Building on the runaway success of its last production, J’aime Hydro, the documentary theatre company Les Productions Porte Parole is premiering The Assembly at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto this month. The play, an attempt to defuse political polarization, will then play at Montreal’s Espace Go in November, alternating in English and French, as part of the CINARS performing arts market. L’Assemblée will then continue for a two-week run.
Annabel Soutar is the artistic director of Porte Parole, and one of three playwrights of The Assembly. She grew up in Westmount with parents who “were small-c conservative in the Canadian context.” Primarily a playwright, Soutar has written eight plays and served as dramaturg for J’aime Hydro. Her company wants to educate and be a catalyst for change. To do so, they seek out ordinary citizens from different backgrounds and ideological leanings as the main research material for a given play. Once they have found four people who are ready to challenge each other in a public context, they step back and allow a debate to unfold without really moderating it. The design model is that of the “long table,” Soutar explained. The Assembly is based on verbatim transcripts of the debate, edited for length.
J’aime Hydro, which starred actors Christine Beaulieu and Mathieu Gosselin, makes for dynamic theatre, despite its dry subject matter. As background to writing the text Beaulieu spoke to high-level officials at the public utility. She also met with citizen groups, attended public hearings, and visited some Hydro dams.
The research focussed on the Hydro plan to complete its hydroelectric complex on the Romaine River, already explored in the documentary film Chercher le courant, which featured actor Roy Dupuis. J’aime Hydro’s structure is based on Beaulieu’s journey of discovery about the Romaine issue in particular, and Hydro-Québec generally. Disarmingly frank, her character, who represents Soutar, admits to having no prior knowledge on this subject. The running time of the show was 3 hours and 40 minutes.
First performed in 2016, J’aime Hydro has toured the province and in 2017 played several nights at the Juste pour rire festival. In 2019, it will go on tour in Quebec again and from April 17 to 20 play Place des Arts as a special presentation of the Théatre Jean-Duceppe. It is critically acclaimed, winning, among other honours, the 2016-17 award for best production by the Quebec theatre critics’ association. There have been more than 50 performances, which is remarkable, given its subject matter and length.
Then again, Hydro-Québec has been central to Quebec society since the Quiet Revolution and Maîtres chez nous – that symbolic phrase made famous by then-premier Jean Lesage in the early 1960s. What it signified was the nationalizing of hydroelectricity. In the current era of environmental crisis, it would appear that J’aime Hydro has touched a nerve and led Quebeckers to go beyond their emotional attachment to H-Q, to re-examine this important institution more critically.
The Assembly was actually based on more than one public meeting. The first one, said Soutar, fell short of achieving Porte Parole’s goals, so they found new people and organized a second public meeting. This one provided the necessary material. The current political climate is one described on Porte Parole’s web site as follows: “ideological dugouts where so-called liberals and conservatives huddle in isolation and become less able to speak rationally together about politics. Political polarization has reached a boiling point.” The bilingual serialized documentary theatre project began in April 2016, when Soutar commissioned actors Alex Ivanovici and Brett Watson – her fellow playwrights for the script – to question Americans who supported Donald Trump during the American presidential primaries about their reasons for doing so. The project then grew into a more comprehensive examination of the dysfunctionality of political discourse, which goes beyond merely North American political dynamics, said the playwright.
The English and French versions of The Assembly share more than their central idea. The director for both is Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham (Siminovitch Prize winner); Ivanovici and Watson play in both and the design and production teams are the same. Both plays include a segment with audience members replacing the actors at the long table and having their own dialogue, with the tone remaining one of respectful debate. The Assembly and L’Assemblée differ in a few significant ways as well. The English production has two women and two men representing the people in the second English assembly, whereas in French, there are four women, in recognition of Espace Go’s origins as the Théâtre Expérimentale des Femmes. The age range in the English show is greater than in the French one: 21-71 versus 25-55 years old.
The additional actors in the English production are Jimmy Blais, Sean Colby, Tanja Jacobs and Ngozi Paul. In French, they are the well-known Pascale Bussières, Amélie Grenier, Nora Guerch and Christina Tannous.
Soutar, Ivanovici and Watson were recently in Maryland preparing the groundwork for an American segment of The Assembly. Soutar says this third segment will “hopefully go on tour and play in Canada at some point.” Porte Parole’s goal is for the left and right to transcend their ideological labels by listening to each other. Soutar herself said she hopes the show will make political discourse a “little more productive.”
The Assembly will be presented at the Crow’s Theatre of Toronto from Oct. 25 to Nov 13.
Théâtre Espace Go in Montréal will present the English version from Nov. 10 to 17 and the French version from Nov. 13 to Dec 2.