Theatre for our time
Annabel Soutar (Nugent 90) is an Old Stoic playwright, director, producer and founder of Porte Parole Productions, one of the world’s most innovative and original theatre companies. Porte Parole celebrates its twenty-first birthday this year and, starved of live theatre since footlights were darkened in March 2020, I cannot think of a time when it is more important to reflect on the role of drama in holding a mirror up to life. Theatre serves a vital purpose in connecting with audiences who share in an experience which is live, immediate and real – something that streaming services simply cannot do.
“The Theatre has to be an arena for contemporary reflection… it’s not just a place to put on Moliere and Shakespeare. It is a place where new work is being developed to allow a society to be in dialogue with itself.”
As Artistic Director of Porte Parole since 2000, Annabel and her husband, Alex Ivanovici, pioneered a new form of theatrical experience, documentary drama, which presents edgy and topical plays about real people caught up in events which they don’t necessarily comprehend as being important or having a dramatic narrative arc. The dramatist’s skill is to select the material, devise the plot and bring the characters to life. Annabel is a supreme practitioner of this form of theatre and is always careful not to betray the trust of the people who have shared their stories with her. A leitmotif of her plays is the belief that no one individual has a monopoly of truth. Like a Cubist painting, there is no single focal point and narratives are presented as a concatenation of different viewpoints that coalesce to allow audiences to reach their own interpretation of the material. The drama on stage is just the beginning of a discourse which continues outside the theatre and into the political arena.
“Theatre should be cheaper, more accessible, less intellectual, less formal. I think people can eat popcorn in theatres, drink beer, scream during the show and feel connected to the stage. I believe that theatre exists to bring us together in the present, to create a more powerful, more humane democracy.”
Porte Parole productions challenge audiences to think critically about political, social and environmental issues. This is not done in didactic, moralising, Brechtian Lehrstücke (teaching plays), but by engaging audiences in conversations about important issues ranging from the treatment of immigrants to the politics of oil and conservation.
“You are not passive observers or consumers… you are actively involved with the play and influenced by it. After the play is over, you should be asking yourself “has my definition of life changed now that I have seen the play?”
I met Annabel in the Gothic Library in September 2020, a few days before she was awarded the Peace Prize by the Artists for Peace Collective in Montreal, sharing the prize with two Porte Parole actors, Christine Beaulieu and Pascale Bussières who appeared in two recent acclaimed plays that Annabel produced, J’aime Hydro and The Assembly. Annabel was dropping off her daughter, Ella, who has joined Stowe for the Sixth Form. Memories came flooding back as Annabel had made the same journey from Montreal in September 1988 to join Nugent with Ro Masters as her Housemistress.
Annabel thrived at Stowe, taking A Levels in Maths, History and Economics, making her theatrical debut as co-director of the Nugent House play, Daisy Pulls It Off, an energetic and light-hearted pastiche of life in an all-girls’ boarding school in the 1920s – jolly hockey sticks, midnight feasts, amusing scrapes, jealousy and snobbery. The final act sees the triumph of traditional virtues such as courage, honour, fair play and being “straight in all things”. The Stoic reviewer concludes with this judgement: “No order marks for Nugent, but Benes all round for pulling it off (Honesto quam magna) and striving to play the game”.
Annabel’s next theatrical outing at Stowe was the light-hearted Senior Congreve musical, Damned Yankees, which won acclaim for the meticulous accuracy of its 1950s period setting and the uncompromising professionalism of the actors. Annabel’s interpretation of the unscrupulous Gloria Thorpe was described as “well pitched to complement and reflect the suggestiveness and deviousness of the diabolic role”.
After Stowe, Annabel went to Princeton in 1990, initially enrolling in Politics, History, Journalism and Film and some Theatre. Inspired by Anna Deavere Smith’s acclaimed production of Fires in the Mirror, Annabel switched to the Liberal Arts, with a particular focus on English and Drama. Playwright and actress, Anna Deavere Smith’s dramatisation of the 1991 Crown Heights race riots in Brooklyn involved interviewing more than 100 protagonists from the Hasidic Jewish and Black communities of the Crown Heights neighbourhood. The interviews were then turned into 29 verbatim monologues delivered by 26 characters (all played by Smith), giving voices to the different cultural and emotional viewpoints of the Crown Heights communities:
“I discovered the early documentary plays of Anna Deveare Smith when they premiered at the McCarter Theatre in 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 had had an impact on the communities where they were presented. Her plays showed me how theatre connected with my other interests – 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 realise 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 this way.”
