Interviewed by Sasha Singer-Wilson
Playwright and theatre producer Annabel Soutar founded the theatre company Porte Parole Productions in Montreal with Alex Ivanovici in 2000. She has acted as Artistic Director of the company ever since. Soutar’s most recent play Seeds was published in both English and French and presented across Canada in 2013-14. In 2012 she was commissioned with director Chris Abraham to write a new documentary play – The Watershed – about fresh water for the 2015 Toronto Pan American/Para Pan American Games cultural program.
I first experienced Soutar’s work in 2012 when I saw a production of Seeds at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. It was my first encounter with documentary theatre and the form excites me greatly. It marries my love of theatre with my desire to create dialogue about current events and social and environmental issues. For this interview, we spoke on the phone, Soutar in Montreal and me in Vancouver.
Did you want to write from the time you were young?
Not at all. I never thought of myself as an “artist.” I tended to do well in subjects like math and history. I didn’t study theatre until my second year of university. And I didn’t participate as an actor, writer, or director until my late teens or early twenties.
I went to university at Princeton, in New Jersey. The one fundamental thing that they teach there, no matter what you study, is that you should learn how to write. I took history, English, and some theatre. I found that I thought differently in my theatre classes than I did in any of the others. When asked to perform a role written by a playwright from a hundred years ago, I learned more about history than I did in a history class.
I discovered the early documentary plays of Anna Deveare Smith when they premiered at the McCarter Theatre in the town of Princeton. She’s probably one of the most successful practitioners of the documentary form in North America. Her plays have not only been produced on Broadway but have had an impact on the communities where they were presented. Her plays showed me how theatre connected with my other interests, like, history, politics and journalism. They showed me that theatre wasn’t just about exploring themes from the past or entertaining an audience with a titillating drama; it actually allowed us to take a look at what was going on in our communities. Seeing her work made me realize that not only did I want to study theatre, I wanted to practice it. Not only did I want to practice it, I wanted to practice it in this way.
What does your writing process look like? Is it entirely project specific? Is there a general framework that you use every time?
I’m constantly looking out for really dramatic conflicts, things that will lend themselves well to the documentary form. First is the choice of topic, and that’s not done in a whimsical way. I will often research a play for two or three years and then spend another year on production. Since we want it to be able to tour, the topic needs to have shelf life. When I make that choice I need to make sure there is a dramatic conflict at the centre that will serve the drama. It needs to be a compelling story and I have to have some personal connection to it.
I can’t write until I know something about it, so the first step is preliminary research. I start to meet the key people involved in the conflict. This is still part of deciding if I’m going to go ahead. If I find that the central characters are dramatic, compelling, that I can relate to them, that they have an amazing story to tell, that’s when I start to get a sense of whether this is worth doing. Then, the question of how exactly I’m going to approach it, that’s when things start to vary.
For something like Sexy Béton, a play I wrote about an overpass collapse in Montreal, it wasn’t just about interviewing people or finding documents from the past. At a certain point those of us creating the project actually encouraged people who had been hurt by the collapse of the overpass to sue the government and the construction companies because we thought it wasn’t fair. That became very problematic. I was no longer documenting the process; I was affecting the outcome. The question became, was I doing that because I wanted to write an exciting play? It became a question of how objective is the playwright and at what point is it becoming her story.
I have written some plays where I am invisible to the audience. I interview people and the people that I interview speak directly to the audience, like they are speaking to me, but I put the audience in my shoes. I’ve also written plays where the fourth wall is existent, and you see me in the process, doing my investigation. My journey is part of the story. I would say that that’s where I’m heading more. I’m finding that the audience is not just interested in the documentary story. They’re interested in the person telling it, the person who created it, whether or not they can trust that person, and why they made the choice that they did to create it.
The story tells you how it wants to be told. That’s a very intuitive thing, very personal to every artist, but certainly in documentary, when I’m not making up a story, I’m listening to it, I’m letting the language tell me where to go, and I’m following.
I always have a sound recorder with me. I do not use a camera. It’s not that I’m not interested in the gestures, I often note them down, but I’m really interested in the words. It’s the words that I want to capture. I want the person that I’m speaking with to not be concerned with performing or being on camera. They are in an intimate conversation with me. I want them to forget about the tape recorder. Often, they do.
In Seeds, you wrote in your double, the character of the “playwright.” Why was this important to you?
I wrote two versions of that play. The first one did not have me in it. Part of the revisions came out of a frustration about the reaction to that first version. I felt that the play was remaining at a frustrating distance from the audience. Or, this whole court battle and the evolution of GMO seeds in their food system, they weren’t taking it personally. They just saw a documentary. I had questions about why. I thought, maybe it’s because I’m not exposing how I’m relating to the play personally. After that first version I invited another director in (Seeds was my first collaboration with Chris Abraham). Chris started asking questions that lead me to re-write the play. He asked me what I was going through as I was writing the play and I said, “I had a young daughter and I was pregnant with my second daughter” and he was like, “Well, that’s fascinating… You had a seed inside you”. I was thinking about the future in a new way because I had young children. This was this other layer of narrative that I added to the play about our relationship to life and living things.
How do you navigate being an “objective observer” and a “character”?
It’s very difficult. The key is not to hide that tension but to exploit it. The question that you’re asking has a lot of tension in it. It has a lot of contradiction and the thing is, human beings are contradictory characters. They do things that are problematic, or, not consistent. We are in struggle a lot of the time. What I try to do is characterize that struggle inside myself. What are my responsibilities as a documentarist? What is my job as an entertainer?
