I just want to start by saying that this piece is particularly relevant in the wake of a man being elected as US president who doesn’t believe in global warming. This kind of activist theatre has to go on existing if we want to change minds. The Watershed by Annabel Soutar is that kind of theatre.
The first thing you need to know about The Watershed is that it’s a piece of documentary theatre. Documentary theatre is pretty much what it sounds like: a documentary for the stage. In it, playwright Annabel Soutar (played by Liisa Repo-Martell) investigates the cut in federal funding to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a research project examining pollution in lakes, and takes her husband and kids on a road trip to see the oil sands in Fort McMurray.
She uses verbatim text from interviews, news broadcasts, radio programs, and even dialogue at family gatherings to tell her story and examine the complex environmental and economic issues surrounding the event. We see and feel her frustrations, successes, and failures on her investigative journey. Yes, it’s political, but she really took the time to humanize the story, to make it about the characters just as much as it is about the issue. It was particularly interesting to me, as someone who is interested in playwriting, to see her process.
Soutar’s most recent play, Seeds, follows this same concept of her placing herself in the play as a character. Watershed director Chris Abraham (a close collaborator who had the initial idea of inserting the playwright) also featured as a character in this play, and the original production in Toronto had Soutar’s husband playing himself. Just some interesting facts.
This production was simply gorgeous. As someone who grew up in Ottawa with parents working in the government, I’m aware of how slow-moving government can be, but this play turns a subject that wouldn’t normally be exciting into a riveting story. It also manages to stay away from preachiness: despite having some biases, it remains somewhat objective in its journalistic approach.
Sound isreally important in this production, and the sound design really brings each setting alive. Water, of course, is a repeated element, and the noise of a single drop of water is effectively used to highlight an important point or indicate a transition in scene. There was a weird mix of prop use and mime: using props for some things but not for others (holding wine glasses but miming the wine being poured, for example) sometimes came off a little awkward, but that’s pretty nitpicky.
The show is quite long: it clocks in at just over two and a half hours, including an intermission. The two acts are a bit disjointed and almost feel like two separate plays: the first investigating the ELA cuts and the second documenting the family’s road trip.
The Watershed runs until December 4th at Centaur Theatre. Student tickets are $28, under 30 is $36.50, senior tickets are$43.50, and general admission is $51. There’s also a $5 fee.
(Photo credit: Centaur Theatre)