Documentary-play Extraction travels from the tar sands to Beijing
To research a new theatre project about the Alberta tar sands, Tim Carlson started by heading to what he calls the “end of the pipeline”. And for the Vancouver theatre artist, that meant a visit in 2011 to the smog- and traffic-choked metropolis of Beijing, China.
He knew it was important to see firsthand a petroleum-hungry country that has added two million cars in the past five years, and where one legendary traffic jam had lasted an impossible 10 days. The response was visceral: “I was down for the count for at least three days after landing there,” says Carlson, referring to adjusting to the air pollution.
He’s sitting at Strathcona’s Russian Hall, where his Theatre Conspiracy company is rehearsing the resulting play, Extraction, winner of this year’s Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award. Joining him is his long-time friend Jimmy Mitchell, who has worked in the foreign service in China and managed the Canadian pavilion at the Beijing Expo in 2010. Mitchell performs in Extraction, and was the one who encouraged Carlson to witness the rise of a massive car culture.
“I needed these guys to see it with their own eyes, and to breathe in that air and to see that reality,” says Mitchell, who started working in China in the ’80s, when there were hardly any privately owned cars. “It’s not to say China is all bad; it’s a social and environmental reality in China that people live with, so it’s important to see that reality.”
Beijing was just one of the stops on a creation process several years in the making. But then, the oil industry has always surrounded Carlson. Both his grandfather and father worked in oil, and Carlson remembers growing up amid the rigs in Taber, Alberta. “We had a ranch and there were always oil guys at the table signing leases and breaking down fences to build roads and stuff like that.”
But it was the controversial tar-sands boom farther north, in Fort McMurray, that inspired Carlson more recently to explore the topic in theatre. And having worked on documentary-style productions like 100% Vancouver, he decided that approach—with nonactors telling their real-life stories—was best for the complicated topic.
“Documentary theatre is becoming more and more popular because of the nonfiction trend in arts in general,” Carlson explains. “Nonfiction books are outselling fiction; the nonfiction documentary form has been mainstreamed in a big way on TV. And now there’s a great interest in adapting it to performing arts and bringing in nonactors.”
With Mitchell, Carlson had been discussing the heavy Chinese investment in the tar sands—an issue that is only starting to hit the headlines here now. So he looked to Beijing, but also headed to Fort McMurray to see what the boomtown was really like. He found a city with ever-expanding suburbs that was surprisingly multicultural compared to his own Alberta upbringing. And seeing the actual mines—including one as big as Calgary itself—was as unforgettable an experience as visiting Beijing’s traffic-clogged streets.
“When you see the miles and miles of forests taken down, and exposed earth, and the scale of the facilities, it does look on the surface apocalyptic,” Carlson says. “One picture that comes to mind is around the Syncrude mine, where they reclaimed some of the territory and have bison roaming there as a kind of showpiece in front of the lake.” The problem with that picture? Ducks can’t land on the water because they’ll get covered in oil, Carlson explains, so the postcard image is constantly interrupted by explosions to scare the ducks away.
But Extraction is about much more than an exposé of the tar sands. Carlson was able to recruit one performer, Jason Wilson, with firsthand knowledge of the business: he’s a Dene-Gitksan man who once worked as a safety officer in Fort Mac. But his two other cast members, Mitchell and Sunny Sun, a recent immigrant here from Beijing, speak to the East-West connections, and to larger themes of culture and language.
One of the recurring stories in the play is about Sun’s almost Sisyphean struggle to get home through traffic after a day at work in China. The episodic production is told in Mandarin and English, with subtitles for both; artist Cindy Mochizuki has created animation that will bring those translations to artful life on a projection screen behind the performers. The Mandarin-fluent Mitchell loves the way that the different languages confront expectations. “When you see a white guy speaking Chinese and a Chinese person speaking English, it forces you to think about what’s important and the cultural stereotyping you have to battle.”
The idea, with Extraction, is to get beyond the headlines. “We hear about the business and politics but very little about the people on the ground,” Carlson explains.
“The prevailing view now is that Canadians are afraid of China,” adds Mitchell, who these days works promoting international business in B.C. “My view is that the portrayal of China through various means that filter down to Canadians is a very two-dimensional view. China becomes a person: ‘China thinks this, China views this...’ One thing I’ve felt strongly about is the need to contextualize China into different communities or interests, rather than seeing China as this bloc—the cliché of the sleeping giant or the dragon, always this vaguely threatening thing that’s waiting to invade. Your average Chinese person just wants to get out of poverty and get their kids to a decent school and make their lives a little bit better.”
But Mitchell won’t be the only one airing some views on-stage. In another innovative twist, the audience can vote on or react to what they’re hearing in Extraction via SMS texting, adding a further layer to the debate.
It’s all part of what Carlson sees as Extraction’s evolving format; when the show hits Fort McMurray this summer for a theatre festival, for example, he hopes to integrate an oil-sands worker into the mix. You could say that Carlson, in his own way, has carried on some of his forefathers’ skills: the deeper he’s able to drill into the subject, the more he’s able to mine from it.