Viscosity: Theatre Yes challenges preconceptions about big oil and the people who work it

Viscosity, Theatre Yes. Photo by Dave DeGagné.

By Liz Nicholls,

It’s not exactly a play, although there are actors. It’s not exactly journalism, although the monologues are transcribed (and edited) verbatim from interviews with real-life people. And you might resist calling it an exhibit, although you can come and go as you like, stay as long as you like, see any segment partially or in full, in any order.

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Heather Inglis calls Viscosity — the latest from Theatre Yes, opening Thursday at the Backstage Theatre — a “performance installation.” The production, from a theatre company of the experimental stripe (Anxiety, The Elevator Project), it an opportunity to challenge what we think we know on the hottest subject there is in these parts: big oil and the people who are its front-line workers. 

“Big rhetorical questions” are in the air, as Inglis says of the quintessential Alberta debate topic. “We talk about saving jobs for Alberta families, for example. Who are they? What’s happening with them?”

They’re people we might not otherwise meet, as Inglis points out. “It was an enlightening process, and I felt strangely connected to the people I had conversations with, recording the day-to-day mundanities of their lives. For me, it’s been a whole journey….”

That investigative journey to the territory beyond our clichéd preconceptions about oil workers — “22-year-old guys buying expensive trucks” — involved considerable “friend of a friend” networking, “happenstance,” and “a lot of coffee” this past summer, Inglis reports.

She met people of all ages, genders, sexualities, cultures. She had conversations with immigrants, foreign workers, career workers in every kind of oil industry job; she consulted Ian Wilson from Iron and Earth (an organization devoted to transitioning workers for the 21st century energy economy). Some had little or no real interest in talking for a theatre project. One fellow finally agreed because “he said his ex-girlfriend’s friend was bugging him.” Two wanted to be anonymous; “they were afraid of having the label ‘anti-oil’…. And I’m certainly not trying to catch them or expose them.” 

“The other thing is that these people are very busy,” says Inglis. Typical oil work schedules include “24 on, four off, of 12- to 14-hour days.” 

“I feel like I’ve got a reasonable breadth of experience and a variety of points of view,” says Inglis. But Viscosity is, in the end, “an art piece not journalism. It’s oral history about people’s perspectives, first-person stories placed uniquely in Alberta, with material that was drawn from something ‘real’.” And the interviews will be gathered for the Alberta Labour History Institute.

“Our dialogues around oil are (full of) repeating talking points, without real analysis. And as we go into the election there will more of that, a lot more. In many ways we’re just hitting each other over the head.”

The situation calls for more intimate encounters. And that’s what you’ll have with the seven diverse performers Inglis has assembled for Viscosity. It’s not interactive; it’s “a close-up storytelling venture” as she describes it.

Was she surprised by what she heard? “I think we have a range of ideas. Lots of things surprised me, and surprisingly they weren’t the things I thought would surprise me.”



Theatre: Theatre Yes

Created: from real-life interviews by Heather Inglis

Starring: Jimmy Buena, Chris Bullough, Leo Campos Aldunez, Murray Farnell, Byron Martin, Sandy Paddick, Melissa Thingelstad

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Nov. 17

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, or at the door.


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