- Seeds of Prophecy: Annabel Soutar’s Seeds
You’ve barely found your seat when a scientist asks you, “What is life?” Anywhere else you might ignore him, but this is the theatre, the place where weighty questions are meant to be asked. You realize you’re being filmed: your face has been projected onto a screen that stretches across the back of the stage. What is life? All you can think is what US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography.
“I know it when I see it,” you reply.
The lights fade, and Annabel Soutar’s docudrama Seeds begins. As the action plays out, you realize your clever answer will not quite suffice. Thanks to the introduction of genetic modification, we might not know life when we see it. Or, if you’re a Saskatchewan farmer named Percy Schmeiser, when it blows onto your field.
With a script taken entirely from printed documents and interviews, Seeds is an exquisite reinvention of the verbatim theatre form. A David-and-Goliath story in which you’re [End Page 82] never quite sure who is who, the play is only ostensibly about the legal battle between Schmeiser, a canola farmer, and Monsanto Canada, an agricultural biotech firm that licenses crop-protection chemicals and seeds to farmers worldwide. In 1997, Schmeiser was sued for patent infringement after Monsanto claimed he had used their genetically modified seeds without a licence. But Soutar, a playwright who works exclusively in verbatim theatre, knew at once the story had deep implications about our relationship to life created in a laboratory (Soutar). Schmeiser claimed that the seeds blew onto his field without his knowledge, but the Supreme Court sided with Monsanto. The implications were staggering: if life itself can be patented, then ordinary citizens may be legally liable when life acts in unpredictable ways. The philosophical implications of this intrigued both Soutar and her director—Chris Abraham, the artistic director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre—leading them to create something more than a recitation of court transcripts and press clippings. Rather than simply report the facts, the pair shifted their attention to the larger impact of the story on the world around them. Through an array of innovative techniques, they explored the many ways the story affected its creators, changing Seeds into a play that, appropriately, explores the process of growth and transformation.
Seeds opened at Toronto’s Young Centre in the winter of 2012 with famed Canuck Eric Petersen in the weighty role of Percy Schmeiser.1 Abraham brought unique ideas to the table, working with designer Julie Fox to turn the stage into a labyrinth of furniture and scientific equipment. Pieces of a farmhouse mix with office furniture, which in turn are dwarfed by a rack of flowering plants. Amorphous in design, the setting easily moves from the courtroom to a field of canola. This concept ramps up the inherent theatricality of the script and annihilates the fourth wall: there are no wings, and the cast is onstage to greet the audience, introducing themselves with their actual names. This technique alters the manner in which we distill the story of the play. Often, in verbatim theatre, we are asked to pretend the actors are the people they’re quoting. This imposes a form of fictional reality on the piece, one which may distance us from the facts being presented. With Abraham’s technique, however, this fiction is instantly dismissed. The actors admit they’re actors right from the start: they present themselves as a group of friends who have been altered by a story and are now telling it to us because it’s something they think we should hear.
In keeping with the theme of transformation, the six actors play dozens...