By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The play that opens tonight at the Backstage Theatre is poised at the moment of a dramatic shift — in thinking, in focus, in perspective. In Alberta in 1947, big oil was discovered near Leduc. One economy supplanted another. And the world changed.
Last Chance Leduc takes us back to that time, and its impact on the people who lived it, especially the women. In a career that regularly takes Katherine Koller from theatre to radio drama, film to fiction, she’s always been fascinated by “how industry changes people’s lives, and affects relationships,” as she says.
Koller’s “Alberta Landworks Trilogy” began with a play about coal. In Coal Valley: The Making of a Miner, commissioned by the city of Drumheller, “a boy looks for his father underground,” she says. In The Seed Savers, the change was in the agricultural way of life threatened by the corporate economy of GMOs, genetically modified organisms. With Last Chance Leduc, Koller casts her playwright’s eye on the oil and gas industry — and on “the human story.”
It was the lives of the women that struck Koller most forcibly in the course of her archival research. Before the age of gigantic camps which house men work while they work in the oil patch, their families lived near the rigs, in little tarpaper shacks. And they moved when drilling moved. “Imagine,” says Koller. “An itinerant life, with children, in winter. Living with the noise, constantly on the move. How did these women cope?”
Last Chance Leduc, an Alberta Playwriting Competition winner in 2013, is “is a story about women, and a marriage,” says Koller. At its centre is a young couple (Emma Houghton and Evan Hall) living in the woods, with all the stress fractures of a marriage in hard times, including a baby and the husband’s best friend (Oscar Derkx). “But the first character who started to voice her opinions to me was a Cree woman trapper in the woods (Alison Wells).”
For Koller, whose life as a writer began with CBC radio drama in the ‘90s, jumping between genres has always been a matter of “finding the right container for a story.” And she was inspired by “this lovely festival happening here,” the Fringe, where she made her playwright debut with Cowboy Boots And A Corsage.
She’s written screenplays and short stories, four story ballets for Citie Ballet, including Ariadne’s Gate. For a program run by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, she’s even written an opera libretto, an updated version of the “handless maiden” fairy tale common to many cultures. Her first novel Art Lessons was a finalist for the Edmonton Book Prize reader’s choice award, and a Koller collection of short stories is slated for publication.
Sometimes she reinvents her stage plays for radio, sometimes the reverse. Writing for the theatre, says Koller, is a matter of hearing a character’s voice. “Sometimes it takes a while for them to start to talk to me…. I monologue all the characters to get their voices in my head, before they can be in a scene with others.”
The characters of Last Chance Leduc are no exception, says Koller, who curates Edmonton’s Script Salon monthly series of new play readings along with director/dramaturg Tracy Carroll. Last Chance Leduc was the first of them, in 2014.
Koller and director/dramaturg Carroll have been workshopping Last Chance Leduc all year, says the playwright. Carroll took the cast and crew on location, to the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre, where they did a staged reading for the centre’s annual opening day, Feb. 13. It’s had a reading in another of the world’s oil towns, Aberdeen Scotland, and a college production in Grande Prairie.
“But I wanted to bring it to Edmonton with a full professional production,” says Koller. And, in a partnership between Koller’s indie Snowflake Productions and Fringe Theatre Adventures, that’s what happening at the Backstage.
The time is right for a play about the oil and gas industry, as you know if you’ve dropped the word “pipeline” at a dinner party lately. “We’re at another one of those points of change,” says Koller. “It’s a wild time in Alberta! A time for asking where we’ve come from; where do we want to go next? These are the questions people will bring into the theatre.”
Last Chance Leduc
Written by: Katherine Koller
Directed by: Tracy Carroll
Starring: Emma Houghton, Evan Hall, Oscar Derkx, Alison Wells
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through May 19 (with 12:30 p.m. matinees May 15 and 17)
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca