March 27, 2017

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The Arts

Where oil and water mix

Playwright explores environmental, economic issues

It’s appropriate that Montreal-based Annabel Soutar has scheduled a Wednesday morning phone interview while on a skiing vacation with her family in Fernie, B.C.

After all, her kids feature prominently in the documentary play Soutar is discussing, The Watershed. It’s her followup to Seeds, which played at Prairie Theatre Exchange last season (and also starred Eric Peterson). Where Seeds examined the more nuanced implications of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser’s battle with agri-giant Monsanto over genetically modified foods, Soutar’s new play examines the crucial topic of water stewardship in a world where access to fresh water is becoming more vital as climate patterns are radically changing.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Playwright Annabel Soutar took her family on a cross-country journey to explore the future of our most precious resource: water.</p>

SUPPLIED

Playwright Annabel Soutar took her family on a cross-country journey to explore the future of our most precious resource: water.

Taking as its centrepiece the battle that occurred when the Harper government shut down Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area in 2013, it’s a challenging topic. That’s one reason why Soutar chose to involve her three daughters in the creation of the play. She took them along as she did her research, "to show that I’m not just a playwright but also a mother who’s thinking in a very concrete way about the future," she says. "What kind of resources are going to be there for my kids?"

Things didn’t necessarily go smoothly, she says.

"My children, who were ages eight to 10 at the time, were great collaborators sometimes, but often they were huge obstacles in doing my work," Soutar says. "Me trying to tell them about the complex politics of the Experimental Lakes Area and the Harper government kind of made for some very funny family moments.

"For me, they made the story a little more fun, bringing some domestic comedy peppered in with more serious political issues."

On why the play is especially relevant right now:

"On the subject of fresh water, scientists and business people have been saying for years that this is a problem that’s going to rear its ugly head very soon. Weather patterns are changing where water falls, it’s making it increasingly difficult to grow crops and to service municipalities with fresh water, so we’ve seen countries in South America and even in Europe run out of fresh water.

"It seems to be a problem that you’d think people would take very seriously because it’s the one thing, apart from fresh air, that we need in order to live. But it always seems to be, ‘That’s not in my backyard, it will never come here,’ and yet people are saying it’s going to come here much faster than we think.

"For me, this was a play about: why can’t human beings imagine that future and act now to prevent it?"

On how the water resources are tied to oil and gas:

"That issue is very particular to Canada. How do we maintain an economy that’s very much based on natural-resource development and also protect our fresh water at the same time? This is a conflict that came to a real climax while I was researching The Watershed with the Harper government in terms of (former prime minister Stephen Harper’s) clash with environmental scientists and his decision to remove regulation around fresh water so he could expand oil and gas development, particularly in Fort McMurray.

"Now we’re seeing (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau having to dance that dance, even though he pays a lot more lip service to the environment.

"The difference between Harper and Trudeau is that Trudeau seems to be saying, ‘We can develop our natural resources and also preserve the environment at the same time.’ But at some point, that’s going to come to a head and he’s going to also clash with environmentalists, who, along with some First Nations communities, are all saying that’s not a reconcilable thing.

"At some point, we have to say no to pipelines and to oil and gas development if we really want to do right by the climate."

On the importance of America’s regression in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointment of climate-change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

"It’s a disaster. But if we look south of our borders, that’s where it’s finding its relevance.

"Looking at that polarized environment, we have to ask what can we do to keep the conversation alive here. That’s why I’m happy to be doing it this year because I’m very concerned about crumbling public discourse in general.

"If we attack the media for not being legitimate mediators of the public discourse, I’m more concerned about that than what’s happening in the EPA, honestly. We’re basically taking away the tools that we have to speak with one another about what to do politically.

"There seem to be no referees left in the United States. And I think Canadian public discourse can certainly be contaminated by what’s happening there."

On why she is excited to bring the play to Winnipeg:

"This production may be a little bit special because many of the events in the play take place in Winnipeg and many of the characters work and live in Winnipeg... in particular, a scientist who is married to (philanthropist) Gail Asper, (Experimental Lakes) research scientist Michael Paterson.

"Gail was very keen to have the show come to Winnipeg so she worked with (the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre) to bring it in for a week.

"We feel, in a way, bringing the play to Winnipeg is bringing the play home."

The Tuesday night performance of The Watershed is a gala fundraiser to benefit the IISD Experimental Lakes Area. Tickets are $100 and are available through Eventbrite.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Read more by Randall King.

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History

Updated on Monday, March 13, 2017 at 8:19 AM CDT: Adds photo

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