A New Brunswick playwright’s new play imagines the past, present and future of an Alberta region he says we’re all related to, whether we know it or not.
Theatre New Brunswick’s Wood Buffalo, written by Len Falkenstein, ran at the Open Space Theatre in Fredericton Nov. 8 through 12 and is going on tour around the province, with stops at the Empress Theatre in Moncton Nov. 17 and the W.C. O’Neill Theatre in Saint Andrews Nov. 18 before wrapping up Nov. 19 at the BMO Studio Theatre in Saint John. The play is described as a “sweeping Canadian epic” telling the story of Fort McMurray, Alta., from colonization to the year 2070 through the people who live there, with “compassion, humour and a bit of magic.”
Falkenstein, the director of drama at UNB Fredericton, was born in Saskatchewan near the Alberta border, and said he saw the area change over his lifetime from farming to oil focused. He called the play a “detailed and fair reading” that looks at the debate between the environment and the economy.
“I’ve been wanting to do a project that looks at the region and its centrality to Canada,” he said. “I’m seeking to talk about the fact that we all have a relationship to Fort McMurray and the oil industry as well.”
Fort McMurray, founded as a Hudson’s Bay trading post in 1870, went from a village of under 3,000 people in 1964 to a city and then the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 1995, an arrangement that brought oilsands industrial projects to the north into municipal limits, as well as the Indigenous communities of Fort Chipewyan and part of Fort McKay.
According to the municipal census, the region’s population hit 125,032 in 2015, including the “shadow population” of oil sands workers who live in the area part-time, but troubles in the oil market and a devastating wildfire in 2016 saw that number decline to 106,059 by 2021.
Falkenstein said he’s made trips to the area to speak with residents about their stories, which are reflected in characters including a city planner from Vancouver, a recent immigrant to Bangladesh, a New Brunswicker who drives heavy equipment, an environmental scientist and a firefighter. Each of the actors plays multiple characters as well as an animal, Falkenstein said, with masks made by costume designer Sherry Kinnear.
“My play is about the stories of several people from across the country who go to work in Fort McMurray, and their complicated relationship they have with the place and their jobs,” he said.
He said it can be a “warm, friendly community” where some, including the planner, who runs for mayor, want to stay and build, and also a place where people with geographical ties elsewhere can feel like a “nowhere man,” which is how he describes the New Brunswick character.
“The place takes them, it takes them all in different ways,” he said. “That may or may not necessarily be a bad thing.”
There’s a bit of whimsy at play as some historical figures pop up time and again, including Peter Pond, the fur trader whose name now adorns the local mall. Falkenstein said comparisons to Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol are “not wrong,” and said people have noticed the “ghosts of Fort McMurray past present and future” are in the play.
“They kind of act as mentors or guides, and sometimes villains, tricksters,” he said. “We’re all victims of these larger forces, as much as we think we’re controlling our own destinies.”
He said that Indigenous and Metis communities have a “strong presence” in the communities, and while he didn’t want to be appropriative, he wanted to make sure the Indigenous perspective was included. He said that he went through community leaders to find people to speak with, and that the play features a Metis character struggling with issues of identity.
He said he “wasn’t about to do a hit job” on Fort McMurray, and said that it also contains the humour of “human behaviour,” as well as the interaction with the historical characters and cameos from some “well-known” politicians.
“I would hope that no matter who you are, that you might find things you really agree with and disagree with,” he said.
In the context of the federal government’s goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Falkenstein imagines Fort McMurray’s future as a “return to what was” – a trading post based around forestry.
“The world is going to gradually decrease its dependency on fossil fuels, as we need to, and Fort McMurray is going to become, if not a ghost town, but a shadow of its former self,” Falkenstein said.
“My vision is not the grimmest, but my play is maybe intending to get us all thinking about how to avoid the grimmest possible future and end up in the more hopeful one.”
Falkenstein said his play adopts the wood buffalo or bison as its central figure, saying the animal was abundant in the area and hunted to near-extinction, but the population is recovering, in part due to efforts from Syncrude, which maintains a herd with the help of the Fort McKay First Nation at its Mildred Lake project. Despite its investment, he notes Syncrude is “getting PR out of it, which is a bit dubious, as good as a project as it is.”
“In my play, it imagines a future where the wood buffalo is kind of revitalized and comes back as a symbol of a land and environment that has healed,” he said. “It’s this thing that was almost destroyed by humans, was appropriated by humans for their own political goals, but it is beyond human control, in a way.”
Tickets are available at https://www.tnb.nb.ca/wood-buffalo/.
By Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Nov 15, 2023 at 12:24