Dear Annabel Soutar and Chris Abraham (Or, Exit Music for a Planet)


Watershed-Kristen-Thomson-and-CastDear Annabel and Chris,

If noted TV philosopher Stephen Colbert is right that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” reality’s political inclination seems nowhere so clear as on the subject of climate change. As you know, there’s now a strong consensus among scientists that the planet is getting hotter, human industry and consumption are largely to blame, and catastrophic weather phenomena (euphemistic for flooded cities and continental droughts) are, unless something’s done to stop them, coming soon to a major population centre near you. Even sophisticated right-leaning media havens for climate change denial (climate anti-alarmism, they might say), like the Wall Street Journal, have begun to change their tune. The recent resolution of G7 nations to “decarbonize” completely by 2100 is at once a shirking of responsibility by current governments, whose leaders won’t be around to enforce the pledge, and a symbolic statement that the problem of anthropogenic climate change is real and must be dealt with.

The growing bipartisan acknowledgement of global warming has done little to depoliticize the debate over how to address it, as your excellent new play The Watershed, now running as part of the Pan Am Games’ festival of the arts, explores. Pundits on the far ends of the political spectrum tend to reduce the issue to a stark binary: “capitalism vs. the climate,” as framed by the subtitle of Naomi Klein’s recent book on the subject, This Changes Everything, reported in brilliant depth, if quite tendentious (probably Klein would reply that it’s reality that’s tendentious). The oil and gas industries are massive economic players who will need to commit hara-kiri in a hurry, Klein’s argument goes, if the planet isn’t to succumb to climate disasters that would lead to mass suffering and death. The immanent logic of capitalism, its hurrahs for growth without limit and the exploitation of the earth for human benefit, is in tragic opposition to the immanent logic of the earth itself, which is fragile and unforgiving of those who mess with its harmonies.

For Klein and her faction (and the debate is factionalized as much as the debate over any other kind of war), the case for climate solutions is a case for social justice more broadly conceived: “the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich,” she writes, “is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy.” On climate change, her argument goes, free markets can’t and won’t support the public interest. Meanwhile, in her New York Review of Books essay on Klein’s book, environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert expresses doubts about the public’s willingness to opt into an anti-capitalist model for addressing climate change — to reduce their consumption, compromise their standard of living to the extent that would be required. Though published in a journal associated with the intellectual left, her argument sports the same Hobbes-tinted shades worn by most conservatives: human nature, she implies, is self-interested and acquisitive and can’t be transcended, at least not on the level of the state; the best we can do is to focus it, enlighten it as much as possible, coerce it where necessary, and put it to good use.

It’s to this conversation, about far more than bad weather, that your play adds its voice. The Watershed is a verbatim play, all its dialogue lifted from real-life exchanges. It’s a docudrama: it dramatizes your, the play creators’, investigation into the politics of fresh water and climate change in Canada, a journey on which you, Annabel, took your family. The play shares the processes and results of your investigative journalism — interviews with environmentalists, NGO workers, government officials, men and women working in Fort McMurray’s oil sands — and how those experiences intersected with your life as an artist, arts administrator, daughter, mother, and wife. The family relationships in the play are notes in a thematic arpeggio: concern about the future of clean water in one’s country ramifies into a concern for the future health and prosperity of one’s children (or vise versa); one’s antipathy towards Big Oil, in itself and as a metonym for the market economy, is checked by the capitalist convictions of one’s reasonable, empathic father.

Your concern about the threat of environmental devastation is clear, but the play never becomes an outright polemic à la Klein, however much certain characters in it polemicize. Those characters range, in type and politics, from a PhD student who’s a climate activist to a Vice President for an oil and gas company. They’re embodied by a terrific acting ensemble, whose performances are by turns rooted in an impressively relaxed naturalism and invested with spiky theatricality, many of the actors tasked with playing multiple characters across age and gender lines. Even when Ngozi Paul dons a fake beard and impersonates you, Chris, the artifice stays just this side of campy. Sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne’s compositions are lush and gorgeous; they lend the production an emotional texture even at times when the text is driven by arguments, facts. Julie Fox’s set design and Kim Purtell’s lighting combine to create a series of delightful, inventive effects: a windswept winter lake, the interior of an airplane above the Alberta oil fields, otherworldly intimations of a world underwater.

