A journey of transformation into the heart of nature: Bears hits the big stage

Sheldon Elter and the Bears ensemble, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Six years ago, in a tiny theatre space deep inside the Arts Barn, we watched a man set forth on a journey from the city into the heart of Nature — through mountains to the sea — transforming magically as he went.

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That was our first sighting of Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears. And it arrived onstage in 2015 assisted by a chorus of dancers, a park ranger who accompanied himself in original cabaret songs … and controversy. Then, as now, multi-disciplinary dark comedies about pipelines, as Bears was boldly billed, weren’t exactly Alberta ground cover.

The contentious Northern Gateway pipeline invoked in 2015 became the contentious Kinder Morgan in the significantly reworked 2018 iteration of Bears at the Backstage Theatre. And now, starting Thursday, having toured the country on big stages and small, urban theatres and Indigenous community halls, trailing some of the country’s most prestigious theatre honours (including multiple Dora Awards and the Carol Bolt playwriting prize), Bears returns to Edmonton where it started.

And this time, the Punctuate! Theatre production is in the big house, on the Citadel’s Maclab mainstage, as part of the season. As MacKenzie says, 7,000 people saw Bears at the Belfry in Victoria, more at the Cultch in Vancouver. In Edmonton, where it all began in tiny venues, audiences for two separate incarnations of Bears amounted to 1,200. “This  isn’t the Edmonton premiere,” says MacKenzie. “But for a lot of the team it really feels that way.”   

The names may change. This time, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, purchased by the feds, is the Trans Mountain. But pipelines and the provocations offered by Bears remain as flammable as ever, maybe more. Never let it be said that Punctuate! Theatre doesn’t earn its exclamation mark.

The route of the pipeline, and the play, is still through the beautiful wilds of Jasper National Park, through high-risk heritage Indigenous land, through the Fraser Valley to Burnaby. And Floyd (Sheldon Elter), a Métis oil patch worker who’s a suspect in a “workplace accident,” is still on the lam along that route, with the RCMP and oil company enforcers in hot pursuit. And the story unfolds in an unusual, imaginative fusion of theatre and dance, a MacKenzie signature.

playwright Matthew MacKenzie. Photo supplied

“When we premiered in Toronto, it was wild,” says the Punctuate! artistic director who crosses the country between West and East with exhausting frequency. “Articles every single day about the Kinder Morgan. And the issue (three years later) is very much a hot one still.” He sighs, and laughs. “I kinda wish it wasn’t, but….”

First Nations land rights, “our spiritual contract with the natural world,” the fragility of the environment … “the stuff Bears is about gets people talking,” as MacKenzie puts it. And “it’s led to a lot of conversations, on a lot of different levels, across the country.” It invokes a specific pipeline, the Trans Mountain. “But it speaks to larger debates and fights that show no sign of going away.”

To wit: Tofino, site of a memorable blunder. “After getting re-elected, on the day he’s created to respect Indigenous folk, the prime minister goes surfing? Really? I still can’t believe it…. Clearly, there’s a long way to go,” says MacKenzie, who’s a wry, politically engaged sort of artist, with a nose for absurdity.

MacKenzie, who’s a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, has talked before of the buried family story that inspired Bears. His grandfather, writer Vern Wishart, included it, as a small and striking annotation, in his 2012 book Tracing My Great Grandmother’s Footsteps. And MacKenzie has spoken, too, of living in Toronto, feeling waves of homesickness for the beauties of the Alberta wilderness, where he regularly repairs to recharge his artistic batteries. He wrote Bears in Canmore (it’s played twice there), where the movements of animals and the appearance of specific wildflowers are the stuff of local top stories, he says.

Can it be that the culture at large is beginning is absorb something of “the Indigenous way of looking at the natural world”? MacKenzie muses. “We’re starting to change our thinking…. The way we’ve commodified everything — dig it up and ship it off — is just leading us down a road that is not tenable….”

