Seeds continues to grow

Documentary theatre about Monsanto case makes first stop in the Prairies

The dispute over genetically modified foods is in a bit of rut.

Look at the recent debate on the subject between Kevin O’Leary the pompous co-host of CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange and 14-year-old Rachel Parent an anti-GMO activist as a prime example. During the 12-minute spat O’Leary — in classic form — resorted to condescending ad hominems (“you know what a lobbyist is right?” and suggested that she was a “shill for a group that wants to use you”) while Parent quoted disproven statistics and responded to questions with vague statements like “should we be messing with Mother Nature?”

That’s where Seeds comes in. Serving as Theatre Junction’s first entry into a year of intensely political programming the piece of documentary theatre examines the predicament around GMO foods through a retelling of the Monsanto Canada Inc. vs. Schmeiser case of the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s a complex tale. Percy Schmeiser a Saskatchewan canola farmer using non-GMO crops was sued by Monsanto Canada for not paying a licensing fee after modified seeds blew onto his farm. The corporation ended up winning the case in the Supreme Court in 2004 but not before it became a globally notorious conflict.

However Seeds isn’t just another bullshit David vs. Goliath tale. Schmeiser is held up to scrutiny in the course of play with significant questions raised about how much he knew. Similarly Monsanto is given a tad more breathing room than in other venues with the character of Monsanto spokesperson Trish Jordan featured in a more reasonable human light. It’s fitting that the first public debate between Monsanto and its opponents in a long while was hosted in November by Annabel Soutar the playwright of Seeds . Diplomacy is the strategy.

“I think we just simply need a little bit more human contact with people who think differently” explains Soutar who’s also the co-founder and artistic director of Montreal’s Porte Parole. “I think that what’s happened is that because it’s such a good story to tell — it’s so much fun to set up this polemic and this war between the anti-GMO activists and the biotech companies — that that’s the story we hear the most in the media. Maybe we can see this more as a battle between more equally endowed sides and not just the big corporations versus the innocent victim farmer.”

It’s taken quite some time for Seeds to arrive in the Prairies. Soutar began research for the play in 2002 after learning of the ongoing case which was then rising through the court system and public consciousness. A first iteration of the play was presented in 2005 by Porte Parole. That script like the version that will be shown in Calgary was entirely verbatim referencing interviews that Soutar conducted and transcripts from court sessions. In that early version all the characters spoke to the audience as if there wasn’t a fourth wall.

The revamp created with the assistance of Siminovitch Prize-winning director Chris Abraham introduced the character of Soutar. While it might seem like a narcissistic move it makes a lot of sense. The playwright serves as the guide: as she learns things about the science of DNA and the details of the case the audience learns too. But there were many more additions including Eric Peterson the old crank from the sitcom Corner Gas being cast as Schmeiser (a decision that Abraham notes he made within reading five pages of the script). And even though years have passed the tale still holds relevance.

Abraham who explains that his opinions on the issue have changed four or five times in the course of working on the play notes that “nary a month goes by when we don’t hear something about a new study that either proves or disproves dangers whether they be human health dangers or environmental dangers about genetically modified foods and the biotech response disproving or discrediting the study that came out. There’s still a lot that we don’t know in terms of the actual science of the GMOs and the impacts on human health.”

While the particulars on GMOs are still being worked out Soutar’s hope that the play “gives the audience an appetite to maybe learn a little bit more” will be fulfilled with Sunnyside Natural Market and Amaranth Whole Foods Market serving organic snacks and a trio of farmers hosting a Q&A session following the show. Mark Lawes the artistic director of Theatre Junction sees the post-show activities as another way of engaging people in political issues — a theme for the company’s lineup of shows in 2014.

“Theatre from its origin was really political and talking about subjects that are important for the society as a whole” he explains. “We wanted to put it in a public forum so that subjects like Seeds are happening not only behind closed doors. With the Occupy movement [there’s] this new energy for investigating change: how do we take action in the world today as individuals as a society or as a collective? What does it look like today?”