Viscosity: vignettes about the patch

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).

Viscosity promised to be unlike anything we’ve seen on Edmonton’s stages before.

And it delivered.

Created by Heather Inglis using interviews with people presently or previously employed in Alberta’s oilfield, Viscosity is presented in seven 2 – 4 minute vignettes that audience members can step into to “activate” the performance or watch from the sidelines as another audience member does so. Because we know the words the actors are speaking come directly from the mouths of real Albertans and are delivered in a one-on-one manner, the piece is explicitly authentic to the specific experiences of Heather’s interview subjects. This isn’t a piece about looking at “them”, it’s a piece about looking at us as the direct and indirect beneficiaries of the industry centred around extracting, refining, selling and consuming oil.

Viscosity uses the micro-moments of real everyday thoughts and interactions to ignite thought about the larger oil industry – the good and the bad.

In Viscosity, we have coffee with a man (hauntingly played by Chris Bullough) who tells us about the rigorous safety standards in the oilfield – all as a direct result of someone who has died – and how even those high standards can’t prevent all dangerous situations. We share a beer with a woman (the dry-humoured Melissa Thingelstad) who tells us about the measures she took to fit in with her all-male crewmates. Another woman (played by Sandy Paddick as a serene and seasoned working mother) invites us to sit outside her RV while she tells us about the 80% of her male coworkers who are polite, respectful and professional, and the 20% who probably form the basis of the stereotypical oil worker. We hear two stories of people who immigrated from different countries in hopes of claiming a piece of the prosperity the oilpatch offers and the reality of what they received when they arrived. Jimmy Buena’s performance as a Phillipino welder is heartbreaking, while Leo Campos Aldunez gives a different perspective on what it is like to provide a type of care for the workers while working long hours yourself as an employee of the hospitality company that runs the camp accommodations.

My small-town Saskatchewan hometown basically runs on two industries: agriculture and oil. I’ve never felt far-removed from the people who work in the oilfield since several of my high school classmates dropped out to work in the oilfield and at least a third of those I graduated with are directly employed by oil companies today. But what Viscosity left me with was a real understanding of how high the highs are and how low the lows are when you are employed in the oilfield. As Byron Martin’s expressive family-man bus-passenger says, getting a job with a salary that enables you to finance a great life for your family feels like winning the lottery. But, as Murray Farnell knowingly warns as a mechanic working on a souped-up truck, it’s a tough life seeing your family for maybe 30 days a year.

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

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

As for the production itself, it’s hard not to stop and stare upon entering the Backstage Theatre’s performance space. I don’t want to spoil Brian Bast’s set design, so I’ll only say that I was stunned by the variety and scale of the different vignettes as I walked into space – I had to tell myself not to stop and stare as I entered the space. I also loved that the lighting of each vignette made the piece immediately feel like an art gallery upon entering.

From speaking with Viscosity‘s creator and Theatre Yes’ Artistic Director Heather Inglis, I knew to expect Viscosity to be a mixture of an art exhibit, journalism and theatre, but not the measures those elements would be combined in to create the show. There’s no way to define the line between the specific creative forms blended together to create Viscosity. For me, it was hard not to get caught up in questions about the presentation method itself – the words of real people flowing through the lips of talented actors. From inside one of the installations, it feels like a one-on-one conversation (although audience members are asked not to speak to the actors), while from the outside it alternates between feeling as if you’re watching a video installation or eavesdropping on a conversation taking place at the next table over in a coffee shop.

There are up to seven pieces being performed at any one time in the space and, at least to me, it can feel a little overwhelming to hear pieces of these conversations swirling around you and move abruptly and suddenly between different locales and characters – dipping in and out of the subject’s lives. One of the things I love about this presentation style is how elements of a relaxed performance are incorporated into this show. So, when I did feel overwhelmed by the subject matter and the volume of what was going on, I could step outside, into the lobby and sit down and take a break outside of the show. I also love that audience members can arrive anytime between 7:30 – 9:00 – you don’t have to be there exactly for a 7:30 curtain time.

There are so many possibilities for this presentation format in terms of subject matter, how audience members interact with the actors and the space, and I’m sure more possibilities that I hope are already buzzing around in theatre creators’ heads. I’d love to see more stories presented this way.

Viscosity runs until November 17 at the Backstage Theatre. Doors open at 7:30 (except the matinee on Sunday, Nov. 11) and Heather recommends audience members arrive anytime 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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