the chemical valley project  

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an interview with Broadleaf Theatre
refuse: (v)(n)(–) contains many high-res image + video works and should be experienced on larger screens.

Can you give us an introduction to Broadleaf and speak about how environmental issues have been brought to the forefront of your productions in line with the current political climate you are working within?

Broadleaf Theatre was founded three years ago to create original theatrical works based on local, national and global environmental issues, with a particular focus on Canadian subjects and perspectives. Our first project, The Broadleaf Plays, was inspired by the Italian futurists and the prominence of succinctness and spontaneity in their work. As such, the show manifested as a series of 15 distinct plays in an hour, each three minutes or less, each created with a different theatrical technique, and each focused on a different environmental topic.

The show was well received by our audiences and was recognized with the President’s Award for Best Production and the Viewer’s Choice Award in the annual theatre festival at our alma mater, the University of Toronto. The work was satisfying artistically but I’ll also be the first to admit that, our message was – for the most part – vague. As a company, our conversations on climate and environmentalism came from generalized online research and used an indistinct “global” perspective. We had not yet found ways to take part in contentious local conversations and to allow our work to question orthodoxies within the environmental movement itself. Much of the power of our earlier work came from an unequivocal opposition to federal policies of the day as well to the federal government, which relentlessly cut environmental programs and funding, refuted climate change as a liberal conspiracy, and unilaterally withdrew Canada from the Kyoto accord.

Flash forward three years and the Canadian political climate has shifted, although many Conservative environmental policies live on. Once a position held by a deceptively uncharismatic climate-change denier, our Prime Minister is now a political heartthrob - one who adroitly and dangerously employs neo-liberal language to perpetuate Conservative-era environmental standards and practices. Although policies have remained largely unchanged, suspicion and criticism towards the federal government’s environmental policies has lessened considerably thanks to a more charismatic public face. Our neighbours to the South have recently faced significant political shifts as well, adding to the further detriment of environmental protections on the continent. On a positive note, national conversations on Canadian identity have undergone substantial change. Although 2017 marks Canada’s sesquicentennial, our 150th birthday, the year was decidedly less celebratory than anticipated. One hundred and fifty years of Canada were instead met with widespread conversations around our colonial past and present and the precarious state of affairs between Canada and indigenous nations. The phrase “Colonialism 150” now enjoys widespread use and is an active, mainstream rejection of the core myths that Canada is built upon.

So Broadleaf’s work has necessarily shifted to respond and contribute to these changing conditions and conversations around environmentalism and reconciliation. We are working toward a greater focus on local conversations and building solidarity with on-the-ground activists and indigenous groups, such as Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, both of which are featured in “The Chemical Valley Project.”

In the past few years it has become abundantly clear to us that the acknowledgement and inclusion of indigenous voices is an essential part of authentic environmental discussions in this country. Not only are indigenous nations the original knowledge keepers and stewards of this land, they are too often the communities on the frontlines of environmental destruction in North America. Creating work that authentically captures part of the conversation on environmentalism in Canada has simultaneously deepened and localized our practice, but also makes it more risky. To localize conversations directly implicates our audiences in the topics and injustices we explore, whether they be environmental degradation, neocolonialism, or environmental racism. One of our most important duties as environmental theatre creators is to provide audiences, who may have never considered the idea of Canadian colonialism, an avenue into ongoing discussions that will shape the future of this country and the health of the planet in the 21st century.

Your direct partnership with activists firmly sets the voice of grassroots campaigning to not only be heard in the arts, but it also engages the local and global communities with the activists’ personal experiences of environmental racism from the petrochemical industry.

Please tell us more about how working with Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, two indigenous activists from Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community surrounded by the Chemical Valley on The Chemical Valley Project, and how this way of collaboration amplifies the volume of the activist voice.

Working with Vanessa and Lindsay has been an incredible experience, full of artistic opportunities, challenges and questions. I was first made aware of the Chemical Valley from a documentary I saw around the time I co-founded Broadleaf Theatre. From that initial interaction with the topic, I continued researching the Chemical Valley, learning more about the startling health statistics and personal stories from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Two years later, I visited Aamjiwnaang for the first time. At the time Vanessa had been charged with mischief endangering life for shutting down an Enbridge pipeline for a couple hours. That particular charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. I was shocked to learn about the severity of Vanessa’s charge and, having already learned about the ongoing environmental racism taking place in Aamjiwnaang, I decided to focus Broadleaf’s next project on building solidarity for Vanessa’s case and for Aamjiwnaang through art.

The process of creating The Chemical Valley Project challenged me and my collaborator Julia Howman to acknowledge our ignorance around indigenous history on Turtle Island (North America) and our complicity with extractive industry and neocolonialism in Canada. Creating the show brought forward complex interrogations around my own role creating work about Aamjiwnaang as a non-indigenous first-generation Canadian. It’s important to note that The Chemical Valley Project is a solo-performance written and created by me, a non-indigenous theatre creator, so conversations around appropriation, colonization, and authentic voice became regular and necessary parts of our process. The results of some of this questioning are shared with our audiences throughout the performance.

Through creating The Chemical Valley Project I learned more about the numerous considerations to be made when creating work about a community that isn’t yours. I think artists today, including many of my peers, are intimidated by the nuances of exploring stories that aren’t theirs, sometimes so much so that they avoid this work completely. For Broadleaf, a company of environmental theatre creators, it is our duty to face these challenges head on.

I knew that we could not create work about Aamjiwnaang without knowledge and voices from the community itself. I was guided by the dictum, “nothing about us, without us,” a powerful tool for artists of all disciplines exploring identities and cultures other than their own. Vanessa and Lindsay generously contributed their time to the project through recorded interviews and as dramaturgs, guiding the show’s narrative, the symbols and ideas explored on stage and, importantly, providing crucial cultural context and lived experience from Aamjiwnaang. The acknowledgement of their voice in the work is conscious and manifold: Vanessa and Lindsay appear throughout the show in documentary video and audio, and audiences hear their suggestions for the work and then see manifestations of those suggestions in physical space and in real time. In one interview, Vanessa suggested that the image of a canoe appear in the work to represent Anishnaabe culture. We then used the verbatim audio clip of Vanessa making that suggestion in the show and, immediately after that clip is played in performance, a paper canoe appears on stage, floating on an ebbing river.

Earlier you mentioned the word amplification. I think that’s the right word for our current work. The idea of amplification is a powerful tool both for artists working with communities that they aren’t a part of and for creators working in an activist-art practice. Two constant questions we ask ourselves are, “how can we augment grassroots activism without creating redundancy, and what spaces can we occupy that activists don’t or can’t have access to?” Media coverage of environmental actions and protests are good for profile-raising but are depicted through the biases and limitations of the mainstream media. Documentary theatre, then, can be a crucial medium to document and retell stories of political action by augmenting activism with artistry.

We realize that the theatre is innately political and – although much of the work we see today includes antiquated plays – theatrical performance based in urgency and truth will always be immensely powerful.

Amidst today’s saturation of live feed media and often unfaithful current affairs reportage, The Chemical Valley Project broadcasts the ongoing developments of court cases between Aamjiwnaang community members, corporations, and the Canadian government, and the content to Broadleaf’s theatre shows evolve in time with the realities of these cases. Can you say more about this creatively dynamic structure of communicating the judicial journey?

I’d agree that truth today is elusive. We exist in media echo-chambers and digital headlines are disseminated based on algorithms, often beyond our control and comprehension. It’s hard for us to hear, or even access, perspectives that are not our own.

Listening has always been a core part of theatre - the root of the word audience is audio. In Broadleaf’s work we ask our audiences to listen, to consider others’ perspectives and experiences, and to connect with voices they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to hear.

I think digital media gets a bad rep. It’s true that live-feed technology and tweeting can be used to make misinformation and sensational headlines viral. How many celebrities have had to refute their own deaths? In Aamjiwnaang, however, technology allows community members to engage in the widespread and rapid dissemination of truth. While the Canadian government and the Chemical Valley’s corporations have neglected to adequately monitor for leaks and spills from the plants in Sarnia, residents of Aamjiwnaang use social media to post about self-detected chemical leaks and provide community members with minute-to-minute updates on very real hazards.

For those outside of frontlines communities like Aamjiwnaang, social media often also serves as our entry point into underreported events. Facebook Live videos from Standing Rock provided viewers across the globe an opportunity to experience the frontline of environmental racism. So too do live feed videos from Aamjiwnaang. Seeing Vanessa and Lindsay’s daily updates on chemical leaks in Sarnia impacted Julia and me so much so that the current iteration of The Chemical Valley Project begins with a recording of Vanessa’s live-feed recording of a major chemical flaring incident in Sarnia. The video is shown to the audience on a laptop, transforming a common object into a tool of modern resistance.

You’ve noted that Aamjiwnaang is also the site of frequent judicial battles. As I mentioned earlier, we started creating the work in order to increase knowledge about - and solidarity for - Vanessa’s legal battle, which wrapped up earlier this year. The show started as a 10-minute mini documentary on stage that outlined the health impacts of Chemical Valley on Aamjiwnaang, provided a play-by-play of the morning Vanessa shut down the Enbridge pipeline, and concluded with a recent update on the case. The urgency of the show and Vanessa’s impending court date implored audiences to find out more about Aamjiwnaang and question their duty towards an indigenous community close to home. It was also our duty as producers of the work to showcase it as widely and frequently as possible.

In terms of artistic production and visualization of these vital stories, how does Broadleaf Theatre work onstage with the expressive medium of theatre?

There are three things that I hope audiences identify as “Broadleaf style:” novelty in design, experimentation with scale and dimensionality, and the inclusion and significance of reality.

The urgency of Vanessa’s legal battle and the need to showcase the show widely informed the visuals of The Chemical Valley Project. For one, the show is deceptively compact — the set is one small shelf, one projector, a sheet on which moveable projections are shown, and a series of miniature objects. Our goal here was twofold. Firstly, in order to bring the show to as many audiences as possible, we needed to be able to transport the entire show easily in a midsize vehicle. Second, as an environmental-art practice, we strive to minimize the means of production for our projects and to show audiences that a lot can be done with a little. The shelf in the show was donated to us and was found on the streets of Toronto, the projection surface was salvaged from a larger fabric sheet used in a previous Broadleaf show, and the majority of props are crafted from previously used materials.

