In the year 2167, Canada, if it's still around, will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Confederation. Maybe we will all be living on the moon by then, unless we are lucky enough to make it to Mars. Maybe all of us will live alone, isolated in 400-storey glass towers. Maybe our water will be rationed and dispensed from special clean-water centres. Maybe Europeans and First Nations will be reconciled – or maybe not.
Those are but a few of the scenarios imagined by 11 Canadian playwrights in nine short plays about the future. The bilingual project, dubbed Canada 300 and launched by the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, PEI, is touring the country starting Monday in Quebec City. It will spend the next seven months, travelling to 20 cities and towns, visiting every province and all three territories, in an attempt to launch a national conversation about what Canadians want their country to be in the future.
The project started three years ago and is led by Duncan McIntosh, the veteran Canadian theatre director who helped establish Watermark in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. McIntosh has done a lot of work choreographing the celebration of historical events, including the rededication of the Canadian First World War memorial at Vimy in France, and talk in Prince Edward Island naturally turned to 2014 and the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference that gave birth to Confederation.
"Watermark was blossoming doing classics," McIntosh observed. "It was fun to talk about how we would celebrate the past, but our artists and board started to talk about the future."
The group conceived the idea of launching a national competition for short plays that would address Canadians' aspirations for the next 150 years. Seven of the nine that were finally chosen by a committee of senior artists are actually set in the future and, like much speculative fiction, they are often critiques of the present.
For example, Nibi, by the franco-Ontarian/Québécois playwright Philippe Landry, is a play in which an Algonquin woman enters a water-distribution centre but is denied clean water because she cannot fill out the required form in either English or French. ("Nibi" is the Algonquin word for water.) In The New New World, by Vancouver playwright Kevin Loring, two characters in space debate whether the banal moon or high-end Mars will be their new home since Earth has become unlivable. Toronto artists Chris Tolley and Laura Mullin have written a piece entitled Burusera, in which a lonely man negotiates the purchase of a woman's underwear to give him the illusion he does not live alone.
Both the environment and the country's relationship with native people emerge as recurring themes. For example, in Adrift, a fantasy by Acadian playwright Mélanie Léger that is set in the world's largest oil-sands project, a prophetic Métis child believes that she has caused the return of dinosaurs.
The topics may be serious, but many of the plays are satirical and Toronto artist Adam Lazarus is contributing a buffoon show about Canadian history. After all, when the Charlottetown Conference was taking place in 1864, the circus was also in town and most islanders were too busy watching it to pay much attention to the political event.
Still, the idea behind the Canada 300 project is that, as an evening of these short plays crosses the country, they will actually engender serious debate about what shape the future should take. The troupe of bilingual performers will put on their show for two invited audiences – one of community builders, the other of students – before a single public performance in each place. Beforehand, audiences get to vote on which seven of the nine plays they will see and in which language; afterward, there are group discussions. Meanwhile, the whole project is being filmed and the results will be shared online.
McIntosh, whose partner, Wade MacLauchlan, is about to become premier of PEI after the provincial Liberal leadership went uncontested, sees theatre as the obvious forum for social debate. He was struck by the lively reaction of North Rustico to Watermark's 2011 production of A Doll's House, the feminist classic by Henrik Ibsen: The contemporary audience identified with Nora's plight and expressed real anger against her patriarchal husband, Torvald.
"I see theatre interacting with social debates," McIntosh said. "Because we are all together in a room with the artists, right away we are a community. Right away, community is vibrant in this exchange."
For a full schedule of performances see canada300.ca.