When I think of 2008, I remember the world as being consumed by the global financial crisis. But in 2008 in the tiny space at Azimuth Theatre’s Living Room Playhouse Leslea Kroll’s Swallow premièred, with a focus on a very different type of crisis: an environmental one.
Swallow is the story of two sisters – Jules and Karley – who have been forced to leave their island home after it flooded and have found work keeping birds from landing on a tailings pond in Northern Alberta. As time wears on, each of the sisters must confront the effects their history and immediate surroundings has upon them.
Rebecca Starr, who played Jules in Swallow in 2008 and will do so again, has been working on securing the grants and support necessary for this remount since 2013, says her drive to remount the show has come from a feeling that, “the people who saw it wanted it to be produced again. It’s got a very strong message and I wanted another chance at the role.”
Laura Raboud, who is also reprising her 2008 role of Karly, agrees she loves the play’s message, saying working on Swallow created an interest in the environmental activism for her that she didn’t have before working on the show. “Leslea’s work is about environmental activism, and when I first approached it in 2008, I didn’t really know a lot about it, so I was looking up stuff about the oil industry and starting to dip my feet into that world. After the play, I didn’t realise it at the time, but it had so many reverberations in my life – it led me to go to Idle No More and to Greenpeace and to take a program called Next Up which is about social justice and activism. Being in that play also made me look at Alberta and imagine possible futures, to ask yourself the question as an artist, what could happen in different situations… [Swallow] was at the beginning of this movement, for me, it feels like the green movement and the transition to new energy are more mainstream than it was the first time we did this, so it’ll be interesting to do it in a different context.”
Rebecca and Laura say their goal with Swallow is just to open up space for the audience to think about and discuss the cause and effects of changes in our environment. Laura explains, “It’s not pointing fingers or blaming anybody. It’s not even saying the causes of anything. What it’s talking about instead is giving you a place to reflect from… We’re going to provide a safe space for people to come see the show and reflect and then we’re going to be open to anybody’s reactions to the piece and we’re going to make it a place where they can have a dialogue with us and have an open conversation.”
Set against a background of a dystopian world where people are constantly being displaced by changes in their environment, like the flood that forced the sisters from their island, Swallow also explores the relationship between the sisters as well as their relationship to what Rebecca identifies as the third character – the environment as created by Dave Clark’s soundscape. “They’re going kind of starkers up there and they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re really different personalities and the ability to try to work together and get through a difficult situation is one of the major themes… I always thought there was a third character when we did it at the Azimuth. The third character was the soundscape – the booming, the mining, the trucks – there are lots of times in the script when we react to sound, and so the environment is the third character in the piece.”
Laura adds, “I really think it’s a story of an Albertan witnessing what’s happening to their land. Our characters are opposite. We’re both not in reality in any way… I’m super pessimistic and she’s super optimistic. I’m realising that my character’s reality – that there’s no hope, that her sister is insane -it’s not any more real than hers. We’re stuck because we can’t come together and find solutions… We’re polar opposites trying to deal with a crisis.”
With the fire in Northern Alberta and resulting displacement of thousands from their homes, Frente Theatre Collective has issued a trigger warning for this play, saying the displacement from their own homes that the two main characters experience may trigger memories of the recent evacuation from Northern Alberta.
Swallow runs June 1 – 5 at the Garneau Theatre (8712 109 street). Tickets are available for $20.50 in advance ($20 at the door) from Metro Cinema.