Liisa Repo-Martell and Alex Ivanovici. photo: Guntar Kravis
Seeds is a piece of documentary theatre about the high profile court battle between the multinational biotech company Monsanto and Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, the ultimate judgement against the farmer, and the rabbit hole of philosophical issues it reveals. Monsanto alleges that Schmeiser stole their patented herbicide and pesticide resistant canola seeds and grew his fields with them. He claims that the seeds blew over from a neighbouring field, or travelled there by other means outside his control. It makes for an increasingly familiar story: little guy goes up against faceless corporation, gets squashed; no justice in this world of globalization and corporate privilege.
While that is the narrative that TV news or even documentary film might construct, the truth of the matter, as Seeds would tell it, is decidedly more slippery.
Playright Annabel Soutar's company Montreal-based Porte Parole teamed up with Toronto-based Crow's Theatre and director Chris Abraham to mount a revised version this 2005 play at Festival Transamériques until June 9th.
“Making a movie is expensive,” says Soutar, who wrote herself in as a character in the version to provide an emotional baseline. “Before filming even begins, decisions about market and target audience have to be made. Consequently, documentary films often polarize content and end up preaching to the converted.” The 2008 doc The World According to Monsanto is a perfect example of this. Theatre needn't make make such commercial decisions, and the documentary form, where the text of the play is taken verbatim from interviews the playwright conducted with dozens of people involved in the trial, allows Soutar to construct a balanced picture.
To be honest, the picture is frustratingly, delightfully, sometimes shockingly balanced to someone like myself who completely bought Monsanto's guilt in this and many, many other crimes. Nowhere in the media-- other than from Monsanto's mouthpieces-- was the innocence of the little guy called into question. Soutar conducted interviews with biotech experts, consumer advocates, witnesses from the trial, and people who know Schmeiser personally to reveal facets of the story that no TV news exposé would ever come close to telling. With nearly every revelation though, guilt ricochets from one party to another. At times – especially after one farmer claims that he and Monsanto could have easily fingered the farmer that sold Schmeiser seed, thereby winning their case handily but chose not to because doing so would have meant ruining that (nearly) innocent farmer in the process-- I found myself siding, to my horror, with Monsanto.
The same restlessness of blame is almost, but not quite as present in an underlying issue: are GMOs safe? Have we jumped on the bandwagon too soon, and are we pursuing an experiment to the detriment of our health? Monsanto says “no we aren't, we don't need to prove it, and this technology can feed a world that is hungry now.” The science to prove otherwise, as interviews with experts in the play reveal, is too expensive to pursue when the results stands to harm profits for multinationals and generate revenue for nobody.
“A person's spoken words are like their fingerprints,” says an actress playing the playwright Annabel Soutar early in Seeds. The subsequent action reveals this to be only partly true.
For text ripped from public appearances, actors operate cameras that project the speech on the proscenium, emphasizing that this portion of rhetoric is what is in public record-- we are effectively watching the play watch TV. Juxtaposed with their candid admissions and opinions from those who access to private knowledge, we can deconstruct how public image is formed. Words can be our fingerprints, but they can also be our mask.
One of the last bits of text we hear from Schmeiser is a phone call to the playwright. He has learned that in speaking with some of his neighbours, Soutar is getting an image of him as someone who is “not well liked,” and generally mistrusted in his community, despite just having been elected to public office for the umpteenth time. He asserts that this perception can only have originated from a Monsanto smear campaign in his community. In the scene, the playwright seems to freeze with the revelation that simply by investigating a nascent narrative questioning Schmesier's integrity, she may have been inadvertently propagating it. Her spoken words then are more than just fingerprints. They are like an odour, transmitting information almost by osmosis.
It's an old cliché that actions speak louder than words, and that a person's character should be judged by what they do, not what they say. But that may not be entirely true, says Seeds. Words about actions are what speak loudest. That may be the mechanism that allowed Monsanto to ruin the reputation of a respected member of the community, asserting that he stole their seed, got caught with “his hand in the cookie jar” (a line spewed by Monsanto's spokesperson and parroted by local farmers after the trial), despite the fact that that assertion was never proved in court.

That is the world of Seeds, a world that reveals the inadequacy of words when they are the only material you have to construct a narrative. Thankfully, it is a world that Soutar, a talented chameleon-like ensemble cast, and ingenious director Chris Abraham bring us into with both urgency and humour. What is unsettling is that that world is also our world.

Annabel Soutar. photo: Vivian Doan
Liisa Repo-Martell and Eric Peterson. photo: Guntar Kravis