"I Knew I Wanted Big Stories" Susanna Fournier on Crafting Hundreds of Years of Dystopian History for Her Plays
Imagine creating not just a fully realized world, but an entire history that spans hundreds of years. That is the creativity Susanna Fournier brought to her suite of three plays, The Empire (Playwrights Canada Press). Containing The Philosopher's Wife, The Scavenger's Daughter, and Four Sisters, The Empire covers an imagined dystopian history through three stories that take place over the course of centuries.
Fournier, an award-winning theatre creator, writer, and actor with work produced in North America and Europe, explores the concepts of power and freedom in the plays. The first tells the story of an atheist exiled during a religious war, the second follows a pair of reluctant soldiers during a bloody revolution, and the final play, showing the aftermath of the first two stories several hundred years later, takes viewers into a mysterious plague and its social and emotional complications for the characters.
Though fantastical (and fascinating), the stories expose universal truths about loyalty and connection, as Fournier weaves relatable and moving motivations and reactions for her characters. We're excited to welcome her to Open Book today to talk about her experiences as a playwright and her process of creating not just The Empire but all her acclaimed dramatic work.
She tells us about why "the process of shaping the words is just one element" of her work, how "all artists have core ideas" and what that has meant for the themes she explores, and her best advice for what to do with a piece of writing that isn't working.
Do you remember an early experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a playwright?
As a kid my friends and I used to re-write fairy tales and enact them in costumes for our families. We went all out with found lighting and set materials. In my versions, the princesses or struggling heroines always chose a life of adventure rather than a wedding. Even at six years old I knew I wanted big stories. As a two year old I was obsessed with watching a recording of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opera. It’s a strange choice for a toddler, but I think watching the Queen of the Night enter on the moon from the fly gallery really struck a chord with me about what’s possible in terms of scale and imagination in live performance. There were also a lot of challenges in my family with mental health. I spent a lot of time watching humans really grapple with interpersonal conflict. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning firsthand about how individual and collective drama plays out in the subtext between people and how relational dynamics can shift and shape a space.
Is your writing process totally page-based, or do you sometimes speak dialogue aloud (alone or with others) or try physically blocking out scenes while writing to work through things?
My process is all over the place. Sometimes it starts with images on a mood board, a phrase of text, or one character with a problem appears in my mind’s eye. From there I usually panic a bit because my process is different for every play. I am a formalist so I don’t even know if the piece is going to be narrative driven or some kind of performance-installation. I’ve learned not to worry too much about that and just start collecting music to write to. I need a sonic landscape with which to explore the feel of a piece. I know I’m onto something when I have no idea what I’m doing and feel pretty convinced I’ve never written anything before. Because I imagine whole worlds in my work, as well as use non-traditional story forms like poetry, song, lecture, and dance in my work, the process of shaping the words is just one element. In the past I’ve worked quite closely with my directors on developing the text in tandem with the production. Now, I primarily direct my own work because my texts are not separate from the whole shebang. I picture it all, not just the words (just like those fairy tales I staged 30 years ago). So now, my ideal process is getting my core designers into a room with actors and then we do experiments. We play games, create performance structures, make a lot of stage pictures, fiddle with found lights and sounds, always finding different ways to come at how the piece best lives onstage. And yes, I have definitely walked all over Toronto talking to myself out loud while working on a scene.
What one play, from any time period, do you wish you had been the one to write?
I wish that I wrote Mozart’s The Magic Flute because in my version the heroine would probably team up with her mother, The Queen of the Night and fly off on the moon to explore the galaxy rather than tie the knot with the prince guy. Just saying. Options.
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Are there themes, objects, or activities that you see cropping up repeatedly in your work that you are surprised by?
I think all artists have core ideas (or fetishes) that they take bashes at in every piece. I’m not surprised that my first major project, The Empire, wasn’t just one play, but three complete stories spanning 500 years of invented history. I did grow up on Star Wars and fantasy novels after all. When I look back on The Empire, I can see myself as a writer examining notions of inheritance, cycles of violence, the workings of imperialism in the micro and the macro, and the search for freedom inside all the systems and narratives that ensnare us. And no, none of my heroines end up married. 10 years ago director Leora Morris, one of my first champions, was the first person to tell me I was obsessed with looking at power. Recently, Daniel Brooks, one of my mentors, said my work was shifting towards an examination of freedom and the act of letting go. I remember being really surprised when I no longer wanted my work to be fuelled by rage. All writers need time to write themselves into new stories. At the core of everything I’ve ever written is the grief of aliveness. I used to come at that pain with full theatre guns and intellect blazing, but now I’m interested in approaching it gently. I think tenderness can change the world. It takes a lot of courage to be soft.
What (if anything) changes when you're writing for the stage, as opposed to other mediums?
I keep trying to write for other mediums only to be told by editors that I’ve somehow managed to still write a theatre piece. This makes me laugh because when I first wrote The Empire a lot of theatre folks I pitched it to said it was more like a tv mini-series. So, now I know I’m doing something right when people aren’t entirely sure (myself included) which medium a story might belong in. One of my favourite aspects of producing The Empire trilogy was that I ended up adapting it into radio-drama podcasts, a mini graphic novel, and interactive website. Each medium allowed me to come at the story in different ways and play to that medium’s strengths. I’d love to adapt The Empire into an animated tv series. I’m a huge fan of anime and think it could capture the scope and imagination of the stories in a thrilling way – it’s ripe for an animator to interpret and create visually. The process of adapting The Empire for publication drew me deeply into the world of crafting prose. I didn’t just want to publish a theatre script, so instead I transformed stage directions into prose narration so readers can imagine the world just like when reading a novel. That’s always my favourite part of a great book. I’m focusing now on the novella. Maybe if I try to write something else, I’ll stumble into the novella form.
What do you do with a play in progress or a scene that just isn't working?
Put it down! Step away. Walk it off. I go rock climbing or have a solo dance party in the living room. I move the body to move the mind. Sometimes I vigorously clean the whole house (achievable goals, ya know?). Sometimes I have to change physical locations. One time I solved a problem 3 months later in Budapest. You never know where that fresh perspective will come from – or when. Writing is exhausting because it’s on your mind whether or not you’re actively at your computer or notebook doing it. You can’t force it. It’ll solve itself all by itself. Pay attention by looking away. Let go by seeing that you’re holding on.
Susanna Fournier is an award-winning writer, theatre maker, actor, and educator based in Toronto. She is most known for writing texts for live performance, visioning interdisciplinary productions, and that gig she had in that X-Men movie. She is the artistic producer of PARADIGM productions, an indie company she started in 2013 to produce rowdy, joyous, contentious, and “impossible” theatrical works. Her work has played in Toronto, Dublin, London, Berlin, and Munich, and is known for its formal experimentation and wild spirit. She is currently the playwright-in-residence at Canadian Stage.