Artistically, I’m also curious about the idea of negative space. The theatre practitioner Peter Brook uses the idea of “the empty space” - a place where there is infinite possibility and where truthful theatre can be created. A dark theatre is our empty space. Darkness plays a large role in The Chemical Valley Project — a majority of the show is lit by only two light sources, the projector and a handheld desk lamp that I use to light myself. I’m convinced that light is one of the most powerful tools theatre creators have. Within the context of The Chemical Valley Project our two lighting tools are used to focus audience attention and to create a sense of vastness in the dark, unlit space of the theatre. The issues discussed in the show are substantial and complex — they exist well beyond the physical space of the theatre, so we hope that the use of negative space allows audiences to subconsciously engage with the idea that these discussions are broad and nebulous.

In dealing with environmental racism that dates back to the colonial past and the neocolonial petrocapitalist present, what have the challenges been for your research, inter-community conversations and collective artistic ambitions?

Broadleaf’s relationship with Canada’s colonial past and present is complicated.

If I’m totally honest, I didn’t really know much about First Nations in Canada until I made a concerted effort to learn through the process of creating this show. My knowledge of indigenous nations and relations had been vague. Like many Canadians who went through our public school system’s revisionist and selective Canadian history courses, I didn’t have a strong understanding of indigenous history or the complexities of indigenous relations today. My high school history teacher was a particularly patriotic French-Canadian man who had a greater interest in Egyptology than indigeneity. In our text books the horrors of the Canadian residential school system and long-running cultural genocide were literally relegated to margins.

There was a lot of learning to be done.

I’ll add in that further complications come from my identity as a Canadian-born Chinese. My family comes from Hong Kong — like Canada it’s another former British colony with relative pride in its colonial past. When my parents immigrated to Canada, they were proud to arrive on their British passports. They were given the privileges of British subjects and their British schooling, their polished English, and the fact that they were are not from the Chinese Mainland continue to shape their conceptions of self.

To delve into an exploration of Canadian colonization, I had to recognize and question my inherent biases and become a more conscious listener. This past August on Manitoulin Island, Broadleaf was privileged to visit Debajehmujig Storytellers, a professional indigenous theatre company with a history of over 30 years of creating and touring work, and sharing traditional knowledge. At Debaj we spent an entire afternoon and early evening learning from Sunny, the company’s traditional knowledge keeper. Sunny guided us through a history of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island – 20,000 years of human habitation. We were challenged to compare that history with North America’s more recent and more violent colonial history. After our historical overview, a majority of our time was spent listening to profound Odawa Midewiwin oral stories and teachings. These teachings are the foundations of Debaj’s work, and part of their mandate is to share this teaching with all who will listen.

So, a big part of understanding our place in our colonial present is understanding our personal histories and interactions with colonization. I think we are a bit hopeless going forward if we aren’t able to do that. I hope that after seeing The Chemical Valley Project, settlers like myself ask more questions. I hope that they take the leap and make time to learn from the original peoples on this land. I’m convinced that our indigenous nations, who have stewarded this land for time immemorial, also hold the keys to navigating this land peaceably, sustainably, and equitably for generations to come. I hope that our little show is moving some conversations toward reconciliation and equitable progress.

How does Broadleaf Theatre take performing environmental theatre closer to the sites of communities who campaign and fight for climate justice?

We were incredibly fortunate and honoured to perform The Chemical Valley Project this fall in Aamjiwnaang at the Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering, an event that celebrates the sacredness of water, and which educates attendees on traditional Anishnaabe water teachings and beliefs. Performing the work at the Water Gathering brought the show full circle because it was there that Vanessa and I first met last year. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since then, and we’ve been touring and that we have been performing the show frequently for the past 10 months. Being at the Water Gathering was also significant because we performed the show in front of more community members than we ever have before. It was important to us to show the community that we were sharing their story accurately and authentically, and also placing ourselves as settlers within the narrative.

One of my biggest goals for the work is to bring it across Ontario and Canada. I believe the show provides vital inroads into conversations that are happening in municipalities across the country. Now is the time for us to strike while the iron is hot, and to help build momentum for environmentalism in communities where it is nascent or controversial. Importantly, critics have noted that the show doesn’t have a sense of “noble anger” that some assume should exist in an activist work. I think this is something crucial I learned from my activism as a teenager, hearing from both sides of environmental debates at City Hall: most arguments aren’t won with shouting. I believe there is a place for civility in changing hearts and minds, and there is power in quiet certainty.

Founded in 2014, Broadleaf Theatre is a Canadian theatre company creating original works based on local, national and global environmental issues. Broadleaf Theatre's productions merge environmentalism and theatre praxis and present little-known environmental issues in an immediate and accessible way, on stage. Its works often employ miniature object puppetry, projections, and documentary media.