Stephen Harper has a lot of things to answer for. Among them: he has driven playwright Jordan Hall to eating ground squirrels.
In 2010, Hall won the Samuel French Canadian Playwrights Contest for Kayak, which is about how a bourgeois mom, her university-student son, and his activist girlfriend respond to the threat of global warming. Kayak enjoyed a successful but brief run at the rEvolver Theatre Festival in 2013. Now the Firehall Arts Centre is bringing the Alley Theatre production back for a longer stay.
Visiting me in my home because, she says, her own apartment is too full of paper from her various projects, Hall remembers how Kayak began.
“In 2008, I was just starting to realize how much I was invested in the environment,” she begins. “I was starting to understand the science enough to realize that we are losing. And at just about that same time, we reelected Stephen Harper, which was unfathomable to me. We’d had him for four years already and it was clear he wasn’t interested in an environmentally positive position. We knew he was disastrous! I was so alienated from people who would vote for him. Who would pick that man?”
That December, when Hall was in a playwriting master class at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, a voice started speaking to her in her writing. It was the voice of a woman who might vote for Harper, a voice that eventually turned into Annie, the middle-aged mom who sits in a kayak at the centre of Hall’s play—lost and dehydrated, remembering past encounters and hallucinating present-time exchanges.
Annie immediately intrigued her creator. “The excuses she was making were fascinating to me,” the writer explains, “because we all make them. We are in a position where there is very little political will or infrastructure to help us live green lives, so we all make our accommodations and try to figure out how to get on with things.”
Hall also liked Annie (played by Susan Hogan) because she’s funny. Julie (Marisa Smith), the girlfriend of Annie’s son, Peter (Sebastian Kroon), is convinced that global warming will have disastrous consequences—and she’s relentless about arguing her position. Annie isn’t entirely unsympathetic to Julie’s argument, but Julie’s style drives her nuts. Describing the woman who might become her daughter-in-law, Annie says, “She was the sort of girl who floated around the world spraying Japanese whaling boats with fire hoses, planting trees, and making perfectly nice people uncomfortable at parties.”
Hall says that Kayak is essentially about the relationship between the two women who are competing for Peter’s affections. Annie wants Peter to stay on-track with his studies at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, while Julie insists that, if Peter had any integrity, he would join her in acts of civil disobedience in China to protest the building of a dam.
Hall discovered that the warring factions embodied by Annie and Julie both live within her—and that, in a way, writing each of them was a kind of wish-fulfillment. “One of the things that I found really freeing about writing Annie,” she explains, “was getting in touch with the parts of myself that are just exhausted and that would really like to be comforted and eat a big steak and drive home in a big car—rather than taking public transit with scary people.”
But the increased focus that came with Harper’s reelection also, arguably, turned her into more of a Julie. “In 2008,” Hall recalls, “I had actually been saving up to buy a car, but as it started to settle in that I did not want to be responsible for those emissions, I made a really concrete decision not to own or operate a vehicle.”
She also decided not to let people off the hook all the time for positions that, in her view, are ill-informed about climate change. “As a person who would really rather that we all just have a good time,” the playwright admits, “that’s been a really stressful thing for me.”
Julie, on the other hand, feels no compunction about tearing a strip off anybody. In one of her hallucinations, Annie tells Julie, “I think that mercy wasn’t your strong suit,” and Julie replies: “Mercy only helps the guilty.”
In How to Survive an Apocalypse, the play she’s currently writing, Hall is creating a kind of follow-up to Kayak, exploring her fascination with prepper culture, the community of folks who are preparing for the end of the world by developing sustainable and survivalist strategies.
As part of her political and artistic growth, she is studying permaculture and applying its principles in her plot in the Cypress Community Garden in Kitsilano. She and her partner have also done a hunting retreat with an organization called Eat Wild. “We didn’t kill anything,” Hall asserts. “Well, actually, my partner killed some ground squirrels. And cooked them. We ate ground squirrel, which is not good. The only reason you would eat ground squirrel would be because the world had actually ended.”
Hall is still hoping that the green movement will prevail, however—and that squirrel won’t become a staple of our collective diet. Asked where she sees promise for positive change, she cites BROKE (Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder-Morgan Expansion) and national Green Party leader Elizabeth May: “At least right now, she’s doing a good job of balancing off economic and parliamentary imperatives with climate science.”
She is also thrilled by the crucial role that First Nations are playing. “Indigenous peoples are doing a terrific job,” she says, “and not just at the protests. The camps up north that are actually going to be in the path of the bulldozers when the time comes, those are indigenous camps. It gives me a lot of hope that people are going, ‘Nope. This is unceded territory and you don’t get to just run a pipeline through it.’ ”
To Hall, changing the political climate is crucial. “We have to make it very clear to politicians that if they’re not going to step up and regulate, if they’re not going to step up and figure out how we clean ourselves up, then we’re not going to vote for them anymore.”
She dismisses right-wing economic arguments as hollow. “Mitigation of extreme climate events is insanely expensive,” she explains. “If you think your taxes are bad now, just wait.”
Kayak runs from Thursday (January 8) to January 17 at the Firehall Arts Centre.