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Using theater as a tool: An interview with Annabel Soutar

Annabel Soutar

Annabel Soutar, Playwright and Executive Director, Porte Parole

Porte Parole is a documentary theater company based in Montreal. For those unfamiliar with the genre, documentary theatre is a type of theatre that looks at current social issues and presents them in dramatic form. The script of a documentary play is the outcome of an investigative process aimed at shedding light on a given issue from a variety of perspectives. The script itself is usually written using verbatim excerpts from interview transcripts with respondents as well as other documents, such as newspaper clippings, government reports, court proceedings, etc. In some ways, one might say that documentary theater is at a crossroads between investigative journalism and art. For those of you interested in finding out more about this wonderful theatre company, you can have a look at their website:

I came across Annabel’s work for the first time in 2003, when an acquaintance told me about a play her theater company, Porte Parole, had just produced. I had been working for a foundation at the time, whose mission was to build a centre of excellence in nursing in Montreal, and the play was about… nurses. It was in fact one of a seven-part series of plays on the Quebec health care system. I’d never heard of Porte Parole before, nor had I ever heard of documentary theater as a genre, but I was curious, and so I went. It was a mesmerizing experience. I had just spent the previous months trying to make sense of the field of nursing – what the issues were, where the challenges for development lay. I had spoken with existing and former politicians and civil servants in the Ministry of Health. I had met the Deans of Schools of Nursing, as well as the Directors of Nursing in most of Montreal’s major hospitals. I had spoken to the President of the Order of Nurses as well as members of her staff I had had conversations with nurses working in all kinds of roles, in all levels of our health care system (head nurses, hospital-based nurses, nurses in private practice, community health nurses, etc.). I had a pretty good understanding of what was going on, and I can honestly say that Annabel had pretty much nailed all the main issues in her hour-long play. I became an instant fan.

In September 2012, I went to see the French language version of her most recent play – Seeds. Seeds is a dramatic re-enactment of the 4-year legal battle that pitted Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser against the biotech giant, Monsanto. Unlike her previous work, in this play Annabel puts the investigator at the centre of the action. The story unfolds gradually as the researcher gathers bits of evidence and tries to make sense of what she finds. The investigative work that usually goes on behind the scenes in a documentary play is brought to the fore and incorporated into the story. In my view, it made the story all the richer and more nuanced than it might otherwise have been. And as I watched, I found myself thinking that the writing process a playwright like Annabel goes through was probably uncannily similar to the one we as qualitative researchers go through. And it occurred to me that maybe we could learn something from the work of a playwright, who not only needs to capture what the issues she wants to address are, but who also has to make them interesting to her audience: captivating enough to get them to change what they think, no less. And then I thought, “Isn’t that what we’re trying to do as well?

Shortly after seeing the play, I decided to contact Annabel with my idea, and she most graciously agreed to let herself be interviewed for our project. She invited me to her office, and we discussed her writing process over tea on a November afternoon. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did compiling it.

So where do your ideas for plays come from?

Well, for each play it’s different. Sometimes I’ll read a headline and there’s something screaming at me through the headline. You know, back when we did our first play, November, I remember reading a headline – this was the one about the Québec election campaign where we toured the province interviewing citizens as the leaders were touring around campaigning. It was the provincial election when Charest had just come back from federal politics and the headlines were kind of calling it the “The battle of the Titans” and it was Bouchard/Charest and it was all superlatives, really exaggerated language that, for me, felt very disconnected from how most people would describe political dialogue. And I just sensed this huge disconnect between ordinary citizens and the way political discourse was being framed through the media. And so it was kind of instinctual for me to go out and do a little portrait of democracy.

And I think because it was the first play that Porte Parole did, I wanted it to also frame what Porte Parole stood for, and show that we were really interested in public discourse and we were interested in providing a platform where citizens could express themselves a little bit differently than just going to the polls every four years. When we did a series of plays about the health care system, it was because there were some acute crises that year and I just sensed that so many people were freaking out about waiting times in emergency rooms and about the lack of family doctors and so it felt like the right time.

So really, the choice of topic is me and my curiosity, but it’s also me always thinking about being of service to my audience because they’re my customers, right? And if they don’t want to come into my store and buy what I have to offer, then I’m dead. And so I have to think, if I’m going to start this research now, I have to hope that by the time it gets on the stage, this story has enough of a shelf life that it’s still going to be relevant to them while they’re in the theatre so that they can think of documentary theatre as being right on the cusp, even as much as the mainstream media, which is so difficult to time, because you almost have to think of it before it happens.

