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Theatre & Performance The Watershed: Montreal playwright tackles our most precious resource

Annabel Soutar, left, and Chris Abraham, pose in the rehearsal studio for their documentary theatre project "The Watershed" in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

In the summer of 2012, a federal omnibus bill eliminated funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique aquatic research program in Northwestern Ontario. The cut was a mere $2-million, but it caused a dramatic response from scientists in Canada and abroad, and eventually among the public.

Montreal playwright Annabel Soutar happened to be in the midst of a two-year research project of her own, about the science and politics of water. The ELA story immediately caught her interest, in part because some of the main players were acting so far out of character.

"Scientists don't usually leave their laboratories to start picketing on Parliament Hill," she said, during a break in rehearsals for The Watershed, her latest documentary play. "I thought it had to be because they were fighting for something of tremendous value to them."

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Value is a big word in Soutar's project. How much do we value clean water, and our industrialized standard of living, and how much do we care about solving the puzzle of how to stop one from degrading the other?

"I think there's a deep polarization in our society today that's preventing us from thinking clearly, about the relationship between the environment and an economic system that implicates all of us," Soutar said. She believes that the only way to get past that is to return to "evidence that hasn't been corrupted by ideology."

That may sound like a familiar knock against the Harper government, but Soutar insists that in her play, which draws on interviews with parties close to the ELA story, she's trying to peel back the ideology on all sides of the issue. She has also personalized it, by dramatizing conversations she has had with her two children, and with her father, a staunch fiscal conservative, all of whom, like the playwright, are portrayed on stage.

"Politics is personal and sometimes our personal relationships are political," she said.

The Watershed, which opens July 7 as part of Panamania, is similar in method to Soutar's 2012 documentary play Seeds, which approached the politics of genetically modified crops through the tale of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's legal battle with Monsanto over alleged patent infringement. The case ended in the Supreme Court of Canada; the play is still touring the country.

In both of these "verbatim" plays, Soutar said, "everything you hear on stage has been spoken by a real person." And everything is spoken by other real people in the same room as the audience, which gives theatre documentary a different dynamic than that of the cinema kind, said director Chris Abraham.

"It's a bit more like a campfire," Abraham said. "You have somebody sitting in front of you, telling you something, and you can watch everything they're doing, and feel their conviction to tell. That works on the audience in a different way, and it can cut past some of the skepticism that can be part of a media experience."

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Abraham worked with Soutar to develop the show from the outset, and through a workshop with audience last summer at Berkeley Street Theatre. A key challenge was to find properly dramatic ways of animating the views and information uncovered during Soutar's research.

"We're trying to give a sense of movement and sweep to this story, and to harness the places where there is palpable intrigue, drama and real conflict," he said. "There's a lot of passion on all sides of the subject. For many of the characters this is a life and death struggle."

As in Seeds, The Watershed's eight players take on many different roles. Aside from making the show cheaper to stage and tour, Soutar said, the spectacle of actors voicing different views as they shift from one character to another mirrors our own shifting sentiments as we move from one situation to another. The scope and intensity of our feelings about environmental issues may be different in a forest than at a gas pump.

The Watershed features several of the same players and creative crew as Seeds, including actor Eric Peterson, designer Julie Fox and Abraham as director. The main element in Fox's sparse set, now lodged in a rehearsal room at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, is a broad new wooden deck, similar to a pier at a lake. Frequent changes of scene will be indicated by changes of lighting, music and video, said Abraham.

The ELA didn't close after its 2012 budget crisis, but continues in a diminished capacity under the stewardship of the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. In the end, however, The Watershed is less about the history of one program than about a state of paralysis on water issues that muddles the present and endangers the future. "Are we able to arrive at a clear snapshot of our country," Soutar said, "or has it all become ideology?"

The Watershed, a co-production of Montreal's Porte Parole Productions and Crow's Theatre of Toronto, plays the Berkeley Street Theatre from July 7 through July 19, as part of Panamania, the arts festival of the Pan Am Games. Le Partage des Eaux, a French-language version of the play, will appear at Montreal's Usine C Nov. 17-21.

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