Press-Republican

October 31, 2013

Stage work based on an actual court case

Centaur Theatre presents modern-day David vs. Goliath tale

By STEVEN HOWELL Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — MONTREAL — The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind — or is it?

“Seeds,” which debuts tonight at the Centaur Theatre, explores the case of when farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued for patent infringement by food giant Monsanto for using their genetically modified canola seeds. Schmeiser claims they blew onto his land courtesy of Mother Nature.

“This was a major legal battle, and it plays out in a very intriguing way on the stage,” said playwright and Montreal native Annabel Soutar. “Of course the audience comes into the play thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the little farmer versus the big multi-national.’ But there’s this narrative, and there’s this fantastic twist to this tale that is very unexpected.”

A twist that may very well dispel the classic David and Goliath battle.

“And one that offers a more nuanced picture,” Soutar said.

The case happened in the late 1990s and went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Soutar says the world was watching.

“This was the first time that a Monsanto patent had been challenged in a high court,” she said.

Soutar first heard of the case in the newspaper.

“And I had absolutely no idea what it was talking about — a patent on a gene that was inserted into the cell that was found growing in someone’s canola field. I just had all these questions firing away in my head,” Soutar said. “And as soon as I become really curious about something, I just can’t stop myself from researching it.”

The more she researched, the more Soutar realized she had a dramatic story on her hands. As with all of her plays, Soutar took a documentary-style approach.

“So everything you hear on stage is verbatim out of the mouths of people that I interviewed,” she said. For the work, Soutar interviewed Schmeiser, and was even able to get Monsanto to talk to her. Other dialogue comes from the original Saskatoon court-case transcripts.

“The interesting thing here was that there was really contradictory testimony,” she said. “Which suggests that someone is lying about how the seeds got in the field.” 

Soutar, who studied in the English department at Princeton University, first discovered the genre of documentary theater while taking a course with Emily Mann, who is also the artistic director of the school’s McCarter Theater.

“I never thought of a career in theater,” she said. “I was always a journalism news junkie. But when I saw this kind of theater, I thought: This really allows you to open up and listen to what’s going on in the news with a nuanced perspective on things.”

Playwrighting offered Soutar her love of investigative reporting and storytelling.

“And that wide array of characters on stage all tell a different perspective of the story.”

The play originally debuted in 2005 with Chris Abraham directing. Soutar and Abraham team up once again for the Centaur production.

Even Soutar’s own investigative reporter/playwright character — while pregnant — shows up on stage.

“While I was writing the play, I was pregnant with my second child,” she said. “And (director) Chris said, ‘There’s something really amazing that you’re carrying a seed inside you while you’re writing a play about seeds.’”

The thought — and the play — became a gift to her daughter.

“I think the pregnant character adds a personal vehicle to absorb all the legal and scientific information in the play,” Soutar said. “It’s an emotional story that tells of the future of food on our planet. And I think it’s important to my daughter to find out the truth about what it means to genetically modify food.”

Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.

IF YOU GO WHAT: "Seeds." WHERE: The Centaur Theatre is at 453 St. Francois Xavier St. in Old Montreal. WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 24. Most performances are at 8 p.m.; some Wednesday and Sunday performances are at 1, 2 and 7 p.m. Check with the box office. ADMISSION: Adult tickets cost $42.50 and $47.50 depending on day of performance. CONTACT: Call the box office at (514) 288-3161, or visit www.centaurtheatre.com.