Anything else?

I find that the poetic universe is very generous and very smart, and so for me research is a lot about being open to just happenstance; someone passing me a book, or you know, me reading a newspaper on a particular day and coming across a reference and then following it. Really, I don’t perceive that there’s a right or wrong way to do research; you have to be systematic, but at the beginning for me at least it’s really about being open and then trusting that my curiosity is going to be my audience’s curiosity, and really following my nose and being entertained by the story that’s being told to me by these people. And as I’m reading, I take notes, which I then put down on my computer or in a notebook and I then follow up. People always list bibliographies, so if there’s a certain reference that interests me, I’ll go to that book or to the internet, which obviously is a wealth of information.

And the whole time I keep asking myself, “What’s the story here? What’s really behind all these words? What’s actually going on?” I start thinking in theatrical terms too, like “What’s the dramatic arc of this?” or “Where is this leading and how can it be tangibly portrayed, not just in words, but physically onstage?” I start to think in those terms because the theatre is a realm where certain stories are told better than others. Every medium has its particular talents and the theatre is the world of the tangible: it’s like we are presenting you with concrete objects and concrete people and real-life sounds, to create a world and a story for you.
So that’s what I mean when I say the universe is speaking to you; it’s like, there’s a story here that didn’t get told; it’s calling to you – come and tell it, and bring it to your public so that they can see it in a different light. And it’s true, sometimes you could get halfway through your research and be like, “God! Is there really a good story here? And you have to like amp it up in different ways.

How do you choose who to interview?

It’s the hardest part actually, because in a way, in documentary you start telling a story the moment you start interviewing people, because already then you’re making decisions about who you’re going to talk to and where you’re going to go to find your story. And in the beginning, that process is instinctive and guided by your own curiosity, but at a certain point you have to start dramatizing what you’ve found. You have to start thinking about it as a narrative. And in order to make a narrative ultimately entertaining, you have to hook into something really dynamic. You’ve got to identify a conflict. You’ve got to get a sense of where people are starting to invest their money and their time, because that indicates that there’s an urgency there. And you’ve got to find the colourful characters that will help you tell that story.

How many interviews would you typically do for a project?

For my past projects I would say around fifty, because usually with a story, there’s a fixed number of people who are directly involved in that story and then we’ll do a few peripheral interviews. For this new project we’re working on, which is going to be on water, I think there will probably be hundreds of interviews. And even so, we’re going to have to fit it all into a two-hour play, so there will only be a tiny percentage of the material we collect that will be used for the ultimate story that will be told on stage. So the characters that will end up on stage will be the most poetic, the most important to the connections between the places that we go, the ones that are helping us tell our narrative, and that also provide a diversity of perspectives, because that’s the other thing that makes my methodology a little complicated, is that I don’t want one angle on this; I’m not trying to tell you why I think the private sector can solve our water problems. I’m not on a mission to tell you that I think Maude Barlow (National Chairperson, Council of Canadians) has all the answers. I’m interested in who Maude Barlow is arguing with about this; I’m interested in how there is a disagreement between different municipalities, or how shipping companies are coming into conflict with local fishermen, for example. I want to know where the tensions are.

Can you tell me a bit more about the interview process?

There are two things happening when I’m interviewing someone. My primary role is just to really engage the person in a good dialogue. I have to be super present so I don’t take too many notes, because then they’ll constantly see me as someone evaluating them as opposed to someone who is really being in a conversation with them. So I take only a few notes because my priority is to be present in the moment. And often I get carried away too. I get so interested in what people are saying. I’ve also kind of trained myself to take mental notes about people’s gestures, or just little details of things that they’re wearing, if they play with a necklace, how they react if a phone rings, or if they have to go do an e-mail or something. And then right away after the interview, I’ll just scribble down whatever I remember. But I really like to keep the intimacy alive, because I think they’re going to say more interesting things if they feel that I’m just a person they’re having a conversation with.

Do you write your questions down in advance?

I usually come into my interviews quite prepared with what I want to ask each person before I leave the room, but like you – I very rarely saw you looking down at your questions – I don’t always follow them. I know where I’m starting and I know my first few questions, and then I very often abandon the order of my questions because I begin to understand, as the interview is going on, what’s important. So the dynamic of an interview can be quite interesting. There’s always a certain degree of improvisation. On the other hand, it doesn’t always happen that way, and sometimes I’ll go back to my script of questions and make sure I’ve hit all my points.

