A new Canadian true-crime play called Smyth/Williams is staging the real-life police interview that led to the confession of serial killer Russell Williams—with two women, one of whom is a person of colour. In the 2010 interview, former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams admitted to the sexual assault and killings of two women and describes, in haunting detail, how he did it. Canadian actors Kim Nelson and Deborah Drakeford (one of NOW Magazine’s Top 10 Theatre Artists of 2016) alternate reading the eerie transcripts from the perspectives of both OPP Detective Jim Smyth and Williams. According to Nelson, the concept behind the constant switching of characters was originally because it was so difficult for one actor to read all of Williams’ words out loud.
Friends and family members of Williams’ victims have already come forward to try and put an end to the show, saying it is insensitive to sensationalize an event that was so traumatic for them. But, according to the show’s director, Adam Seelig, the purpose of the show is to empathize with the victims and their families and to incite change. FLARE sat down with Nelson and Seelig to discuss what’s it’s been like working on a play that’s rooted in tragedy and controversy, and how an all-female cast has allowed these women “to take back the story that’s about them.”
What was your response when you first heard about the concept for Smyth/Williams?
Kim: There was a little hesitation. It’s a hard subject because of wanting to be cognizant of the families and their pain. But at the same time, it’s important for me to take more active steps in terms of not just sitting back and seeing these injustices being committed and then just forgotten. There’s a really great quote that I had read: “art that ignores violence, abandons the victims.” There are a lot of things this case stirred up that need to be talked about and addressed. For that reason, I thought it was important to be a part of the project and to be able to help.
All the transcripts and video footage from the Russell Williams interview are available online to the public. What is the significance of telling the story through theatre?
Kim: The thing is, YouTube you watch alone in your room, right? Theatre allows us to experience this in a communal way, collectively, to share whatever feelings arise. Hopefully the show will surround us with empathy and a feeling of safety—that we have people who we can experience this with and share this with. Hopefully that safety allows us not only to admit to whatever vulnerabilities it brings up, but also work together towards ways of preventing these things from happening again.
Were there any discoveries you made while working on the project that surprised you?
Kim: I was surprised by how much anxiety it actually brought up in me and how much fear [I had] of my lack of security in the world. I literally found myself sometimes at home terrified that someone would break in. Unfortunately, I have had an experience in my 20s where someone broke into my apartment and went through my underwear drawer [an act Williams confesses to in the transcripts]. So, things like that came up. My feeling of security as a woman walking in the world—the idea that those forces that are supposed to protect me [high-ranking officers like Williams] aren’t always there to protect me. They might be the ones to hurt me. Let’s not hide it. I’m also a black woman, so that makes me more visible. It brought up a lot of anxiety that was really hard to work through but at the same time it made me realize how important it is to speak about it. And to put it out in the open, because dealing with that alone can be mind-numbing sometimes.
Can you pinpoint specific elements of the transcript that brought out those insecurities?
Kim: First of all, the people that you would normally call to protect you—the people who are out there to defend you—are the ones you’re afraid of. Already, that is just like, what? That’s terrifying. Just thinking about that violation of your intimacy, coming into your space and putting on your clothes [Williams confessed to stealing women’s clothes from their homes and performing sexual acts while wearing them]… It’s entering your skin! It’s that taking-on of your experience and your self. That’s a terrifying thing to think about.
What do you think is the significance of an all-female cast?
Kim: Staging it with women gives women a chance to take back the story that’s about them, right? To discuss it and also create a safe space for the audience to be able to maybe view this story in a less directly violent way and give them the space to reflect—just to feel, to feel what this does for us as a society.
How has it been embodying a male character?
Kim: Personally, I haven’t really thought about it as embodying a male character. It’s just been more about the psyche of the person saying what they’re saying. We all have male and female energies, right? So it’s trying to see where these two individuals were as they were saying these words, in a more psychological fashion. One of the things about this is that it’s not really a play, per se. Ninety-nine per cent of what we’re doing is reading from the transcript. We didn’t want to dramatize what happened. We’re not looking to sensationalize it in any way. The real idea is sharing in the experience of what happened so that we can start a conversation. We have to say the words, which is hard enough. Oddly enough, when we first did it, the idea was so that no one should have to read all of Williams’ words, just because there’s just so many emotions that it brings up to have to speak those words. But at the same time, reading Smyth’s words is very hard as well. Thinking of someone that has a clear moral compass ,having to listen to these words and still have to remain very open in order to continue his work, is hard. Just the words: there’s no way to escape the emotions.
Does Smyth know about the play?
Adam: Yes, he does.
Some of the friends and family members involved in actual the case has reached out and said they don’t want the play to be mounted. What’s kept you going?
Adam: This may have been seven years ago and it may be, technically, part of Canadian history but it is something that is still an open wound for so many people. It’s one that is very much a national trauma that we haven’t really had an opportunity to discuss in an empathic forum. This is a major responsibility that we feel to have that compassionate conversation surrounding this material, this subject and specifically this transcript.
Kim: It’s not in spite of the family’s reactions that we’re doing this. On the contrary, we’ve tried to be very empathetic. What they’ve gone through is horrendous. We also have to bear in mind that trauma that happens to one person doesn’t just happen to one person. We saw that it happened to a community, we saw that it happened to a country. It happens within the human fabric. We all feel the repercussions of trauma. We don’t feel it as intensely as the victims or their families, but there is something. When an injustice is done to one person, everyone feels it. We need to start being able to step back and look at our personal responsibility and what we can do to try to heal that trauma, or at least prevent that trauma from happening to someone else. If we can start talking about it, then hopefully we can start working towards that.
What are you hoping audiences take away from Smyth/Williams?
Adam: Bearing witness to a trauma that has taken place. From the Holocaust and Hiroshima, to 9/11 and École Polytechnique, forgetting is very dangerous for our society.
Smyth/Williams will run until March 12 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. For tickets, click here.