Until the early nineties, most people gave no thought to the blood-donor system, because someone was taking care of it. Then people started turning up dangerously sick after transfusions, and there was a scandal, and everyone in the country was talking about the blood supply.
At some point during that panicky time, Kat Lanteigne walked into her living room in Abbotsford, B.C., and saw her mother sitting in front of the TV and crying after watching a news report about tainted-blood victims. At that moment, something was seeded that took Lanteigne 20 years to put forth as a play about the tainted-blood scandal.
Tainted, which opened at the Aki Studio Theatre at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto on Thursday, is a kind of compressed oral history of what went wrong with Canada's blood supply, and of what that felt like for one of the affected families. Not any particular family – the Steele family's story in the play is really a composite of many tales.
"I really wanted to find the common experience of Canadian families across the country, so I could have a fair representation of what people lived in their living rooms," says Lanteigne, who is 38 and lives in Toronto. "I really wanted it to be authentic, and to have the depth it needed to resonate with people."
She based the play on interviews she did with individuals and families across the country. She found nearly half of her $110,000 budget through a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
Lanteigne has written and acted in film, and tried for years to tell her blood story on a screen, but couldn't find backers for a feature film. She put the project aside until one evening three years ago, when she heard a speaker silence a benefit-event crowd at a curling club with the narrative of his experience as a tainted-blood survivor.
"The energy in the room completely changed," she says. "The impact was so profound, I could see that this story would reach people if it were in front of them."
Aside from one high-school effort, however, Lanteigne had written only one stage play, in the mid-1990s for a small theatre in Vancouver. She shopped her blood-scandal idea to every independent theatre company in Toronto, and all of them turned her down.
"I became obsessed, I couldn't let it go," she says. So she decided to forge on without a company, calling in favours from colleagues for an Equity minimum-paying show directed by Dora-winner Vikki Anderson and featuring a cast of mostly veteran actors, including Richard Greenblatt, Alex Furber and Maria Vacratsis.
"I'm really ashamed of how our government treated people, and they're still doing it," says Lanteigne, who claims that the $5-billion spent on compensation by the federal government was paid grudgingly and didn't cover everyone. She points to recent moves toward opening donor-paying clinics in Ontario as a sign that we're in danger of forgetting the lessons of two decades ago.
"They're not taking heed of the warnings, of what happens when any health resource starts being treated as a commodity," she says, referring to a key complaint of the 1997 Krever report, about poor sourcing and inadequate screening of blood. She has invited every member of the federal and provincial legislatures to the opening, but she insists Tainted is not a political play.
It could prove to be an expensive one for her personally, however. If ticket sales don't cover the rest of the show's budget, she says, "my husband and I will have to take the money out of our house."
Tainted runs at the Daniels Spectrum's Aki Studio Theatre, 585 Dundas St. E., through Oct. 12.