In Bears, pipe­line pol­i­tics meet per­sonal jour­ney

> BY JANET SMITH

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

Matthew Macken­zie couldn’t have pre­dicted how much the Kinder Mor­gan Trans Moun­tain Pipe­line would dom­i­nate the head­lines when he chose it as a sub­ject for his play Bears.

A pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tion of his script had found its pro­tag­o­nist, an In­dige­nous oil worker from Al­berta, flee­ing a work­place ac­ci­dent along the route of the North­ern Gate­way Pipe­line. When that project died, he re­lo­cated Bears to the pro­posed Kinder Mor­gan route be­tween Ed­mon­ton and Burn­aby. And then all hell broke loose be­tween B.C. and Al­berta and ac­tivists ex­ploded into ac­tion. The show, which has played Toronto and through­out Wild Rose Coun­try, now opens here, ground zero for the fight, at a time when the con­flict is peak­ing.

“It’s been quite some­thing for that is­sue to keep go­ing and grow­ing, with things reach­ing a ridicu­lous level with the threats to B.C.,” the play­wright tells the Straight from the Al­berta cap­i­tal, which has warned of an oil em­bargo against this prov­ince. “It’s that thing artists of­ten strive for; you want to be talk­ing about the here and now. We never ex­pected it to reach this level. And do­ing Van­cou­ver last—we’re ex­cited to share the piece.”

Still, it’s not as if Macken­zie sought to write a play ripped from to­day’s head­lines. It turns out the gen­e­sis for Bears was much more per­sonal than po­lit­i­cal for the young Cana­dian play­wright and direc­tor. The jour­ney started back around 2013, when he was liv­ing in Toronto and “feel­ing kind of spir­i­tu­ally empty”, he ex­plains. He dropped every­thing and went to live with friends in the moun­tains of Can­more. While there, he delved deeply into the writ­ings of his grand­fa­ther, Vern Wishart, who had metic­u­lously pieced to­gether the fam­ily’s longhid­den Métis her­itage.

“He’d lost his fa­ther be­fore he learned he was Métis,” Macken­zie says. “And when he was at the hospi­tal with his mother pass­ing away, there was a wo­man from her small town in the bed be­side her, and he heard her say­ing, ‘ Those are Wisharts—they’re half- breeds, you know.’ ” That sent Macken­zie’s grand­fa­ther and his great- aunt on a jour­ney of re­search that would un­cover Cree, Ojibwa, and Métis an­ces­tral roots.

Adding to that jour­ney, MacKen­zie, with the help of pro­duc­ers at Al­berta Abo­rig­i­nal Per­form­ing Arts, spent time lis­ten­ing, first­hand, to the Cree ori­gin story from el­ders Jerry and Jo-ann Sad­dle­back—two of only a hand­ful who know the full cre­ation tale. That’s re­flected in a lot of the an­i­mals and plants he’s wo­ven into the work. “I sat down with the el­ders for a cou­ple hours ev­ery day. And it was just in­cred­i­ble to hear about the por­cu­pine, the wild straw­berry, and all those things,” he says.

But the na­ture and wildlife that per­me­ate the play were all around Macken­zie in Can­more, too. “I was very, very in tune with na­ture there,” he re­calls. “In the pa­per there, of­ten the front-page news is an­i­mal news, so ev­ery­body knows these re­ally weird facts about cougars and wolves.”

All of that in­spi­ra­tion has fed a play that de­fies genre—it’s a blend of chase story, iden­tity search, ode to In­dige­nous spir­i­tu­al­ity, dark com­edy, in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary spec­ta­cle, and ecoac­tivist plea. Mul­ti­me­dia pro­jec­tions cre­ate the set­tings with an im­mer­sive elec­tronic sound­scape as for­mer tarsands worker Floyd makes his way to British Columbia via the pipe­line trail. And eight dancers join him, act­ing like a kind of Greek cho­rus while tak­ing the forms of var­i­ous an­i­mals and su­per­nat­u­ral be­ings.

“That spir­i­tual awak­en­ing that Floyd has, and that I had, is re­ally hard to put into words—and so is that re­la­tion­ship with na­ture,” Macken­zie ex­plains. “For me, dance is magic and that just made sense.”

And as for the heated is­sue of the Kinder Mor­gan pipe­line? In Bears, Floyd starts to see the ef­fect of his role in the oil­patch on the nat­u­ral world. But Macken­zie does hope to prompt dis­cus­sion amid all the is­sue’s di­vided sides. And ac­tor Shel­don El­ter, who just ap­peared here in his one-man show Métis Mutt, plays a big role in that.

“The char­ac­ter in the show has worked in the oil­patch his whole life and a lot of his jobs, Shel­don has done,” Macken­zie says. “He’s worked in the patch and his fam­ily has. We were very keen not to damn the work­ing man, I guess you’d say.

“That was so oil work­ers could come and see the show and re­late to it and talk about it—just like an ac­tivist could.”

Bears plays the Cultch’s His­toric Theatre un­til Sat­ur­day (May 12).

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