Do you transcribe your interviews yourself?

I do. A lot of people have volunteered to do it for me, but I love transcribing. I used to transcribe everything and now I’ve learned to edit things as I go. So I’ll come across a passage and it’s like, “There’s no way this is going to get up on the stage.” In those cases I’ll paraphrase things just so I know what the person said if I need to go back to it. And then there are passages that just jump out at you, that you know are the crux of the character and the crux of the issue and it’s very poetic the way it’s coming out, and you start transcribing and because it’s so good, you feel like you’re following a story and you can’t wait to write down the next thing. When that happens transcribing goes quickly, because you’re so into it. Transcribing is also how I get to know the different characters’ voices. So a lot of work is being done when you’re transcribing because you become very conscious of the material you have and the story that you’re telling. But it’s long.

So when do you actually start writing?

Usually I have a deadline, so the deadline is instrumental in getting me to write. And sometimes it just happens because I come across material that I have, and I’m like, “This is the beginning. This person’s voice is going to open the play.” And I can tell because of the way he’s speaking. And it’s like when we went down to his field and the person was like, “This is the famous field number two, where it all first happened.” And I knew that that was one of the opening monologues of the play. He was starting at the beginning. He used the words “This is where it all first happened,” there’s suspense to what he’s saying, we know this field, something important is going to happen here, there’s a bit of foreshadowing.

Sometimes I’ll start to write when I stumble upon material that feels like a pivot point and I’ll start placing material out like puzzle pieces on a table. So I think about it less as writing and more like assembling something. Here are all my transcripts, here are all my characters and then I go, “Okay, these are bits that I put on the left, because they feel like they’re at the beginning and here are a few that seem like they’re in a moment, like a climax or whatever, and here it feels more like dénouement. And then I just start organizing stuff and making choices. I say, “Okay, I have way too many characters; I have to get rid of some of them, who am I going to get rid of?” Is it because they’re redundant? Is it because they weren’t good enough, like literally, they weren’t interesting enough? And then, at a certain point you have to make decisions like, “What’s the real story here?” Because that’s how you know if the character is relevant or not. Like, “What story am I telling? So yes, this is a story about Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto, but it’s also a story about the truth and how we tell the truth and how we disseminate information and why we believe certain people and not others. So anybody who brings in those themes, you know, or uses concrete language that addresses that, are more likely to make it into the final draft than people who don’t address that.

Is that a theme that you picked up on early in the process?

I did a lot of newspaper collecting and I found it fascinating that someone would tell me something in an interview and then I’d read a newspaper article and there was like a huge disconnect between what the person said and what the newspaper article said. It’s a word I use often, and that I sense often: disconnect. I’ve always felt theatre was a place of connection. I mean, it’s fancy and it’s artificial, and in a way we’re asking you to disconnect from your real life and come into a place that’s totally not real. Just suspend your disbelief for two hours. But I see it as a way to get reconnected and go back out infused with a new sense of connection that you didn’t have before and that you can apply to the world. I’m like, “There’s a story out there that no one is telling like really it is”, and then when we do tell it like it is, people are going like, “Wow!” It’s like they’re discovering something. They’re like, “This whole thing was happening right in front of me, but I didn’t see it.”

How about rituals, do you have a ritual when you write?

I might have had before I had kids, but with kids, I’m just like, any scrap of free time, I’ll use. I’ll write on the bus, I’ll write anywhere. I find late at night is my most productive time because it’s so quiet, there are no pressures to call people or e-mail. Everything’s quiet, you can really focus and I just find that I get a lot of momentum at night. If I can get past the “I’m tired” at nine o’clock and not go to bed, have a cup of tea, I can stay up and work until one. I work in all kinds of places: on my sofa, my dining room table, sometimes in bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night and I have an idea, I’ll get up, go down to the kitchen and write it down. But really, any scrap of extra time, I’ll grab it and go.

When you write, do you start at the beginning or do you write up scenes in pieces and then bring them all together?

It helps to create a foundation so you can then say, “Okay, this is where I’m starting, this is where I have to go.” But it doesn’t always happen so easily, to find that beginning. It’s like you’re surfing. You’re in this kind of unknown – you’re in the world, but you’re also slightly removed because you’re evaluating it as a story.