MacKenzie’s theatre life, as a kid who went to Vic (the Victoria School of the Arts) and then the National Theatre School, has always had cross-country reverb and network of connections to it. “Punctuate!’s last three productions  have premiered in Toronto and Edmonton back to back…. So we’re already in essence touring.”

Indigenous theatre is arriving on mainstages everywhere in the country, “as it should. And that’s inspiring,” as MacKenzie says. But do Indigenous audiences come? Not always, for a variety of social, cultural and economic reasons. Punctuate! has built a network of Indigenous communities, Saddle Lake and Maskawacis among them, and takes theatre to the people. And “top of our priority list,” MacKenzie says, is “including more communities that might not get a lot of theatre.”

Sheldon Elter and the ensemble of Bears, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Alexis McKeown.

With its relevance, its impressive cast of top-drawer Indigenous artists led by “superstar Sheldon Elter,” who scores off the chart in the likability quotient, and its humour, Bears has been a hit with Indigenous audiences. It’s theatre as event. “Every time we’ve gone into an Indigenous community they always have a lunch or dinner for everyone in the audience and the whole team. Always. It’s never not happened; it’s seen as the normal thing to do….”

Advice on engaging with Indigenous audiences from Dreamspeakers’ Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, who’s in the Bears cast, has been invaluable, says MacKenzie. As one example, “if you have a ‘no latecomers’ policy, there’s a good chance you won’t have anyone in the house when the show starts.” Since child care options aren’t generally available, a ‘no kids’ policy is equally unproductive. “It’s a good reminder that theatre has become more uptight than church.”

Meanwhile, MacKenzie, working mostly remotely from here, has a residency at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre (he’s the Baillie Artistic Fellow), working with artistic director Weyni Mengesha to create a new play development department. The goal, devoting 50 per cent of programming to new Canadian work, is a major departure for Soulpepper, whose reputation is built on re-discovering and producing classics. And MacKenzie, a natural (and indefatigable) collaborator — he’s a kind of cross-country theatre pipeline in himself — is busy hooking up emerging playwrights from across the country with fellow artists and new opportunities.

“I try,” he says cheerfully. “Why else would I be straddling the country like this; it’s so damn exhausting.”

The potential for Punctuate! partnerships is expanding. Ah, and so is MacKenzie’s bi-city life. In the What I Did During COVID chapter of the book of life we’re all writing, MacKenzie’s contribution is a real-life high-speed romantic comedy that’s a race against time and closing borders, set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

It’s all recounted in First Métis Man of Odessa, commissioned as part of Factory Theatre’s You Can’t Get There From Here audio series of podcasts — and in progress to be a stage play with dates in Toronto, Edmonton, and Ukraine. At heart, it’s this: MacKenzie went to Ukraine on a Pyretic theatre research trip two years ago and fell in love with star Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova. When she got pregnant. things got vastly more complicated for a couple in the world. But (spoiler alert) there’s a happy ending: they got married, and Khomutova arrived in Canada just in time for the birth of their son Ivan.

And MacKenzie is the happy, if sleepless, dad of an “incredibly cheery, joyful” 10-month-old. “Having a little being grinning at you every morning is a great way to wake up, even when the world is going to shit.” He expects the family will end up living in Toronto. “There’s just more opportunities….”

And now, finally, Bears is back in the place where its story begins, “the city of former champions.” On the Citadel’s big beautiful thrust stage in the Maclab Theatre.  “I performed on that stage! As the young Macduff!” says MacKenzie of the Robin Phillips’ production of Macbeth of long ago.

“It’s a pretty frickin’ big thrill!”

PREVIEW

Bears

Theatre: Punctuate! and Dreamspeakers at the Citadel

Written and directed by: Matthew MacKenzie

Choreography by: Monica Dottor

Starring: Sheldon Elter, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Gianna Vacirca, Rebecca Sadowski, Zoë Glassman, Skye Demas, Karina Cox, Shammy Belmore, Alida Kendell

Running: Thursday through Oct. 31

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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