Throughout her career Annabel has stayed true to Smith’s uncompromising belief that theatre has to be relevant, contemporary and politically engaged. She returned to Montreal in 1995 to a politically divided nation as the Parti Québécois had just made its second attempt to secede from the rest of the country with the separatists failing by only the narrowest margin in their bid to gain national sovereignty. The discord and schism inspired Annabel and her husband, Alex, to write Novembre, a piece of investigative documentary-drama based on the 1995 election campaign for the National Assembly of Québec which was won by the incumbent Parti Québécois, led by Lucien Bouchard.
“I came back to Québec shortly after the 1995 referendum and I was an Anglo living in a French milieu. We produced our first play Novembre, in 1998. The play was bilingual, produced in both French and English, without subtitles. We followed Jean Charest, Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont in a docu-drama format. The play was well-received with audiences – but we managed to alienate the intelligentsia on both sides of Québec’s language divide. However, it put us on the map; and documentary theatre was introduced to Montreal. Novembre was a snapshot of our reality.”
A year later, Annabel and Alex founded Porte Parole, French for ‘spokesperson’, reflecting the company’s commitment to tackling subjects of immediate societal importance. The company’s innovative documentary plays tackling local, national and international issues in both French and English, soon won plaudits from audiences and critics alike. Annabel was named Artist of the Year by the Globe and Mail in 2015.
“I go out like a documentary film maker and start interviewing people… anyone directly or indirectly involved in the story. I take that verbatim material and I weave it in to the script of the plays. So every word you hear on stage is verbatim from those interviews and all of my actors are playing real people.”
Porte Parole’s production, 2000 Questions, captures the millennial zeitgeist as the dot com speculative bubble reaches its zenith before the bubble burst and euphoria is replaced by fear, panic, anger and disillusionment. Issues of race and intolerance are explored in Montreal la blanche in which some of the 30,000 Algerian immigrants living in Montreal are encouraged to tell their stories while Fredy explores events surrounding the controversial police shooting of Honduran-Canadian, Fredy Villanueva, in Montreal on 9 August 2008.
Porte Parole’s commitment to speaking truth to power, ensuring that all members of society are accountable for their actions, is clearly evident in Santé! Through interviews with patients, doctors, nurses, economists, medical researchers, hospital administrators and civil servants, Santé! exposes the inequalities in Québec health care provision. The play was given a Distinction Award by the Montreal English Critics Circle.
Sexy Béton (Sexy Concrete), Annabel’s 2011 play, documents the tragic collapse of the de la Concorde overpass in Montreal, which killed five people and seriously injured six others. The play exposes corporate greed and institutional cover-up: the bridge was supposed to have a life span of 70 years and collapsed after only 36 years. The design of the bridge, once considered bold and innovative, made proper inspection impossible. No-one was willing to take responsibility for this disaster, but a subsequent inquiry discovered the use of low-grade concrete and design faults led to the south-east abutment to break away. The play was a huge box office success and was nominated for the prestigious Prix Michel Tremblay Award in 2012.
In 2008, Annabel was invited by the Festival Trans-Amériques to create a new documentary play. The result was Import/Export which dissected how outsourcing manufacturing to China precipitated the closing of a factory in Thetford Mines, a town on the Becancour River in the Appalachian Mountains, about 75 miles south of Québec, already struggling with the closure of its asbestos mines.
Annabel’s greatest success came in 2011 when she collaborated with director Chris Abraham to write Seeds, a dramatic re-enactment of the legal battle between Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser, and the chemical behemoth Monsanto Inc.
“The play was relevant for documentary theatre treatment because it was the beginning of the presence of biotechnology in agriculture and Canada was the breeding ground for it. Montsanto was developing its products in various laboratories and experimental farms all over Canada and the US and this was the first big legal battle. When it went to the Supreme Court, the world was watching. I went to witness the Supreme Court hearing in January 2004 and lined up to get one of the 50 seats inside the court house at six o’clock in the morning. I was fourth in line. The person who was first in line was from Japan… I thought “wow”, this is a global story and it is going to have global ramifications.”
Schmeiser was sued by Montsanto for patent infringement because he was found to be growing the company’s genetically modified canola (rapeseed) without a licence. Schmeiser claimed that the seeds had blown on to his land and pleaded ignorance. The case reached Canada’s Supreme Court and Montsanto won 5-4. The legendary Canadian actor, Eric Peterson, was cast in the lead role and played Schmeiser as Everyman grappling with the powerful forces of a global biotech giant. Annabel’s play is far more than an attack on corporate greed and the creation of potentially harmful ‘Frankenfoods’ through genetic engineering. In answering the question, “who owns life?” multiple voices are heard – from scientists who cut and splice DNA to transfer genes from one organism to another, to activists decrying the use of GMOs, to neighbouring farmers who denounce Schmeiser as a fraud and “fame whore”, to lawyers specialising in patent law and, finally, the case for Montsanto and GM crops is presented by lawyers and slick PR representatives.
