beings, who, through their own reality, filter what the audience will encounter, as opposed to just offering information. The audience will see the production’s presentation of the “dynamic skirmishes about the water resources in our country.” Truth is thus “a mosaic” of many peoples’ actions. Now, she says we will need imagination to facilitate change. However, Soutar does not enforce her own truth. As a character in the play she makes her playwriting actions “transparent.” The play does not provide alternatives. It asks how “urgent this (situation ) is” and “it puts pressure on governments to do something.” The play is not an activist one; it does not rally people to one idea. It is intended to “activate public engagement”
Soutar’s plays engage their audiences by “examining a collective cultural moment” and building a community around it. The Watershed asks about Canada as a nation with significant natural resources, and how our economy relates to these resources, In so doing, she reflects on the “shifting values of our institutions, both private and public”.
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