Written by the University of Saskatchewan drama department’s playwright in residence, Kenneth T. Williams, Downstream will be making four stops as it tours across the prairies during February.
It will start its run with a performance as part of Forum Theatre: Performing Perspectives in the Saskatchewan River Basin on Feb. 21 in Convocation Hall at the U of S.
While the final version of the script has only been in the hands of the actors for a few weeks, the origins of Downstream go back much farther.
Graham Strickert, who received a PhD in complex systems from Lincoln University and now works at the U of S, started conducting research and surveys on water safety and security in 2011. He specifically aimed to provide an answer to what water security meant to a wide variety of people — whom he identifies as stakeholders — in the Saskatchewan River Basin.
Strickert identified five common themes on how people define water security: reliability, limited resources, social and environmental justice as well as both idealistic and pragmatic sustainability.
In order to avoid what Downstream assistant director Chris Donlevy called “death by PowerPoint,” Strickert began thinking of other methods to disseminate his results in a way that would be more engaging.
Working with partner Lori Bradford, Strickert came up with the idea of turning his findings into a play. As a playwright, Williams was more than happy to hear Strickert out.
After Strickert presented Williams with the research results, the production started to take shape.
The two “took some of the statements that were distinguishing between the perspectives and put them into dramatized discussion,” Strickert said. “Many issues were discussed and we created characters to line up with these groups of stakeholders coming together to discuss water crises.”
Strickert eventually proposed his idea to the director of drama Greg Marion, who played a pivotal role in the birth of the play. Working together, they discussed the nature of the production — which would take place as a type of forum theatre.
“Ken had experience doing [forum theatre],” Strickert said. “There are many different views in the basin, both individual and professional. We wanted a play that represented these views, but was very open to the audience.”
The goal of the play is to promote discussion with the audience about differing issues and allow each of the distinct audiences to shape the way the play turns out, coming to their own understanding and opinions on water security.
“It’s like guided improv,” Donlevy said of the forum style. “We have to react with the audience and interact with them.”
“This collaboration has been such a great opportunity because we get to learn while others get to learn and I think that’s a major part of it,” said Kashtin Moen, a fourth-year drama student who plays the role of a game show host called the Timekeeper.
Strickert knew that the play would need to be travelling, simply because water security issues and the opinions of the stakeholders vary with geographic location.
Marion and Strickert turned to Doug Clark, centennial chair and assistant professor for the U of S’ School of Environment and Sustainability, for advice on how to put together a travelling show. Clark suggested they try for a connections grant.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council eventually awarded Strickert the grant, which was what made the entire project possible.
With the necessary funding in place, things were turned over to director Natasha Martinez and a small but reliable troupe of just over a dozen actors and crew. Strickert was still very active in helping the actors understand the major points of his research and has been involved in the entire process from research to play.
“In recent memory, this is the first time we’ve gone to Alberta with a touring show,” Donlevy said. “The topic is serious but it’s presented largely in a lighthearted way and people can expect an educational and entertaining play. It’s written in a way that is easy to understand and easy to absorb the information, and you walk away feeling like you learnt a lot about the different opinions in water security.”
“I think that the point is really to open people’s eyes and open communication between those upstream and downstream,” Moen said.
Curtain raises for Downstream in Saskatoon on Feb. 21 before hitting the road for Calgary, Medicine Hat and Cumberland House. While tickets are free, the number of seats are limited and anyone interested in attending will need to register at the Global Institute for Water Security’s website.