By creating a laboratory on stage, Annabel was able to suggest “that in documentary theatre we are in a laboratory observing life and anything and anyone on that stage is part of that experiment.”
In 2014, Annabel asked award-winning Québec actress Christine Beaulieu to write and star in a documentary drama about Hydro Québec, the largest supplier of hydro-power in Canada and an important contributor to Québec’s collective wealth. Beaulieu adopted Annabel’s trademark methodology of collecting information from as many different sources as possible. She questions the received orthodoxy that hydro-electricity is automatically clean and renewable, helps combat climate change while promoting a greener, stronger economy. Beaulieu challenges Hydro-Québec bosses in public consultations on the rationale for building more dams in an age of cheap energy, raising issues about the environmental impact of blocking wild rivers and flooding the surrounding land, depriving indigenous communities of their territory while the forests are despoiled by pylons transporting power across vast areas. The final scene has Beaulieu returning to Montreal for a meeting with the CEO of Hydro-Québec, a man allergic to criticism, who proceeds to mansplain the virtues of hydro-electric energy to a bemused Beaulieu (and audience) who can see through the flawed argument that hydro-electricity really is so much better than coal, gas and oil:
“Christine produced J’aime Hydro, which placed the artist at the centre of the public discourse. We were performing to capacity audiences in 1,000+ seat theatres all through Québec. Over time it has become a ‘cult’ thing.”
Porte Parole received an important co-commission in 2013 to produce a documentary drama for the 2015 Pan Am/Para Pan Am Games in Toronto. The Watershed, documented the struggles of a group of scientists fighting to protect The Experimental Lakes Area in North-western Ontario, an exceptional natural laboratory comprising 58 small lakes and their watersheds, set aside for scientific research into the impact of climate change, agricultural run-off, water management, contaminants such as mercury and organic pollutants and a growing list of new chemical substances. Government funding for the ELA was inexplicably cut in 2013 and Annabel picked up the story:
“I found out very quickly that there was a connection between the fresh water research site and the development of the oil sands in Alberta. It was that intrigue which led me to some very interesting discoveries about how fresh water politics were conducted in this country.”
In the second act of the play, Annabel and her family set out in a Winnebago and travel from Montreal to Fort McMurray in Alberta to visit the oil sands which contain the third largest oil reserves in the world, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
“I felt that in the research we were talking about the politics of oil and water, but we’d never actually seen the oil sands with our own eyes. As we travelled across Canada, we interviewed people along the way… one of the climactic scenes is us squished into a little Cessna airplane flying over the oil sands and seeing the environmental devastation and also the engine of our economy.”
For their twentieth anniversary, Porte Parole revived its ambitious production of The Assembly, a play which first opened at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre in 2018 and Theatre Espace Go in Montreal before touring widely in Canada and America. Inspired by the presidential primary debates of 2016, Porte Parole’s creative team invite four strangers with contrasting ideological, cultural and political beliefs to meet over wine and pâté while their conversations are recorded. A verbatim screenplay is created from the recorded discussions with issues ranging from wage inequality to immigration and faith. On stage, the actors face each other across a table and showcase the collision of ideology, the rise of extremism, tribalism, the breakdown of consensus and the coarsening of political discourse. In our age of cancel culture and no-platforming individuals who offend the liberal consensus, the play dares to give a voice to alt-right popularism and Islamophobia which, unsurprisingly, led to a coruscating review in Toronto’s Globe and Mail.
“Its guiding theme is polarisation: when people who are very different get involved in a conflict, how are we able to listen?”
Perhaps the most interesting and innovative part of the evening comes when the audience is invited to hold its own assembly – sometimes with explosive results. Each version of The Assembly reflects the specific concerns of the host city – a German language version was performed in Munich’s Kammerspiele Theatre in October 2020 while future Assembly episodes are planned for France, Brazil and Canada.
What does the future hold for Annabel and Porte Parole? Chere Éléonore is a play which looks at how the education system fails children with autism; Projet Polytechnique tackles the subject of ‘femicide’ by examining the murder of 14 female students at Montreal’s Polytechnique on 6 December 1989. The shooter, Marc Lépine, claimed that he was “fighting feminism”. Annabel is also considering shining the spotlight on the plight of indigenous people who remain marginalised and impoverished on the fringes of mainstream Canadian society and a documentary about the relationship between the West and China. Although based in Montreal, Annabel’s advocacy of political liberty and freedom of speech while searching for and discovering the truth as a way of furthering social justice, is rooted in the Enlightenment. It would not be too fanciful to suggest the first stirrings of Annabel’s weltanschauung occurred while she was a pupil at Stowe.
Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, Head