The case of One Little Goat Theatre’s latest work is a conundrum: on one hand, it’s rare for an indie production to grab the interest of the public with such fervour; on the other, much of the public reaction so far has called for the its cancellation.
Smyth/Williams is billed as “an all-female staging of the police transcript (of) OPP Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of sado-sexual serial killer Russell Williams,” and opens this Friday in the 55-seat Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace for a limited eight-day run.
Adam Seelig, the artistic director of One Little Goat Theatre and director of the production, started pulling it together this winter and officially announced it in late January, almost immediately drawing condemnation from the public, press, social media and an online petition — particularly from those in Belleville and Tweed, Ontario communities close to Williams’ two murder victims, Jessica Lloyd and Cpl. Marie-France Comeau.
The headline of a National Post column by Michelle Hauser calls the play “an act of cold-blooded voyeurism,” while Kirsten Walkom, a friend of Lloyd’s, told The Canadian Press, “We need to stop sensationalizing violence against women and we’re not doing ourselves any favours in pretending this is entertainment.”
Entertainment, though, is not the word used by Seelig and his cast to describe the intentions behind Smyth/Williams.
Theatre Passe Muraille continues to support the production, saying in a Facebook statement it’s part of the theatre’s history of producing and facilitating “work that has aimed to discuss relevant social issues.”
Visiting the cast in rehearsal, there’s an abstract map of Tweed painted on the floor and pieces of lighting and tech strewn over the seating. The mood is quiet and reserved among the team, the larger context looming over the detailed logistics of tech week.
“Sometimes there is an identification that if people are representing reprehensible characters or people then we ourselves must also be reprehensible. In other words, ‘Russell Williams is sick so we are sick’ is a formula that has kind of come at us,” Seelig says.
He expected a degree of resistance to Smyth/Williams due to the tragedy and fear that surrounds the name of Williams, who is now serving two concurrent life sentences in jail.
“Something that we’ve taken to heart here and we did expect would be a very important part of what we do is that we need to honour the fact that there are some powerful emotions that surround this transcript of Smyth and Williams.”
As the main creator, Seelig has been the main voice defending Smyth/Williams, including the official One Little Goat statement that says, “as empathic citizens and artists, it is our responsibility to bear witness to these atrocities, never allowing them to be forgotten, and identifying them as part of a nation-wide epidemic of sexual assaults targeting women and girls.”
The women of Smyth/Williams — actors Kim Nelson and Deborah Drakeford, and Lynette Gillis, who provides live accompaniment on drums — say the show originated out of empathy for the victims and their communities.
“Just this misunderstanding of where it came from, it was a bit unsettling and nerve-wracking as well. Because even though we’re not sensationalizing it, reading this material takes an emotional toll every time we do it,” says Nelson. “And then to feel that someone thinks we’re trying to be disrespectful and we’re not being mindful of their pain was unfortunate because that’s so far from being the spirit of this. This is more about not abandoning the victims.”
Nelson, who alternates the roles of Smyth and Williams with Drakeford to avoid the play becoming a one-to-one re-enactment of the transcript, says she sometimes feels physically ill after rehearsal from trying to inhabit a killer while keeping his victims top of mind.
Though open discussions within the creative team were already common practice to make sure the performers were comfortable with the material, they became even more important when public discourse turned against them.
“This is my first time working with One Little Goat so I didn’t know anybody personally at all. And my gut instinct was that the entire team is coming from a good place, and this is not sensational and it’s actually a really thoughtful piece,” Gillis says.
“But the fear and anger that surrounds this, that was still hard to witness. That was a big question for me, ‘Is this still worth doing?’ It’s a very hard question to deal with and took a lot of conversations with friends, a bit of wine. I realized no, this is unsafe material in a safe environment. I think anyone who is angry or upset over this, I respect that; I completely understand anyone who doesn’t want to come. But I don’t think that means it shouldn’t happen,” she says.
“I’ve had some great conversations just about the purpose of art. I mean gosh, if you can’t bring up dark subjects in art, then where else can you bring it up?”
The issue awakened by Smyth/Williams — the portrayal of violence and evil through art — will certainly reappear in Toronto.
There was a similar conversation last season around Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s The 20th of November, which playwright Lars Noren built using blog posts and video transcripts from a German teen who attempted to commit a school shooting.
But the proximity of Williams’ crimes, in both geography and time, makes Smyth/Williams a particularly explosive example of trying to bring fruitful discussion from personal and collective trauma. When art is at its best this is possible. But it needs to be given the chance.
Carly Maga is a Toronto Star theatre critic. She alternates the Wednesday Matinee column with critic Karen Fricker.
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