So sometimes I’ll just transcribe an interview and look at it on the page and then start to edit it. Transcribing is just the first stage in writing because then you have to try and sculpt the transcription into dramatic scenes. Dramatic scenes are ones in which there’s an action, where there’s a feeling of going forward, and of somebody telling a story. Even within each scene it should feel like there’s kind of a beginning, a middle and an end. Often you’re taking a transcript which might be sixty pages long, and you’re trying to find the arc of that scene within those sixty pages and reduce it to three, for example, or four or five. And that’s where you start the process of laying each scene down and going, “Okay, what’s happening in this scene? What’s the tension? What’s the person trying to avoid saying sometimes? What link in the story is this person helping us cross? And how are we going to present this material so it feels like a play?”

How do you transform this material into something that really feels like drama?

Much of that work actually happens between my first draft and my final draft because I work out a lot of different issues in the rehearsal room with the actors. We first have to explore what it gives in terms of content, what it sounds like when you read it out loud or when you try and put it up on the stage. It’s like we’re creating content for the theatre, but then as we go along we’re using the theatre as a tool to see how well the material holds up. And when I say using it as a tool, it’s like – it’s amazing how, when you read it out loud, or when you get a couple of actors to try and put it up, you can see what’s working and what’s not. And you can see where the gaps are in the narrative. If you just start making things physical, you see how the language can come to life. And then after that, you’re just chiselling away until you find the specificity of the story.

In drama we say that a scene must stop when you’ve got two opposing sides coming in, each one wants something and they need the other person to get it, and the scene ends either when someone gets what they want, or when they realize that they will never get what they want. They have exhausted every possible strategy to get what they want and then they’re like, “Fuck this, I’m going. I’m going to go somewhere else to find it.”

In documentary, what’s often difficult is that we don’t have those conventional scenes playing out. What you have though is an interviewer who wants something. And the person they’re interviewing probably didn’t come in with the same sense of mission. But then when they sense what the interviewer wants, they react to that, “Hmm, how am I going to present this and how is she going to see me?” There’s a tension there and we get a sense of what they want in terms of the image that they’re trying to project or the truth that they want the playwright to take out of what they’re saying. So there is a scene playing out there between two people, and that’s what keeps people interested in watching the play. It’s like the secret ingredient that keeps people wondering what’s going to happen next. They’re following the story and saying, “Okay, she didn’t get it there, she’s going to go there.” They’re watching human beings strategize to get what they want, so as documentarists going into the field, we have to find that drama, find the material and each time evaluate whether there’s something actually going on.

You raise an interesting issue about the relationship between the researcher and the people being interviewed and how you exploit the tension as a means of building your story. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

It’s a very interesting dynamic, because it very rarely gets said out loud. The person who’s being interviewed is like, “How are you judging me? How are you evaluating me?” So not only do I have to be careful of what I say, I also have to try and guess how the other person perceives me, and then kind of address that in what I say to them. It’s a very interesting process. I mean, the thing is, human beings are storytellers. When you go up and ask someone a question, they start telling a story and the way they tell that story is totally unique to them and it exposes a lot of the assumptions and prejudices that they might have. It exposes their world view both in their choice of words and in what they don’t say, like when things get awkward and there are silences. There are just so many little indicators, and that’s what we’re looking for when we’re trying to discover, “Okay, what’s going on here?”

How do you interpret what people are saying to you?

Well, it’s hard not to judge. I think we all have our little radar for truth, but the thing is, “What is truth?” I mean, I do describe myself as kind of a gullible person. I’m easily taken in by people’s tales. When people tell me things, I’m like, “Really? Gosh! That’s amazing!” As opposed to, “Come on, that’s bullshit.” But there’s definitely a bit of acting there. Michael Moore does this a lot in his storytelling. He acts like a big, dumb guy and then he gets people to expose things because they don’t see him as having an agenda, at least not in his early years because everyone sees him as having an agenda now. But he acts dumb. So there’s always a little bit of that. But most of the time at the beginning of the process, I really am dumb. I really don’t know anything about their world and everything my interviewees tell me is new and exciting. They’re the experts and I’m an ignoramus and I’m allowing them to enlighten me. I don’t have a basis to criticize them or to evaluate whether what they’re saying is true or not. Plus generally, I believe that people try and tell the truth as they see it, and that they’re invested in their particular truth getting out there. We’re all living in our own little bubbles and we all operate in our little niches and we build our truth around those particular niches. I mean, that’s another reason for bringing people out of their niche and placing them next to someone in another niche, because the wider truth is about how those niches are interacting or not interacting.

