Panamania play The Watershed goes beyond ideologies to grapple with Canada’s environmental challenges in the 21st century.
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to July 19
$15 – $42
You’ve got to admire Annabel Soutar’s journalistic integrity. The documentary playwright is so determined to tell a balanced story that when she couldn’t get Stephen Harper’s government to even comment on—let alone justify—its controversial funding cut to a major freshwater research centre in northwestern Ontario, she enlisted her own dad to take Harper’s side.
Soutar’s right-of-centre father, played by the great Eric Peterson, provides the voice of fiscal conservatism in her eagerly awaited new play The Watershed, having its world premiere as part of Panamania, the Pan Am Games’s arts and culture festival. And he’s not the only family member the playwright draws upon. Her partner, actor Alex Ivanovici, their two children and Soutar herself are all characters in the show, which opens Sunday at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
Including her loved ones in an environmental documentary was a strategic choice. The Watershed is about Canada’s ongoing struggle to reconcile economic growth with environmental preservation—and that’s a struggle Soutar believes we should all be concerned about.
“The personal and the political are not separate for me,” she says, sitting down for an interview along with her director/collaborator, Chris Abraham, in the theatre’s lobby. “The conversation of the play is a conversation that’s very alive around our dinner tables,” Abraham adds. “As families we’re trying to contend with our dependence on an economic system that we recognize is also extremely problematic.” That’s why the pair decided the show should be a family affair.
It was also a way into a pretty daunting topic. The Watershed was created at the behest of Panamania’s creative director, Don Shipley, who had seen Soutar and Abraham’s previous collaboration, Seeds, a gripping account of the controversy over genetically modified crops. When Shipley asked the two to build a piece about the politics of water, to tie in with the festival’s “aquaculture” theme, Soutar was briefly at a loss. But she immediately decided her daughters, Ella and Beatrice, had to be part of it.
“That was a bit radical for me,” admits the Montreal-based writer, whose company, Porte Parole, specializes in nonfiction theatre. “I tend to fly solo in my research, and taking a 10- and an eight-year-old along seemed like a bit of a wacky idea. But for me, this show is about the future and their generation. I felt that it was somehow going to be about my generation having a bit of a reckoning [over its treatment of the environment] and a confession to the next generation about where we’ve gone astray.”
Research for the show included a cross-country family trip, with a visit to Canada’s most infamous ecological eyesore, the oil sands development in northern Alberta. Soutar, meanwhile, found the dramatic conflict the play needed when she learned about the federal decision to shut down Ontario’s internationally renowned Experimental Lakes Area in 2012. The reaction in the scientific community was vociferous, with petitions and pickets on Parliament Hill. Soutar interviewed the outraged scientists but also wanted the government’s explanation. For Seeds she had managed to get comments from the much-hated gene splicers Monsanto, so she was surprised that the feds wouldn’t talk to her.
“I know, a lot of people have said, ‘Why were you surprised?'” she says of the notoriously tight-lipped Harper regime. “But I guess I’m naïve. I thought that someone, even anonymously, would want to get a message through, like, ‘Calm down, it’s just one research site, we’ve got tons of them all over the country; we need to tighten our belts.’ I was open to that message, but I just couldn’t get it. So the person who ends up representing the conservative viewpoint is my father.”
Soutar says it’s important to her that all viewpoints be considered. “I’m very concerned about polarization and too much entrenched ideology, where one side isn’t able to speak to the other.” By making the story personal and having her father, embodied by Peterson, argue the other side, “we’re showing that a dialogue is still possible,” she says. “We need to bring those personal conversations out into the public sphere.”
Along with Peterson—who also starred in Seeds—the show features Kristen Thomson of I, Claudia fame as Annabel. The rest of the cast includes Ivanovici (playing himself, among other characters), Bruce Dinsmore, Tanja Jacobs, Tara Nicodemo, Ngozi Paul, and Amelia Sargisson. Abraham’s Toronto company, Crow’s Theatre, is once again co-producing with Porte Parole. The acclaimed director also appears as a character in the play, as does his own daughter Hazel, now nine, who took part in the cross-country trip. “We’ve been working on this project for three years now and along the way the friendship between Annabel’s daughters and my daughter has intensified,” he says, smiling. “That’s been one of the great gifts to come out of this.”
Soutar is delighted to have the magnetic Thomson serve as her onstage alter ego. Although the playwright wrote herself into Seeds, where she was portrayed by Abraham’s wife, Liisa Repo-Martell, Soutar has largely avoided any autobiographical impulses in the past. “I’ve chosen to be a documentary writer on purpose, because I’m more interested in other people’s lives than my own,” she says. “So I have gone way beyond my comfort zone with this play. But sometimes, if you don’t go through a deep personal reflection, then you haven’t really engaged with the material enough.”
After Toronto, The Watershed will be presented in French at Montreal’s Usine C in November. As with Seeds, which has been touring Canada since its Toronto debut in 2012, Soutar and Abraham hope to take the show on the road and beyond our borders, too. “Canada has been getting a lot of international attention because of the oil sands, and also because of certain aspects of Canadian foreign policy that have been quite different from the past,” Soutar says. “So I think now is the time to capitalize on that interest and tell our stories.”
But she also hopes the play hits home. The issue of preserving our water is an urgent one for all Canadians, she says. “If people don’t take this question about the future personally, and seriously, then I don’t think we’ve done our job.”
Panamania Theatre Highlights
Here are a few of the other theatrical offerings at the festival, which runs now through Aug. 15:
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Daniels Spectrum; July 11-15): Rick Miller (MacHomer, Boom) co-wrote, directed, and co-stars in this modern, multimedia take on the classic Jules Verne submarine adventure.
The Postman (the Annex; July 12-26): Directed by David Ferry and starring Laurence Dean Ifill, this site-specific play tells the tale of Toronto’s first African-Canadian postal carrier from some of the front porches along his route.
Gimme Shelter (Young Centre; July 13-25): Actor-playwright Ravi Jain (A Brimful of Asha) employs ancient Hindu epic The Mahabharata as the inspiration for this look at the population displacement caused by climate change.
887 (St. Lawrence Centre; July 14-18): The inimitable Robert Lepage (Needles and Opium) premieres a new solo play that revisits his childhood in an FLQ-era Quebec City.
It Comes In Waves (Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak; July 15-19): Necessary Angel, bluemouth inc., and playwright Jordan Tannahill are the collaborators on this vigorously immerse show that involves dance, theatre, and canoeing.
Betroffenheit (St. Lawrence Centre; July 23-25): West Coast powerhouses, choreographer Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot) and actor Jonathon Young (Electric Company Theatre), team up for an exciting new dance-theatre piece.
For full details on all Panamania events, check the festival website.