By Trish Jordan
Making an effort to head to the theatre is not my traditional entertainment outing. I am more into entertainment that involves curling, golf or football. But this play was different. And important.
So off I ventured to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and Canada’s National Arts Centre (@CanadasNAC), with my best farmer friends in tow (on their own dime I might add).
Why? Well, I was finally going to see the play that attempts to tell the story of the Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto Canada and Monsanto Company patent infringement legal case. The play, “Seeds,” is written by Annabel Souter of Porte Parole based in Montreal, Canada.
I am sure some of you are asking, “There’s a play about Mr. Schmeiser and Monsanto? How could that possibly be fodder for entertainment?”
Surprisingly, at least from this reviewer’s perspective, it is good entertainment – whether you agree with the portrayal or not. Others I know who have seen the play hate it. They think it gives Mr. Schmeiser too much profile and does not accurately portray all the facts of the case, which Schmeiser lost at all three Federal Court levels available to him within the Canadian court system.
What do I think after finally seeing the play for the first time and seeing myself on stage with words I spoke way back in 2003? It’s not perfect but I think it does a good job challenging some of the common myths associated with this case – like the ones that say Schmeiser was innocent and had something blow into his land accidentally.
My association with this story started three months into my job with Monsanto 13 years ago. On March 29, 2001 the Federal Court of Canada released its judgment in the patent infringement case involving Monsanto and Mr. Schmeiser. For a new employee tasked with handling the media onslaught, this was a great introduction to Monsanto and some of the issues we handle on a day-to-day basis.
At the time, I loved the challenge and the learning. Was I frustrated with how this case was portrayed? You bet. But we were doing what we had to do to protect other farmers and our business. Other farmers had made the choice to pay for our technology and wanted us to make sure everyone played by the same rules.
In 2003, after Schmeiser appealed the Federal Court of Canada judgment and the Federal Court of Appeal Court judgment that found him guilty of patent violation, he appealed yet again to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Court agreed to hear his case.
It was around this time that I received a phone call from a playwright from Montreal, Quebec saying she wanted to speak to me. She was writing a play about the case and wanted Monsanto’s perspective.
I am sure you can imagine I didn’t immediately jump at the opportunity. I wasn’t sure I should help a playwright who wanted to tell Percy’s story on stage.
Eventually I relented and spent two hours with Annabel Soutar. The words I spoke to her back in 2003 formed a character in the play – yep, the Monsanto Canada spokesperson is actually a primary character in the on-stage portrayal of the story.
The genius of the play is that the writer draws on actual court transcripts or personal narratives of those she interviewed over the course of a couple of years.
It has had a few runs now and the play has since been re-written to include the playwright as a character and chief narrator of the story. The first act of the play relies primarily on court transcripts. It features the words of Monsanto’s external legal counsel and others who testified on our behalf, including Canadian canola farmers and farm groups, as well as other expert witnesses.
The second act of the play features characters who parachuted in to assist Mr. Schmeiser and start the spin that launched this case into modern-day activist folklore. But it also includes an interesting trip by the playwright back to Bruno, Saskatchewan – Mr. Schmeiser’s hometown – and features many local citizens and Saskatchewan farmers who help tell the true story.
I had a great weekend in Ottawa. I was welcomed to the Friday Opening Night showing of the play and invited to a post-play reception with the audience and the actors. I was also asked to participate in a moderated, public dialogue with the playwright prior to the Saturday matinee the next day. This was an excellent opportunity to engage with the public and open myself – and Monsanto – to the common questions about the case and the larger issues of farming, agriculture, science and technology, GMO foods and more.
This sort of outreach is where Monsanto can change people’s perceptions. And it helped that I had three farmers with me and other agriculture industry stakeholders show up as well. We all need to be part of the discussion and welcome questions from consumers. Is a theatrical play the best way to do this? It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.
If I hadn’t had a weak moment back in 2003, the Monsanto story – which isn’t really our story but that of farmers and the choices they want to make – wouldn’t have been included in this theatrical production.
As the playwright, Annabel Soutar, suggested in a joint media interview we did with the national public broadcaster prior to opening night, “We think of the company as being a Goliath but how do we know that if we never speak to anyone at the company? It seems absurd to make all these statements about Monsanto if you’ve actually never taken the time to find out what they do and why they do it? If I didn’t speak with her (Trish Jordan from Monsanto Canada) we wouldn’t have the perspective of Monsanto on the stage and the documentary would actually not be balanced….At the time, I really thought this was such a one-sided portrait we were getting of this story and it was basically trying to stir up all this anti-Monsanto sentiment and I just thought that wasn’t constructive.”
Not everyone gets to be a character in a play and listen to their comments and statements from 11 years ago echo from the stage at Canada’s National Arts Centre, but I am happy I stepped into that awkward moment back in 2003 and took the time to speak to a playwright from Montreal.
The Ottawa Citizen reviews the play.