The Canada Council for the Arts gave Susanna Fournier $108,000 and she used it to build an Empire
By Carly MagaTheatre Critic
Wed., Jan. 16, 2019
In 2010, Susanna Fournier had a crisis of faith in the theatre, feeling frustrated by the limited opportunities she was seeing as an actor and playwright, so she spent the year writing three plays she considered unstageable in Toronto: weird, visually demanding, big casts, two acts, highly political and conceptually ambitious.
Six years later she was having another crisis of faith, with a collection of unproduced plays and an injury limiting her movement, so she spent a sleepless week creating an application for the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter grant to celebrate Canada 150, as a last-ditch effort.
On the day of the submission deadline, she moved to Berlin for five months with her collaborator ted witzel (who co-wrote the application with her and Leora Morris). Three weeks after she returned to Toronto, both crises were resolved in a letter granting her $108,000 to produce her “unstageable” Empire Trilogy. And in that moment, Fournier went from an underemployed artist to a Renaissance woman: to pull this off, she would need to become a playwright, an actor, a director, a producer, a fundraiser, a financial manager, an artistic director, a curator and more
Thus began the “steepest learning curve of my life,” she says.
“My reaction was a mixture of terror and numbness. So much of my artistic perseverance has come from getting told no. And now I was being told yes,” says the 34-year-old writer in Little Italy’s Café Diplomatico, across the street from the restaurant she served at in 2010 when she began writing the Empire Trilogy.
That day’s rehearsal for the project’s second play, The Scavenger’s Daughter, was about to begin nearby — the first, The Philosopher’s Wife, was staged in 2018 — before officially moving into Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where it will run until Jan. 27.
Fournier pauses. “Well, it was a yes with an ellipsis.”
With the New Chapter grants, the arts community is beginning to see the effects of Justin Trudeau’s added $550 million in arts funding. This is by far the biggest grant Fournier has ever received, but it’s a third of what she requested. And the amount she requested, the limit of what the grant could give, was still about half of what the full project would need.
Together with co-producer Alison Wong and their company Paradigm Productions, they fundraised to bring the total budget to $500,000 and brought on bigger companies as partners, Buddies in Bad Times with The Scavenger’s Daughter and the Luminato Festival for the final production in the trilogy, Four Sisters, which Fournier will also direct. The The Philosopher’s Wife was presented at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio in November.
Essentially, Fournier and Wong have worked full-time on the Empire Trilogy since receiving the grant in May 2017, producing a season of work and hiring more than 50 artists to help with its various elements — including short films, a podcast, a graphic novel, an extensive social media presence and an in-depth website — while maintaining other freelance gigs for their income.
“We’re not at a loss for ideas of what we would do with more support,” says Fournier with a laugh.
The Empire Trilogy was born out of Fournier’s need to exercise her imagination without limitations, a mindset that has fuelled the entire project through its multiple forms. As an emerging playwright, she found herself self-editing to keep producing requirements reasonable. Funding streams like the New Chapter grant are intended to let artists free themselves of such limitations, to finally think big.
“I wanted it to make me as excited as I was as a child to sit down and watch Star Wars and The Magic Flute,” Fournier says. Sci-fi and fantasy stories were an inspiration in her project: to envision hundreds of years of a fictional imperial civilization in which she could write about colonialism, capitalism, social injustice, knowledge, power and other systems we know in Canada.
“I look at the Empire as an origin story of western modernity. When I look around at mass culture in Toronto, we’re facing environmental apocalypse, economic apocalypse, massive injustice. How did that happen?” she says.
It’s a project with the kind of scale the one-time-only New Chapter grant was meant for. Still, Fournier didn’t expect approval. “I thought, this is a trilogy that criticizes Canada as an imperial power. This is not getting funded.”
Producing the Empire Trilogy project has fundamentally changed her as an artist and person, she says.
“On a personal level, I’ll be extremely grateful for the confronting of fear, the letting go, the incredible learning and the team of artists that have helped me through that and taught me about the kind of art we can make together,” she says. She notes that the Artist Producer Training Program at arts organization Generator was fundamental in helping her pull off the Empire Trilogy.
But she has reservations about the way the Canadian arts funding model encourages artists to “Uber themselves”: to spread themselves across multiple roles to get a project off the ground.
“I’m very lucky in that I’m a playwright who has learned how to orient myself in producing. But not every artist is going to be that way and I don’t think they should have to,” she says.
“I would love at some point to produce someone else’s strange and impossible play. To do for a young artist what no one would do for me … I want to see that work and I don’t know how they will do it without resourced companies or funders, for all the rhetoric of innovation and risk, actually supporting it. It’s easy to talk about it; it’s harder to do it. Risk doesn’t feel good, it feels scary and awful.”
For Fournier, the chance to take risk without restrictions has a much bigger significance than boosting a young career or employing artists in the short term. It plays into the main message of the Empire Trilogy, about how stories give power and agency to individuals under imperialism.
“If we start limiting our imaginative capacity, we start limiting our tools for resistance and transformation, because all transformation comes from imagination,” she says.
“I would hate that we only get to dream big one time. And even then only a few people get to do it. And even then we’re told to shrink it down. The way we resist imperialism is by feeding the imagination. And the more we shrink the imagination, the more we’re going to repeat the same narrative over and over again.”