We asked playwright, actor and producer Susanna Fournier about creative experimentation, arts funding, and how teaching and mentoring can be mutually rewarding.
Susanna Fournier is a theatre-maker whose practice spans writing, producing, performing, directing and educating. She is the artistic producer of PARADIGM Productions. Her work is feminist, anti-imperial, experimental, rowdy and sometimes "impossible." In a culture of alienation, she's interested in performance that cultivates the intimate, the epic, the blasphemous and the sacred.
Your large-scale project The Empire Trilogy has been years in the making. What was the inspiration for such a huge undertaking?
I don't know how to tell small stories. I grew up on Star Wars, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and Lord of the Rings. These all seemed like reasonable, normal-sized stories to me. I was having a pretty big crisis of faith when I wrote The Empire. I mean, in the time of climate crisis, catastrophic capitalism, colonialism, and growing fundamentalism, it’s hard not to be. I wrote The Empire to begin unravelling threads of imperial power. I knew these threads had stitched themselves into my body, mind, and spirit, just as they had stitched me into a greater, global, imperial history.
Through story, I could follow the threads through time, interrogating how imperial power systems manifest in the macrocosm and how individuals and communities internalize these systems and enact them in the most intimate realms of life – our homes, bodies, and sense of self. For me, there isn’t a difference between asking how imperialism shapes geographies and histories and how it shapes and distorts the psyche. Through writing The Empire, I could experience the histories I hadn’t been told but feel and observe every day.
I'm not sure we can change our paths as individuals or communities if we don't look at just how long we've been on those paths. I write in genre because I want to shake people out of their patterns, shake them out of the day-to-day and into a heightened space. When we travel, our senses come alive – when we encounter a new place, new language, new culture, we pay attention in a different way. The Empire is set in an imagined world to shake us into looking at and being in this one with more attention.
You’ve said your work tackles various “power relations and their perversions” – how do you address that in your practice?
I’m seeking to interrogate power in both the content I explore, and in the processes I use to make work. When I look at the dominant culture around me, I see a power-addicted culture – a culture that is highly capitalist and consumerist. It’s alarming to me that what began as a system of economics – capitalism – is now a culture. I’m drawn to the word perversion when I think about relationships to power, because the word perversion carries with it many loaded ideas and associations. It could mean something that has been altered/distorted/mutated, but the knee-jerk understanding of the word relates to notions of sexual deviancy, abnormal behaviour, or cultures seeking to weaponize shame.
Perversion isn’t a word that makes most people feel comfortable. It often speaks to that which is considered taboo. Yet what is considered taboo in any given society changes and is determined by people with social power. In my practice I try to bring the “taboo” into the theatrical arena. In The Empire we see a woman chained and trained like a dog. How does this make us feel – especially when she appears to respond well to it, even enjoy it sometimes? Is it entertaining, but also deeply troubling? How do we reconcile this? Can we?
I’m always experimenting in my work with the paradoxical and tangled feelings a power-obsessed culture has about its power and its obsessions. Capitalist power wants us to desire it – we know it’s destructive, yet we keep perpetuating its forms. My work asks audiences to consider: are we stuck somewhere between desire and shame, and is this why corrupt power has such a hold?
How do you feel arts funders could better support new and innovative Canadian works?
My friends know that if you really want to get me going, just buy me a drink and ask me, “How could the system better serve artists?” and I’ve got a whole evening’s worth of conversation. It’s a complex matrix between funders, venues, partners, and life as a freelance worker. But if I’m just speaking to arts funding bodies, I think of two things: 1) Increase the maximum request amounts. We’re making work in Toronto, where the cost of living is extremely high. If I can’t buy a parking spot in Toronto today for $15,000, how can I possibly rent a venue for 3 weeks and pay 15 people?
And now the big one: 2) Give successful indie grant applicants the full amount of their grant ask. Instead of funding a lot of projects at 60 percent, I would invite funders to consider funding less work each round, but giving those projects 100 percent of what they’ve asked for. As an indie artist, I’m already scrambling to find resources, handling all the admin of my project without a salary, and probably filling at least two additional positions on the project as well. If I present a thoughtful budget that says I need $20,000 from a funding body, it’s because I completely need that amount. To ask for $20,000 and get $12,000 means I am now tasked with raising the remaining amount through other means, which as an indie artist means I am immediately either sacrificing the vision of the art, or – and usually additionally – now splitting my already over-committed time to include the full-time job of fundraising.
We constantly see small-scale theatre work because the first thing an indie artist can cut is materials and design. We can’t make daring work with 60 percent of what we need. Give us the chance to show you what we can make without burning ourselves out and limiting our vision. It would change artist’s lives and the arts ecology.
You also lead workshops for writers to help develop their practice. Why is that educational aspect of your work important to you?
Being a teacher, a workshop leader, and mentor is incredibly important to me. I am proud to teach and mentor writers, actors, and theatre-makers because I know how much it matters to meet a teacher or mentor who expands your world and invests in your growth and empowerment. It can make the difference between continuing to practice one’s art or leave the field entirely.
I felt so lost as an emerging writer in Toronto until I found the mentors and collaborators who encouraged me to pursue what was strange, wild, and “impossible” in my work. Their support gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going and delve deeper into defining for myself the processes that I need to work outside of normative structures. How you work changes what you make.
I teach and mentor to interrupt the status quo of conventional structures, to open up new ways of thinking about writing and making. I want to empower writers and actors to work instinctually, to discover and trust their voice. Teaching isn’t one-sided – I learn from every student or artist I work with. They help me get better at what I do, and there’s nothing more energizing than witnessing someone unlock something powerful and meaningful in their work.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Emerging Artist Award?
It is deeply meaningful to be nominated for this award. I have felt so much doubt as an artist – and as a person in my life. Growing up female, I heard a lot of narratives about artists, and most of them were about men. It took me a long time to realize I had a voice – a voice that hungered for huge, strange, mythic stories – and that my voice mattered. Writing is a very solitary task (despite all the people who start talking in my head when I am playwriting!), and making work that sits outside of traditional forms or processes can feel freakish at times.
Being nominated for this award is another way of feeling seen and valued – the way my mentors and teachers make me feel. I hope that it also signals to other artists who experiment with form, who are dreaming up “impossible” projects – or who are feeling heavy with doubt – to hang in. Keep making work that is weird, wild, and unapologetically your own.