Viscosity: part journalism, part art exhibit & all new

A woman in a winter coat sits in a warehouse and smiles at the camera.

Viscosity. Photo credit dbphotographics (Dave DeGagné and Brad Gibbons).

Theatre Yes is quickly becoming known for its ability to nimbly craft innovative theatre that challenges artists and audience members to reimagine what a night at the theatre looks like. They’ve produced art in elevators and an abandoned office building; they’ve collaborated with artists across the country. Now, Theatre Yes is bringing a whole different presentation format to Edmonton’s stages with Viscosity, which runs November 7 – 17 at the Backstage Theatre.

Described as one-part art exhibition, one-part human interest piece and one-part performance installation, Viscosity takes audience members through a tour of the oilfield as only oilfield workers know it. Created as a series of verbatim theatre pieces by Heather Inglis (Theatre Yes’ Artistic Director) based on interviews with Alberta oil workers, Viscosity challenges audiences to learn more about those who work on the front lines of Alberta’s oil industry.

Of the impetus behind the show, Heather says, “I wanted to shine a light on the experience of oil workers partly because we’re in this really intense debate about oil and what we think should happen. I just felt like there are all these people whose jobs apparently are being defended who I don’t know because I didn’t know anyone who works in oil. So, who are they and what happens if we open up a conversation that is with them by using their words?”

Viscosity enables intimate one-on-one interactions with actors working with a script constructed from Heather’s interviews with various oilfield workers, by setting up the show in a way unlike any other show I’ve seen. Throughout the Backstage Theatre will be vignettes where performances take place, arranged in the space like an art exhibit, and when an audience member sits or stands in an indicated spot, they activate the actor and the exhibit. Heather says audience members can stop by the Backstage Theatre anytime between 7:30 – 9:00 and take any route they want around the space.

A man in coveralls with a yellow hard hat sits on a chair in a warehouse looking down.

Viscosity. Photo credit dbphotographics (Dave DeGagné and Brad Gibbons).

For Heather though, this innovative format came before the actual ideas and themes Viscosity is built around. “I was Artist-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick in 2015 and in that capacity, I was the dramaturg for 17 small site-specific plays and I developed and presented a work in progress. I dreamed up the format that became Viscosity. It’s an experience that is anchored in actors’ performances that can be viewed in an environment like an art gallery…  You can experience it from the inside of each exhibit, or people can watch from the outside. Although there is a one-on-one transaction happening, it’s perfectly possible to come to the piece and watch other people receive the story. So, I tried out the format in New Brunswick and we had a test piece at Theatre New Brunswick and I loved the format.”

The one-on-one nature of the pieces, as well as the fact that they are written and created from interviews with real Albertans, creates what Heather hopes will feel to audience members like an authentic experience. “I continue to be interested in what happens if audiences have the opportunity to have interactions that are more intimate than a traditional theatre allows for. I feel like people are quite game for that – it excites them… The idea is to get close to people who you might never meet, and in a way then discover how they’re like you. I think I started this thinking like a lot of people probably do, that I know who oil workers are: 20-year-old guys with big trucks and a lot of money to spend on machines and the bar. But, every person I’ve interviewed felt like they’re a friend and someone who I hold confidence with. It changes the way I think about oil and what I thought the hardships were are different than what I think they are now.”

Viscosity runs November 7 – 17 at the Backstage Theatre. Doors open at 7:30 (except the matinee on Sunday, Nov. 11) and Heather recommends audience members arrive before 9:00. It’s estimated it will take most audience members about 45 minutes to experience the show. Tickets are $15 – $20 at Tix on the Square.

As part of Viscosity, there are also a number of Explore Viscosity events taking place for free in the Backstage Theatre:

  • Sunday, November 11 @ 4:15 pm – Our Stories: A talk-back style community conversation about life in and out of the patch
  • Tuesday, November 13 @ 9:45pm – How Oil Creates Who We Are: Panel Discussion
  • Wednesday, November 14 @ 9:45 PM – Beyond the Written Word: A Talk with Don Bouzek of Ground Zero Productions

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