Last week, I attended VISCOSITY, created and directed by Heather Inglis, playing at Backstage Theatre @ Fringe Theatre Adventures (10330 84 Avenue) from November 7 to 17, 2018. Described as “part exhibition, part journalism and part performance, VISCOSITY brings to life the stories of Alberta oil workers across a variety of ages, genders, sexualities, cultures, and perspectives. Created from transcriptions of interviews with real Albertans in 2018, VISCOSITY challenges what we think we know about the people who work in big oil. This performance installation creates intimate encounters with big oil, bringing Albertans together in conversation about life in and out of the patch.” (VISCOSITY).

The installation-style performance meant that the audience was brought into intimate relationship with the actors and the stories of the characters that they were representing. I milled about in a small group of three with a person or two dropping in to view along with us, each of the 6 different installations. We took turns sitting on the designated X, which was the seat or audience position the actor was mostly or exclusively going to engage with. Others moved about individually, which meant that they were continually engaging one-on-one with the performance and the material. This viewing experience made us both feel inside and part of the theatre experience, with the actors speaking directly to us. It created both a heightened level of awareness, in me at least, about my own reactions and responses and responsibility to the actors. In a positive sense, it created a proximity with the topic and the performers. However, that intimacy was also sometimes uncomfortable, particularly given that while we were so physically proximate and yet unable to respond to the monologues presented in such a conversation way. This, for me, is also what the conversation in Alberta can be like, around energy transition. So many of us are living petrocultural lives, but not actively engaging with one another. What this performance did that seems sometimes impossible in the everyday, was to make the spectators stop and listen — and it gave the performers the chance to voice the perspectives of real oil workers without interruptions, as more than soundbites in the media. It encouraged a space for one-say listening.

The How Oil Creates Who We Are: Panel Discussion that followed the Tuesday night performance, also allowed for the audience, actors and members of the public to speak about the complexities of the petrocultural issues raised in Viscosity. Dr. Mark Simpson moderated the panel, and the speakers included Dr. Angele Alook, Adam Carlson, Jordan Kinder and Iron & Earth organizer Ian Wilson. Following on the provocation provided by Dr. Simpson, the panel members spoke about the “sticky” issues Viscosity raised about what it means to live in a Petroculture. Reflections ranged from Dr. Alook’s observation that there were no performances that reflected on the perspective of Indigenous oil works, to Wilson’s take on what it means to earn a living in the trades as they shift from one industry to another, to Kinder’s commentaries on the paradox of reclamation, to Carlson’s reflections on political rhetoric with Premier Notley’s recent invocation of horses and unicorns adding levity to the very serious matter of the ways we are speaking about and shaping our collective energy future in this province and beyond.

Transitioning away from oil requires hard conversations across political lines and opinions: not the flippant rhetoric used in the mainstream media to distract from the stickiness of these issues. While this run of the performance has come to an end, do keep your eye out for future iterations. It is a show worth seeing and a conversation worth engaging in.


You can also read what Danika Jorgensen-Skakum, another member of the audience and of the Just Powers team had to say about the event here: