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Downstage Creation Ensemble members Nicola Elson and Col Cseke check out a gas well in the area around Longview, Alberta.
Downstage Creation Ensemble members Nicola Elson and Col Cseke check out a gas well in the area around Longview, Alberta.

Theatre

The oil sands' latest byproduct: cutting-edge theatre Add to ...

Call it the latest Alberta oil-and-gas rush – this time on the stages of Calgary's largest theatre companies.

At Theatre Calgary, audiences are packing in every night to catch Enron, a British play about the rise and fall of the infamous Houston-based energy company that once had an office here. Meanwhile, Alberta Theatre Projects is set to premiere a new collective creation called Good Fences, about a battle between ranchers and oilmen over plans for a fictional pipeline. Though in development over the past year and a half, Good Fences seems ripped from current headlines trumpeting the ongoing high-stakes political debate over TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States.

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But here's the real surprise: Instead of being wary of productions peering into the more conflict-ridden corners of their industry, oil and gas companies in Calgary have been helping them get to the stage – through financial sponsorship and, at times, by serving as expert consultants to the works’ creators.

Good Fences, in fact, is being presented as part of ATP's annual Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. Vanessa Porteous, artistic director at ATP, says she didn't have any worries about programming a play about a pipeline dispute at a festival whose long-standing title sponsor is currently facing opposition from environmental groups and first nations over its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast. “One of the founding principles [of the partnership]is that both parties believe in the importance of the new Canadian theatrical voice and the freedom of that voice,” says Porteous. “We've never discussed content with Enbridge.”

There's something more than a little ironic about what's going on in Calgary.

Since the SummerWorks festival in Toronto lost its Canadian Heritage grant last year – after presenting a play about a terrorist criticized by the Prime Minister's Office – theatre artists across the country have expressed fear of losing government funding over politically controversial subject matter.

Just this month, artistic director Richard Rose of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre came under fire for not programming a new play by its playwright-in-residence Michael Healey – allegedly because it included a satirical representation of Prime Minster Stephen Harper. Healey left the Tarragon in the wake of Rose’s decision.

Do theatre artists feel more confident about freedom of expression when supported by the private sector than by supposedly arms-length government funders? If so, that hasn't always been the case in Calgary.

Although energy is a central part of the Alberta experience, plays that directly address the oil-and-gas industry have hitherto been “few and far between,” according to Simon Mallett, who heads the Downstage Creation Ensemble that has created Good Fences. It's been, in a way, the elephant in the auditorium – in an industry where many auditoriums are named after their donors.

Mallett acknowledges that it can be “tricky to navigate” the topic, given the amount of local arts sponsorship that comes from companies like Enbridge – not to mention the fact that the industry employs something like 140,000 people in Alberta. “There's kind of a prevailing sentiment that a questioning of the methodology with which oil and gas does business is a questioning of what's right about Alberta,” says Mallet, noting that such a feeling goes well beyond the artistic community.

Dennis Garnhum, artistic director at Theatre Calgary, relates a conversation he had with an unnamed playwright a number of years ago: After asking the writer why he had never written a play about oil and gas, Garnhum received the response: “Because you wouldn't produce it.”

Theatre Calgary is certainly a prime example of how much the local arts community owes to the petroleum industry. Its sponsors include not only Enbridge, but Encana Corp, Fluor Canada, Imperial Oil Foundation, Nexen Inc. and Talisman Energy.

Scan the names on the theatre's board of directors and you'll find that the vice-chair is a director at Enbridge; the board's vice-president of finance works at pipeline-builder Strike Energy Services; and the co-chairs of the fundraising committee are from Nexen and One Earth Oil & Gas.

It's precisely because of the city's strong ties to the oil-and-gas industry, however, that Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, wanted to direct Lucy Prebble's play Enron here. “Calgarians worked at Enron, or they worked at competitive firms,” he says. “When the collapse happened, it impacted this community in a way that would have been different than in Toronto.”

Garnhum did, in fact, receive some resistance from members of his board when he first proposed programming Enron. “There was a heated conversation about whether this should be put on,” he recalls, noting that one member argued strongly that the theatre should avoid “upsetting people” with the play.

Garnhum persisted with programming the show, however, and the risk has really paid off. He got a first inkling of the play’s appeal to Calgarians when a stockbroker who came to the first preview two weeks ago called the box office to order 20 more tickets the next day.

About to enter its final week of shows, Enron – which stars Graham Abbey (from TV’s The Border) as company president Jeffrey Skilling, who was convicted on charges ranging from securities fraud to insider trading – has practically sold out the rest of its run in the 780-seat Max Bell Theatre. Theatre Calgary would extend the run if it were logistically possible. “This was meant to be the important play that wasn't going to be well-attended,” says Garnhum.

Over at the Enbridge playRites Festival, meanwhile, hopes are that Good Fences, too, will catch on with the public. Its jumping-off point was the story of the 1998 shooting death of an oil worker by a rancher – a murder Mallet describes as “a result of bad communication and lack of trust and systematic failure on both sides.”

At the beginning of Good Fences, agriculture is described as a horizontal line, while the oil-and-gas industry is a vertical one that “drills into the ground and [goes]up along the flare stack high into the sky.”

Explains Mallett, “Where those two lines meet, there's one piece of land with two sets of interests – one to the mineral rights and one to the surface rights. As theatre artists, we're inherently drawn to conflict.”

While artists have a reputation for holding strong, negative opinions about the oil industry – think of Canadian actors Tantoo Cardinal and Margot Kidder, arrested while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in August – Mallett says his company has approached Good Fences with an open mind.

He and his co-creators spent two weeks in Longview, a ranching community in the foothills of the Rockies, to research the story. Back in Calgary, they then interviewed people who work at oil and gas companies, including Talisman, an independent exploration outfit that also happens to be one of the sponsors of the playRites festival. One of the Talisman land men – who act as go-betweens with landowners – spoke to Mallett's company about his work, and ultimately became the inspiration for one of Good Fences' main characters.

“Although a lot of corporate money is coming from oil and gas in this city, they are also interested in a genuine dialogue,” insists Mallett.

Calgary audiences seem to want a discussion to take place as well: Walking around the lobby during an intermission at Enron, you can hear it in the animated conversations by audience members who knew people involved in the story.

Similarly, Mallett has heard from land men who will be bringing the ranchers with whom they work to Good Fences. “The postshow conversation there is going to be fascinating,” he says. “We think of it as the third act of the play, really.”

So why has Calgary suddenly started to hold up the mirror to nature – or at least, natural gas? “It's possible that we're ready for this kind of material right now – and it happens that people are writing it,” says ATP’s Porteous, who has a sense that local theatrical taste has evolved and grown. “I can feel the ears in the audience listening in a different way.”

Adds Garnhum, “We're only now, in Alberta, realizing that we can talk about who we are – we can talk about oil and gas and we don't have to have perfectly positive feelings.”

Enron runs at Theatre Calgary until Feb. 19. Good Fences opens at Alberta Theatre Projects on Tuesday and runs to March 4.

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