The Assembly — Montreal plumbs what the people are thinking

Tanja Jacobs stars in The Assembly — Montreal. Photo: Maxime Côté

You think you’re on the side of right when it comes to polarized issues like immigration and freedom of speech? The Assembly – Montreal, opening shortly at the NAC, might throw your certainty for a loop thanks to its verbatim theatre form.

A creation of Montreal’s documentary theatre company Porte Parole, the show re-enacts a discussion among four Montrealers with fiercely conflicting political, religious and other viewpoints. It uses those people’s actual words, albeit curated for the purposes of performance. The show includes an opportunity for some audience members to join the debate.

“We create a tight microcosm… and then the show allows a space for the public to talk about what they’ve witnessed,” says Toronto-based director Chris Abraham, who often uses the terms ‘documentary theatre’ and ‘verbatim theatre’ interchangeably. “We’re not simply reflecting back the problem but we are using what we’ve observed through live encounters as a prompt for further discussion.”

The show grew out of a desire by Porte Parole artistic director/playwright Annabel Soutar to learn what real people were thinking and how they were feeling about the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. She recruited fellow playwrights Alex Ivanovici and Brett Watson to visit the U.S., but when they returned, all three writers realized the polarization south of the border wasn’t restricted to that country. So, they assembled Montrealers with differing perspectives and recorded them in conversation.

What wound up on the stage were the words, edited and arranged for theatrical impact, in the mouths of four people: an anarchist, the head of a campus conservative group, a radical right-winger, and a liberal of Jamaican heritage. There were two women, ages from 21 to 72, a gay man, and two Jewish people.

Porte Parole also created a French version, L’Assemblée – Montréal, with a different cast of characters, including a veiled Muslim woman. Both versions premiered in Montreal in 2018.  

The show is interested in reflecting back at the public the phenomenon of polarization and how people are triggered by each other, says Abraham. “(Polarization) is something we all know well. We are all triggered. We see it happen in our social interactions, on social media, in other people. Audiences that see the show really do understand these forces that are pushing us back into our tribal identities.”

Porte Parole’s focus is documentary theatre spotlighting contemporary Canadian life but its use of the verbatim form to explore polarization seems especially à propos.

As political and other leaders spin issues to suit their own agendas, as “alternative facts” and “fake news” chew up bandwidth, and as old anchors like church and community crumble, we hunger for certainty and authenticity. By presenting a heavy dose of reality — repugnant as it may sometimes be — verbatim theatre addresses that hunger. 

At the same time, verbatim theatre like The Assembly – Montreal works against the idea of simple, encompassing truths. By presenting a multiplicity of viewpoints, it explodes binary perceptions (“I’m right, you’re wrong”) in a world which, thanks in part to digital technology, seems more complex and textured than ever.

Queen’s University professor Jenn Stephenson explores some of this in a recent essay on documentary theatre like that of Porte Parole. “Rather than pressing for an impossible singularity,” she writes, “documentary theatres of the real embrace multiplicity… (and) ask audiences to be thoughtful about how these staged realities came to be. What is selected? What is omitted? How is the narrative of a documentary world constructed? Often these plays deliberately expose these mechanisms of truth-making and knowing.”

In Ottawa, we’ve seen the nuances of verbatim theatre in shows like the NAC’s 2014 presentation of Soutar’s Seeds, a Porte Parole show about Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser’s extended battle with biotech giant Monsanto Inc., and Jessica Ruano’s 2017 The Ghomeshi Effect, an interview-based dance-theatre hybrid about sexual violence and the Canadian legal system.

Abraham sees the popularity of documentary film, now available on so many platforms, as also contributing to our taste for something similar on the stage.

“I think it has to do with the political situation globally in which there’s a long history of audiences wanting the theatre to reflect life as it is, as they experience it.”

Of course, theatre, verbatim/documentary-based or not, always has an element of artifice or it would be deadly dull. That artifice juxtaposed with reality can produce a delicious, energizing tension for audiences.

With good verbatim theatre, audiences aren’t consciously aware that it has been pulled directly from real life, according to Abraham. At the same time, “If there’s a Trojan horse in verbatim theatre, it’s that it’s very lifelike. People speak the way they speak, with all the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.’ They sound like real people. There is another layer of engagement … you say, ‘This is a true story.’”

The Assembly – Montreal is in the NAC’s Azrieli Studio Feb. 25 — March 7 (previews Feb. 25 & 26; opening night, Feb. 27). ). Tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.