When she started tackling a play about the strife caused by wind turbines in rural communities, accomplished playwright Leanna Brodie signed on for some intense situations.
From interviews to the writing process to inner turmoil caused by the research to even losing a life-long friend because of the play, she says the entire experience has been dramatically different from her previous experiences.
Before tackling the research for the play, which included interviewing people in Huron County, Brodie had a strong connection to the area, having produced several plays at the Blyth Festival.
Brodie, who spoke to The Citizen from her home in Vancouver, started working on the project several years ago by researching turbines in rural communities and interviewing locals who were involved in the constant debate regarding the structures. The result is Turbulence, a fictional take on the issue that isn’t what she had planned originally.
“I had a pretty intense period of working on this project as a documentary play, meaning a play where the interviews that I conducted and archival material would become the dialogue of the play,” she said. “I worked on that pretty intensively for three or four years, but I hit wall after wall, culminating in the three companies that commissioned it saying they don’t want to proceed.”
However, just because those partnerships had ended, Brodie still felt compelled to carry around what she had learned of the turbine situation and intended to do the story and the companies justice by creating a play.
“I felt such a sense of responsibility to the theatres and communities and everybody who wanted me to tell their story,” she said.
However, proceeding was difficult as the turbine issue was so different from work she had previously done.
“What separated this from [her previous works like] Schoolhouse or The Book of Esther was, in those, I represented people’s points of view,” she said. “In this story, nearly everyone wanted me to make their argument, which is different from telling their story.”
She said she originally wanted the play to be comparable to documentary-style plays made by great playwrights like Annabel Soutar who penned Seeds. She realized, in a very humbling manner, that she couldn’t do what playwrights like Soutar had done and had to tell the story her own way.
Despite knowing that, it would be years before she tackled the information again. During that time, she carried not only the play, but the emotions that she discovered while researching it, with her.
“I felt, emotionally, the pain and anger and hurt and will of the people I spoke to,” she said. “Taking all of that into me made the creation of the play feel like walking through glue.”
She said, at one point, she didn’t even want to open her computer to keep working on the documentary-style play because she didn’t see a way to complete it that would do justice to the work she had done and the people she had interviewed.
“There was no way to resolve all those tensions or honour these mutually incompatible ways of seeing the same story,” she said.
She also said that moving away from the story, when she relocated to Vancouver with her husband, made creating the play somewhat difficult.
Eventually, for her own mental health, Brodie said she had to walk away from the project. It never stopped simultaneously being her “great white whale” and the “albatross” around her neck.
“I needed to tell this story, but I needed to tell it in a different way,” she said. “I needed to free myself from it by telling the stories that were so generously shared with me. But I needed to do it in a way that made sense to me.”
She said she realizes now that being the neutral observer necessary wasn’t something she was able to do after realizing what everyone she interviewed wanted her to be.
In the end, she even lost her best friend because of the controversial subject matter and the way Brodie was tackling it.
That experience, however, made her feel like she had more empathy for the people in the story as the turbine issue had resulted in her suffering a very deep and personal loss.
Eventually, she was able to revisit the issue thanks to her current education aspirations. She’s working towards a Master’s Degree in playwriting at the University of Calgary and had to pen a pre-thesis script, which she decided, with the help of advisors, would be Turbulence.
The play, however, takes a different look at turbines, looking at a completely fictional family with members who end up on either side of the turbine issue.
“In the end, I realized the issue hit something very deep about the core of why people are living in the country,” she said. “It was part of living in a community with each other.”
The turbines, however, have disrupted that sense of community, and she decided to make the play about the division they have caused instead of about the turbines themselves.
“The pain there isn’t kilowatt hours or energy bills, but how this has affected people’s relationships with the land and the community,” she said. “It’s [about] trust.”
Through returning to the play, she said she realized that many of the issues and judgments she was carrying around were internal. By working on this project, she was able to clear her conscience by finally getting the story out of the research she had done. She said some of those issues were tied to the communities in which she conducted research and interviews, which includes many Huron County residents.
The local connections for the play run deeper than that, however. She said anyone familiar with the Blyth Festival will see, in the family and other characters, a deep influence, as many of the characters are named after familiar Blyth Festival actors, artistic directors or general managers.
The process of naming those characters after people she knows was a helpful one, she said, as it forced her to make completely new characters and not tie the experiences to anyone in particular she interviewed.
“It’s helpful for me to have a face in mind for the character, and have those faces not be the people in the story,” she said. “The characters aren’t mired in some sort of impersonation, but are composites. They aren’t part of the original story, so that helps me to lift it into something fictional and something that’s not a news story.”
She said the connection to Blyth is a helpful one, as the plays that make it to the Blyth Festival stage are “universal” she said, and not necessarily tied to any one area.