It sounds like you do a lot work alone but also with others. Can you talk a little more about that?

At the beginning it is usually very solo. I’ve almost always done all the interviews by myself and so the selection of the topic, the selection of the subjects to interview, the approach and so on, has always been very personal to me. It’s really been about my journey to go out and discover and understand a story.

But I think the theatre works best when it’s collaborative. I think that the best directors, the best writers, the best actors are interested in working as a team to discover how best to tell a story. And so as a playwright, I’m give a lot of credit to my collaborators for helping me refine the final draft. Seeds for example must have gone through at least forty drafts, honestly, before it got to a point where I could say it’s “final.” It’s getting published. I just sent the final draft to the publisher two weeks ago. And it’s terrifying to me, because it feels like it’s just this living thing that you go on changing forever. So to put it in print just feels like, I don’t know, it’s like, “It’s not really finished, but here, you can read it.” It should be called “Seeds, Draft 41.”

So I think that’s part of the reason why I chose theatre as a medium, because instinctively I like that collaborative work. I think my stories are collaborative right from the beginning, because I’m not sitting at home dreaming them up; I’m going out into the world and I’m asking people to tell me their stories and then I’m bringing their stories to my little platform here that they have collaborated towards building, by sharing. I’ve chosen theatre and I’ve chosen documentary, because I like the wisdom of groups; I find we have a lot to learn from each other and I think that what’s interesting in human beings is how we relate to each other.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

People often ask me if I create some of my characters because the documentary material hasn’t given me what I wanted, or if I make composites of characters, because I want a little bit of this or a little bit of that. What I answer to them is that I try and stay very true to the raw material, so that it really is all verbatim and I’m keeping my characters as they are in real life. I’m not amalgamating. I like to be able to say at the end of the process that this is what I experienced when I was out there interviewing and this is what the actual person said. Some people speak to me anonymously for whatever reason, but I like people to identify themselves and stand by what they say. You know, that they present to the public what’s actually happening in our world, as they see it. Obviously you have to create an entertainment package at the end, so that’s the real difficulty. How can you stay true to the material you’ve got in all its roughness and its nuance, but also just make it this efficient storytelling machine? It’s a balancing act.

Sometimes I like to expose to my audience when I might have faltered in that process, so they know how hard it is. My audience has very high expectations for a story, and it is sometimes hard to take people on a detour that you think is important, or add in a little bit of information that gives nuance or colour to what is being said. Sometimes you want to show your audience that you had to throw something on the cutting room floor, just because it wasn’t entertaining enough, but by doing that you might not have told them the whole truth.

This actually makes me think of another question. In your play Seeds, there’s a scene where the researcher gets a call from one of her respondents who is upset at the way she misinterpreted or misused something he had said. The researcher is clearly mortified by this. This must happen sometimes, how do you deal with that?

I always feel terrible when it happens; it’s an awful feeling, when the expectation the person had about how the material was going to be used was different and then they come and see the play and they’re really shocked or disappointed, or feel judged. It’s happened many times. I just think that when you’re engaged in anything, you make mistakes and you hurt people, and people hurt you and you can’t possibly be engaged in any activity without there being accidents or conflicts occurring. I try to be very upfront at the beginning and explain things. But even though you say it, people have a hard time visualising it. I mean they realize that you’re recording them so that you can access it, and you’re going to be adapting it, you’re going to go and write something based on the material. But then, when they finally see it, they feel kind of exposed. I mean, most of the time it’s very positive; they feel like, “Wow, you really found this really cool, poetic thing and I feel so honoured to be considered important enough to be a character in a play that goes public.” But we’ve had other people who were very upset, who felt that the play was like a personal attack, that they’d agreed to do the interview but that there was a sense that I had come in saying one thing about my process and then doing another. And that upsets me because I’m asking people to trust me, and so when it gets out that people feel I’m coming in with an agenda, and that I’m really just using their material to exploit them, as opposed to you know, offer up what I think is an important idea or portrait or whatever, then it’s very upsetting to me. So it can be very tricky.

Why documentary theater? What made you choose this field as an expressive medium?

I really like theater as an art form, but I wanted to do something that’s connected to today’s world. I don’t want to just put up Shakespeare and stuff, I want to use theater as a tool.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier

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