Let us note, in this month of Greece’s historic referendum on Keynesian economics, that your production’s style is a kind of theatrical anti-austerity. It spends its specie, energy as well as coin, liberally on atmosphere, effect. This is a striking and not at all inevitable choice for a play about climate change: other recent theatre productions on similar themes have opted for a more stripped down, just-the-facts presentational mode. It’s worth asking if the showmanship of The Watershed distracts at all from the details or the gravity of its reportage. But I don’t see the theatrical richness of your production as just an attempt to entertain. To me, The Watershed‘s style, which produces some very powerful, complex images, is an acknowledgement of theatre’s plural ends, which correspond to a person’s plural appetites: how the desire to learn is deeply related to the hunger for the beautiful, the goodness irreducible to fact. Put another way, the style of your production acknowledges that the sacred abides behind the political as an unspoken question that forgets and remembers perennially how to ask itself.

A climate activist speechifies, augurs global doom unless polluters are regulated into submission; while she speaks, a family delights in swimming together beneath the surface of a pristine lake, which may become toxic soon enough if the activist is right. Perhaps this stunning image is a critique of the swimmers: how blithe they are in their privilege, scions of a family affluent enough to have owned a lakefront cottage for generations, their complacency and ignorance the reason why the activist can’t be heard; the water gives pleasure but garbles the sound of facts spoken above the surface, in the choked air. Or perhaps we’re struck, instead, by the dignity of both halves of the image, their different but equally commanding evidences: both the activist’s commitment and the family’s love, which may not save us from the flood but in the absence of which the flood might as well carry us away.

Though it reflects your powerful concern about climate change and desire for solutions, The Watershed is anti-revolutionary. It affirms many of the values of bourgeois life, especially the family, and of liberal democracy, especially the promise of an adversarial political system where the arguments of both sides have their merits. It makes no plea for radical change to markets and social structures, though it presents characters who do; it makes no claim that things are okay the way they are now, though it presents characters who do. It suggests that solutions to the climate crisis will emerge from within our existing political and economic framework, however much adapted. Voting for a federal government that isn’t the Harper Conservatives might help; wishing the system of global capitalism out of existence likely won’t. As a French Canadian who lives in boom-town Fort McMurray tells the playwright’s children, the oil sands draw jobseekers from deprived pockets of Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario; for communities that suffer from a lack of local industry even in relatively prosperous Canada, the filthy frontier of Fort McMurray offers hope. A devil’s bargain that may be, but the poverty of those workers’ home communities is real — and to gut the fossil fuel industry rapidly and “sabotage the Canadian economy,” as the playwright-surrogate character puts it once, is likely to spread that poverty a whole lot further. The play’s anti-revolutionary ethic is a realism about the sources of wealth: an implicit acknowledgement of the reality, downplayed by the Klein camp, that to get off oil and gas might well mean to live within significantly straitened circumstances — to be a poorer country, with less revenue to spend domestically and less clout abroad. Given that geopolitics will almost certainly remain driven by relations of expedience and power, a state that renounces its influence may also undermine its security and, in the medium to long run, tacitly or explicitly, its sovereignty. It’s not something to be done lightly or in a hurry.

I’m extrapolating somewhat from the play, which opens doors that lead to these ideas but doesn’t always walk through them. That’s partly because of the verbatim form, I think, which may limit the play’s range of expression, since unprepared real-life conversations can’t always plumb an issue as thoroughly as revised, considered writing can do. Late in the play, for instance, a lakeside debate about how “economic values” have infected non-economic situations feels a bit textbook. In general, the play’s first half seems to have a greater density of ideas, a better balance of theatricality and argument than its latter part does. Some of the second half, when the Soutar family (plus a young guest) take a road trip from Montreal to the Alberta oil sands, slackens into domestic scenes that don’t always resonate strongly with the play’s political questions. The children of the family seem to get a bit too much stage time; their musings about the environment are revealing and plenty charming, but they’re limited in context. Maybe also owing to the restrictions of the verbatim form, certain thematic tendencies that seem promising don’t get developed as much as probably they could. The playwright-character’s urge to include her kids in her research project speaks to her concern for the world she’s going to bequeath to them, but her guilt and fear over their inheritance never quite shows up as a subject to explore; it remains an implication, poignant but spectral.

Still, The Watershed has to be the most accomplished piece of theatre I’ve seen in Toronto so far this year. With unflagging intelligence, it fuses political inquiry and theatrical craft, argument and feeling. It engages issues of civic size in a way that’s surprising and full of delight, that offers no simple answers but gives audiences a space to ask urgent questions without reducing them to an easy binary, that confronts the postures of punditry with the opinions of so-called ordinary citizens and interrogates both. Given the right support, it’s the kind of performance that could help move theatre into the mainstream of our national conversation.

I think it’s wonderful work. Thanks for making it.




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