By James Karas
Annabel Soutar’s The Watershed is a full-fledged documentary about fresh water research in Canada and more particularly the research at a project called the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). It is based, according to the author, on “verbatim testimony from interviews conducted by the playwright, as well as speech transcripts, House of Commons debate transcripts, film transcripts, press releases, and media articles collected between 2013 and 2015.”
The script that resulted from all of the above-noted sources is acted by eight actors who represent some fifty characters (I did not count them). This is a documentary that we usually see on television or at the movie theatre but not, as far as I known, in this format in the live theatre.
Bruce Dinsmore, Amelia Sargisson, Ngozi Paul, Tanja Jacobs. Photo by Guntar Kravis
Soutar (played with great vigour and passion by Kristen Thomson) sets out with her husband Alex (Alex Ivanovici) and their daughters Ella (Amelia Sargisson) and Beatrice (Ngozi Paul) and their friend Hazel (Tanja Jacobs) in a Winnebago on a mission: to find out why ELA is being defunded and more importantly to save Canada’s fresh water supply.
Like all good missionaries, Soutar is a driven woman. She wants to interview ministers, MPs, activists, scientists, professors, entertainers and others, and get support and publicity from radio and television programs. It is a Marathon that would exhaust a Kenyan let alone a woman with a husband and three children in a gas-guzzling Winnebago on a trip that goes from Montreal to the tar sands (oops, oil sands) of Alberta and that lasts over a month.
If this were done by the CBC, there would be film clips of the people interviewed with a narrator putting the story in perspective. It is difficult to have some fifty people represented by eight actors presented to us without our interest flagging.
Soutar is well aware of that and she has taken steps to reduce that possibility. Humour is one method that she uses. The children come up with some funny scenes. There are some film projections that would have looked even better if they were not shown on a brick wall but it does help.
Eric Peterson, Alex Ivanovici, Ngozi Paul, Bruce Dinsmore, Amelia Sargisson, Tanja Jacobs.
Photo by Guntar Kravis
The other tool used is noise. Loud music, children screaming, engines revving, an airplane taking off and sundry others are provided. I did not find any of that in the least bit diverting and could have done without all of it.
Without the diversionary tactics, we are left with a display of well-meaning, intelligent, dedicated people trying to do a worthwhile job. They run into roadblocks put up by venality, greed, stupidity and politicians who have all of the aforementioned traits. It is a depressing picture.
The eight actors have their work cut out for them as does director Chris Abraham who has to marshal the large number of characters and numerous scene changes. Some of the characters are presented as caricatures but most are treated with respect. In that respect, it is an amazing show. The talented troupe is made up of Laura Condlin, Bruce Dinsmore, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, Ngozi Paul, Eric Peterson, Amelia Sargisson and Kristen Thomson.
The play was commissioned for the arts festival of last year’s Pan Am Games as a co-production by Soutar’s Porte Parole Productions and Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre. Chris Abraham, Crow’s Artistic Director played a part in the negotiations and run-around with the powers-that-be leading to the granting of the commission. Abraham appears as a character in the play as does his daughter Hazel. Has a director ever directed someone to play him in a documentary?
Soutar and Abraham are grafting a complex documentary onto a live theatre production. The demands of live theatre are different from the type of story they are trying to expose and they are forced to use many means to keep the work theatrical. Some things work; some don’t.
Go see how you like the result.
The Watershed by Annabel Soutar continues until October 30, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com