You can be objective and kill your audience with something really boring. What the audience is interested in is not “I want to have the perfect truth.” They are interested in why you told the story, and how you tell the story, and where you ran into problems, some of the more personal details. I’m trying to bring them through. That’s my obstacle, to use more dramatic terminology. Yes, you can be objective. Sometimes you say, “Look, I couldn’t be objective,” at least they know that. You’re being transparent. You can excuse yourself for being faulty, for not presenting this “perfect” documentary. Let’s face it; even if you put a camera up and you didn’t move it and it just collected images of cars and people walking by, it’s not a “perfect” document. It only captures what’s in the frame. I only capture what’s in my frame. My frame is limited. It’s affected by what I’ve lived. If people become interested in my lens, they will forgive me. I’ll also show them how hard I’m trying to stay objective. That’s something I do explicitly because I really like to incorporate different viewpoints into my plays. I’m not really interested in expressing my viewpoint. I’m interested in mediating different viewpoints and what happens when we try to do that.
How do you navigate the tension of who the person you’re interviewing wants you to see and the truth that might be a little bit buried beneath that?
When you meet someone, depending on the timing in their life, sometimes they are in a place where they are super true to who they are and what they’re living. Sometimes, because of something difficult that they’re living through, they are putting up more of a performance or a defense mechanism.
Language is so revealing. This is why we’re playwrights. We believe people’s true nature comes out through their words. You follow the clues of the words and the words lead you to the character. This is one of the reasons that the transcription process is so interesting. When you’re in the middle of a conversation sometimes you miss things. When you’re listening back you go, “Oh, this person’s syntax starts to break down here. What’s going on? I must be getting closer to something that’s sensitive…” There’s a truth here.
At what point in your process do you say, “Okay, this play is ready for a workshop!”?
Resources always restrict this. One thing that I’ve learned over the past four years is that the person directing the work has a big hand in the outcome. I like that. I don’t want a wall between the playwright and the director.
Working with Chris in the last two projects has allowed me to approach the work in a different way. He pushes the dramaturgical discussion from the word go. I’m re-writing while he’s staging and he’s re-staging as I’m re-writing. It’s a very organic process.
I watched From Where I Stand, A Forum of Perspectives on Canadian Theatre and was moved by your contributions. My next questions concern your “7 things I see about theatre and Canada, and about theatre in Canada”.
As theatre artists, what is getting in our way of “leading our country, not just observing it”?
Time and money. A lack of resources. Everything that I’m talking about is very time consuming. When you can write a mini-webisode in three days and it takes me eighteen months to write a story, people are like, “What the fuck? What is your business model, man?” And then I put it on in the theatre, where only a few people are going to see it? It’s like, why take all that time? Because that’s how long it takes.
You asked, “Why are we theatre artists talking just to ourselves?” What are some ways in which you and Porte Parole are challenging this?
I go out and talk to people. Right away, people who are not “theatre people” are involved in my plays. Very often, they’ll be in the audience and they go, “Holy shit. Not only am I seeing a play, I’m the star.” All of a sudden the theatre is not just song and dance – it’s them.
The theatre is itself a barrier. It’s far away from their house. In Montreal, it’s winter and maybe they can’t find parking. It’s expensive. It’s only taking place at a certain time. It’s a habit thing, too. People who are in the habit of going to the theatre are excited by investing time and risk into getting there. We’re living in a universe of perceived limited resources. Maybe it’s imaginary. Where, “I work until six or seven, I have to pick up my kids, I have to get them home, I have to clean out their Tupperware and help with their homework, I’m a single parent… If I’m going to do anything in terms of leisure or entertainment it needs to be at the click of a button”.
I’m trying to start a conversation. I don’t have the answer. I certainly don’t hold myself up as a model of success in that way, I’m trying different things to make it feel a little bit more open.
You are currently working on The Watershed about water for the Pan Am Games in 2015. What’s it like to work on a commission? How is it different than when a project starts with your own personal creative impulse?
There can be a certain amount of pressure. This commission came through Chris. The person who was programming for Pan Am really wanted him to work as a director on something. I was lucky that he chose me. I’d already been thinking about water for many years.
Since it’s for the Pan Am Games, it could be about what’s going on in the Americas, but I like to write about Canada. They said that was okay. They really left me alone with how I wanted to approach it. As long as I have flexibility, I can make the topic into something that’s really interesting to me. Water is really at the nexus of a lot of political conflict in our country right now, so I got lucky there
As research for The Watershed you toured across the country with your whole family, right?
I wanted to address not just where I stood as an individual, but where my family unit stood. One of my first instincts was that my kids needed to be involved in the research. Without having to justify that too much, Chris understood why I made that choice. In a way, this is a play about legacy, it’s about the future and the hope that we have for the future and there’s nothing that embodies that hope better or more concretely than children.
I had an instinct that something about this play had to do with me, not only as an artist but also as a mother and as a daughter. I wanted to make sure that when people left this play, they didn’t just think about statistics and data surrounding why they should care about water. I want them to walk out going, “I am water. This is a story about me. The reason why water is in trouble is because we are in trouble.”
Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred writer, performer and producer. She makes theatrical things with the blood projects and literary things with these five minutes. She’s in her first year of the joint Creative Writing/Theatre MFA in Playwriting at UBC.