You can be as vehemently opposed to Alberta’s oil industry as you want, but every one of us—no matter our politics—is complicit in it.
“It’s just so galling that companies and our government in Alberta have managed to make being Albertan and saying you’re from Alberta kind of an ugly thing, out of province,” says Matthew MacKenzie, a local playwright who’s no stranger to diving into political territory. Edmonton audiences last saw MacKenzie’s work in Pyretic Productions’ 2013 racially charged Sia. His new script, Bears, tackles our province’s bogeyman: the massive oilsands operation and particularly Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The piece was inspired by a historical account of MacKenzie’s fourth-great grandmother, a Cree woman who, upon returning to her native Alberta after spending 15 years in Red River, stayed by the North Saskatchewan River for three days, weeping in veneration. MacKenzie channelled this into a story about a worker from the patch, Floyd (Sheldon Elter), who flees along the Northern Gateway’s proposed route after a workplace accident.
“I’m not an activist, or academic or anything like that,” MacKenzie says, explaining that Bears is a dark comedy. “It’s so easy to get furious about it that humour felt like the way in. Anything I’ve seen or heard in Toronto about the tar sands is like, Albertans are basically evil and the tar sands are some sort of apocalypse. I just wasn’t interested in that masturbatory doomsday-ing, or passing judgment on the working man and woman out there.”
Bears has no director; MacKenzie worked extensively with choreographer Ainsley Hillyard to shape Floyd’s external environment and internal mind through a chorus of dancers, while musician Bryce Kulak has contributed an electronic, cabaret-style soundtrack. Bears is also being presented in partnership with Alberta Aboriginal Arts as part of the Rubaboo Festival.
“It was so important for me that Bears happen here first, with a group of Alberta artists,” MacKenzie says.Remarkably, everyone involved in the production also signed on to work for free—the funding was secured later (everyone is now getting paid). “The people here, regardless of their politics, are more aware of the scale of the beast.”
Until Sun, Feb 15 (8 pm; 2 pm matinees on Feb 8, 14, 15)
ATB Financial Arts Barns, $16.50 – $21.50