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L to R: Kevin Loring, Quelemia Sparrow. Photo courtesy of undercurrents festival.

Theatre Review: The Pipeline Project at Arts Court Theatre

By Brian Carroll on February 9, 2018

In his book Don’t Even Think About It, environmentalist George Marshall notes that most people don’t talk about climate change. He argues that social facts – the opinions of others around us – are more powerful than scientific facts. Consequently, he urges people to tell their own stories about climate change and how it affects them.

One of the sources of greenhouse gases is oil. In The Pipeline Project, three playwrights tell stories, personal and public, about their, and our, relationship to oil. And what stories they tell! Stories from indigenous people, landowners, ranchers, residents of Calhoun County (near the Kalamazoo River oil spill) and environmentalists. These people cross the political spectrum. There are plenty of liberals, but ranchers, for example, are often conservatives and conservationists.

The Pipeline Project is an international production. Kevin Loring is Nlaka’pamux from the Lytton First Nation, Quelemia Sparrow from the Musqueam Nation, and Sebastian Archibald is from the nation of Canada. Together they tell personal stories of their relationship to oil. Stories that are not cut and dried, black and white.

L to R: Kevin Loring, Quelemia Sparrow, Seebastien Archibald. Photo: David Cooper.

For instance, Loring is against the twinning of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. But he drives a gas-guzzling SUV that he proudly calls “Big Chief”. Where he comes from, a vehicle is a source of status and pride: the bigger the better. He’s proud of his brother who made good in the Fort MacMurray oil sands. Oil has brought some of his people jobs, money and status. But the possibility of oil spills threaten their land, water, sustenance and way of life. He acknowledges that it’s not just pipelines. If the pipeline isn’t expanded, oil will be shipped by rail through the Fraser Valley, with the certainty of derailments.

Sparrow and Archibald contribute their own perspectives in ways too complex to do justice here. As well, Loring and Sparrow explain to Archibald what the lack of treaties for unceded indigenous lands in British Columbia means legally and culturally with respect to pipelines.

If all of this sounds like dry lecturing agit-prop, let me assure you that the playwrights season the stew. Readers of Vine Deloria Jr.’s essay “Indian Humor” in Custer Died for Your Sins or audiences who have seen Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters will not be surprised at how much humour there is in a play about such serious matters. These three playwright-performers have plenty of funny material and their delivery is well-honed. Thursday night’s audience got their money’s worth of chuckles.

I can’t say that The Pipeline Project will win a lot of support in Alberta, but that would be a lot to ask of a 75-minute play.

That’s not to say there isn’t serious material as well. Some of the portrayals of the impacts of oil spills and colonialism are gut-wrenching. There’s one point where Sparrow tries to talk about her father’s experience in residential schools, and chokes on the memory. It’s as poignant and painful as Kent Monkman’s painting about the Sixties Scoop, The Scream.

The Pipeline Project excels in telling these stories while acknowledging their complexity. At one point, Loring states “If I have to choose between oil and water, I choose water… but…” The “but” is that oil is intimately interwoven in our lives. Archibald tries to live a day without oil and realizes that his very clothing and housing wouldn’t exist without oil. And how do we afford the investments to eliminate oil, when Sparrow “can’t even afford a hybrid (car)”?

George Marshall also urges people to reach across political boundaries, arguing that climate change is so big a problem that solutions will require commitment from across the political spectrum. I can’t say that The Pipeline Project will win a lot of support in Alberta, but that would be a lot to ask of a 75-minute play.

The Pipeline Project is a thoughtful, intricate, well-crafted and entertaining show. Well worth your precious shekels, folks.

The Pipeline Project is playing in the undercurrents festival at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave) on Friday February 9 at 7pm and Saturday February 10 at 3pm. Tickets are $20 (including HST). Tickets cost $20–25 online and at the box office.