Playwright Novelist Screenwriter

Globe and Mail Article


Katherine Koller’s farm visit yields a dramatic harvest

A glimpse of fields sprayed silver with chemicals sparked a new play about a farm couple

Marsha Lederman

Published on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009

In a pun that simply can’t be avoided, the seed for Katherine Koller’s new play was planted during a trip to a cousin’s Alberta farm, more than 10 years ago. He drove her around on two tours, showing her first grain and oilseed fields that had been sprayed with chemicals, and then virgin grassland, where his cattle were grazing. Koller was shocked by the juxtaposition – how modern technology could change the landscape: “I had never seen a field sprayed before and [it had] these silver crumbling­­­ ash-like stubbles,” she says of the first fields she saw. “There’s something that happens when you see an image that just sticks with you and it won’t go away.”

A few years later, reading about a lawsuit by agribusiness giant Monsanto against Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser in the headlines, Koller was reminded of that tour and started to think about writing a play dealing with the impact of modern-day practices on the family farm. “I kept coming back to those two images,” she says.

Monsanto sued Schmeiser after the company’s genetically altered canola plants were found in his field. Schmeiser said the seeds had blown onto his property by accident; and in court, he argued that a company can’t patent a plant. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favour of Monsanto (but Schmeiser did not have to pay damages and last year he was awarded an out-of-court settlement worth $66o – the cost of pulling out subsequent genetically modified canola from his farm). Schmeiser wound up becoming the poster farmer for the anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movement.

Koller, who lives in Edmonton, was following the case in the news and, as she continued to think about writing a play, decided to travel to Saskatchewan to meet Schmeiser. “I had to go talk to Percy myself and I had to go out there and breathe that air… go into the towns and just see it for myself.”

Koller visited the farm in late August of 2004 and she got lucky: It rained for two days. Schmeiser couldn’t work out in his fields, so he talked to the playwright instead.

Back in Edmonton, Koller got busy, researching plant genetics, the history of canola in Canada and the legal minutiae of the David versus Goliath case – heady stuff for a non-scientist who’d been busy raising a family and teaching English literature (while also managing to write plays for both stage and radio). “I was out of my comfort zone a lot of the time. I talked to farmers and I made sure that I understood the science enough so that I could simplify it right down in the play. I didn’t want to make it something that people would stumble over.”

She then took all that knowledge – and removed it from the script. Rather than write a based-on-a-true-story play about Schmeiser’s fight with Monsanto (which has been depicted in several films), she chose to use that background to create a story about a fictional farm couple – Mindy and Joe – in changing times. “I wanted to see when the stressors of biotechnology come into play in a family – between partners, lovers and friends and neighbours and parents and children,” she says. “I wanted to examine that. So I decided the best way to do that in a family drama was to have a love story… and those characters just kept on growing and growing and the issues of the biotechnology kept fading back and back and back.”

The result is The Seed Savers, which will have its world premiere at Workshop West Theatre in Edmonton Friday (with a preview tomorrow). Schmeiser himself is planning to travel to Edmonton to see the show at some point during the production.

“At first I kind of rolled my eyes,” Workshop West artistic director Michael Clark admits about the subject matter at the centre of the play. But it didn’t take him long to realize the dramatic medium is a perfect venue to explore what he calls the fascinating dynamics that come out of the GMO debate.

Clark, whose family is mostly from rural Alberta and rural Saskatchewan, didn’t have to look further than his own relatives for proof that the issue can be polarizing. “In Corner Gas, you know when they all mention Dog River and they all spit? It’s kind of like that,” he says of family discussions about Schmeiser.

Workshop West focuses on play development, often working with emerging writers. Developing  The Seed Savers has been an arduous – albeit enormously satisfying – process for Koller, 52. “I’ve got a two-foot stack of drafts on my floor,” she says. Clark says the play has been completely rewritten twice during the last three weeks of rehearsals.

For Koller, it’s an excellent opportunity to have her script developed – and produced – by professionals. And for Clark, it’s an opportunity for his theatre to tell a good story. “Ultimately I’m a show person and I put on a show. I hope people like it and enjoy it. I don’t want to just make them decide [about the issue]. I want to entertain them as well. You want them to be fascinated for a couple of hours.”

The Seed Savers runs from Friday to Nov. 8 ( ).