By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
OK, you’re at a gathering in Vancouver or Toronto, somewhere in Canada that isn’t Alberta. Inevitably there’s the moment when you get asked where you’re from.
The range of reactions? Pick one: the eye squint? the nuanced flinch? the pained smile of ironic sympathy? the expression that looks a lot like the person has just eaten a bad cashew? “Alberta” is never the good answer for this brand of sniffy encounter. Worse is “Fort McMurray.”
Playwright Matthew MacKenzie, who grew up here, knows a lot about those moments, thanks to his double theatre life in Edmonton and Toronto. He’s a veritable connoisseur of negative reactions — which is one of the inspirations of Bust, his new “dark comedy” Bust, premiering Thursday at Theatre Network.
“Alberta gets talked about a lot,” he sighs. “Stephen Harper’s from here. And the oil industry, well….”
The playwright, a thoughtful, engagingly boyish sort with a history of mining personal experience for his theatre, remembers being in Toronto last winter for a production of The Other, the third of his third-person plays about outsiders, the people who watch themselves watching themselves. “I was talking to someone working on a Fort Mac play, so she seemed like a safe person for me to say ‘hey, I’m from Alberta too!’”
The reaction? “Euwww.” MacKenzie grins his rueful grin.
And that was before the terrible Fort McMurray fire of last May. MacKenzie was back in the east, noting both the fund-raising initiatives for the fire victims who lost so much, and “the boiling hatred for oil and Fort Mac.”
There was a discernible motif of moral retribution (social media eats that stuff up): “You heard ‘Fort McMurray had it coming’,” sighs MacKenzie, who has friends and relatives who work in the oil patch. “‘Karma’ was a common sentiment; ‘Fort Mac and the evil oil companies deserved to burn’.”
This scenario finds its way into Bust, whose four characters, says MacKenzie, “are the most like me of any characters I’ve ever written.” Which is why he eschewed his usual method of interviews and research: “I was wanting to write a story in the realm of fiction, to relate on an Alberta culture level.”
A scant three months after the devastating fire, two Fort Mac couples are struggling with terrible loss and upheaval in their lives. And, just to up the ante, they’ve been at a Peewee hockey championship game to cheer on their kids, and a bad call has robbed them of victory.
Bust is one of the few plays in the repertoire to actually be set in Fort McMurray (the plays I’ve seen are peopled by the arrivals on the scene from elsewhere). Not only that, but it’s the immediately post-fire Fort Mac of this past August, when the ground has barely cooled.
MacKenzie appreciates the unusual bravery of the theatre company where Bust is getting its world premiere. In its own way, Theatre Network knows something about fire and loss; their vintage theatre burned to the ground in the winter of 2015.
“Brad (Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss) signed on, right away, to something that could very easily have blown up in his face,” says MacKenzie, impressed. “Fort McMurray, fire, and ‘comedy’?!” He smiles.
The first day of rehearsal, he reports, the first question from the actors and the production team was whether MacKenzie was planning a sequel. “A sequel! You’ve gotta do a sequel!”
“The opportunity to write about something so current! It’s very now, not even a year!” The playwright sighs, “Theatre has the ability to be current and then … it mostly isn’t.”
Currency equals risk. And Mackenzie isn’t a playwright who’s shied away from that equation. Take his 2015 Bears, for example. It’s a highly imaginative “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Northern Gateway Pipeline” in which a Métis protagonist in flight from the city through the mountains to the sea, gradually, magically, turns into a bear. SIA, his award-winning child soldier/hostage drama, was inspired by his own experiences as a naive Canuck student on a helping mission in Liberia.
In a double-header MacKenzie season, The Bone Wars, a multi-disciplinary extravaganza (premiering at Punctuate! Theatre in April) set on a fossil quest in the Badlands, investigates our fatally insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.”
By contrast Bust, says MacKenzie, is about “the people who call Fort McMurray home, the families…. I focus on the people, not the public policy.”
The assumption that Bust will be an anti-oil manifesto is something he’s encountered before, most recently at his brother’s birthday party. MacKenzie remains skeptical about “the Naomi Klein-type declarations of the latte left…. You want to say ‘wonderful!, but what are your plans for the working people?’.”
“And these are thinking, feeling, critically aware people. You’re not telling them something they’re oblivious to,” says MacKenzie.“This is a look at the people. Not a sympathetic look or a hostile look. Just a look.”
MacKenzie’s grandma thinks there’s too much swearing in Bust. Brandon Coffey, one of Moss’s quartet of actors, who grew up in Fort Mac, advised ramping it up.
Which brings us to the always operatically fraught question of hockey. Getting your hockey references wrong in Edmonton would be a form of self-immolation no one sane would advise, even on the grounds of creativity.
MacKenzie and hockey have a close personal relationship. “I’m a massive Oilers fan, definitely,” he says. “My first little play, Bench Banter, at the very first Playwrights Garage with Ron Jenkins and Vern Thiessen, was two hockey dads burying a dead referee.”
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Matthew MacKenzie
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Brandon Coffey, Lora Brovold, Louise Lambert, Christopher Schulz
Where: The Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through Feb. 26
Tickets: theatrenetwork.ca or 780-453-2440.