The Friendly Face of Oil
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The Friendly Face of Oil

Photo courtesy of Theatre Passe Muraille.

Architect Theatre’s Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show is in the middle of a three-week run at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM). It has received warm reviews from the Star, the Globe, and the Post, and even caught the attention of Margaret Atwood.
These Toronto performances mark the first three-week run for the show and the company’s first opportunity to work with a professional set designer.
“Last time, we were in Toronto, we did one show at the Cameron House. We had one light and three stools!” laughs Jonathan Seinen, company co-founder and a co-creator of the play. But that gig paid off. It was then that TPM artistic director Andy McKim saw the show and booked them for their current staging.
Seinen describes the run at the TPM as “a homecoming.”

The theatre is considered the Canadian home of the documentary-inspired, collaborative style used to create this play. Moreover, the Architect’s long-time mentor—and director Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman’s father—is former TPM artistic director Layne Coleman.
Coleman accompanied the group to Fort McMurray and worked with them during the initial phase of production. He also joined them for the last week of rehearsals before the play opened in Toronto earlier this month.
Why bring a play about life in Northern Alberta all the way to Toronto?
“Because the oil sands are a national issue,” explains Seinen. The Alberta oil sands are often regarded as a regional concern, but the play’s co-creator wants to see a broader debate on the subject.

Jonathan Seinen performs. Photo by Aviva Armour Ostroff, courtesy of Theatre Passe Muraille.

He emphasizes that the play is not for or against the oil sands. Rather, it tries to spark a conversation with its audience about the environmental and social impact of Alberta oil—or “ethical oil,” if you’re of the mind of Ezra Levant or the new federal minister of environment Peter Kent.
But, that said, the play is about people, not oil. It tells a familiar story about the challenges of finding love and maintaining friendships in a transient society. The three main characters are industry workers Steve and Chad, who are roommates, and Mary, who is an aspiring modern dancer and oil sands tour guide. Mixed in are a dozen or so sketches based on interviews the group conducted during a three-week trip to Fort Mac.
The story behind the play began when co-founders Georgina Beaty and Jonathan Seinen—both from Alberta—met at university. After graduation Beaty moved to Vancouver to study acting and Seinen went to Montreal to do the same. There, Seinen met Greg Gale, originally from Newfoundland, and Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, a native of Ontario. Beaty and Seinen had always wanted to write about their home province and in 2008, with the help of Gale and Corbeil-Coleman, they came up with the idea of doing a show about Fort Mac.
But before they could start writing they had to see the infamous community with their own eyes. In February 2009, the newly formed company arrived in Fort McMurray for the first time. They were greeted by a blizzard and minus-forty-degree weather.
Over the next three weeks they interviewed industry and local government officials, high school students, First Nations groups, and even a few girlfriends of oil crew workers. The result: Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show.
The troop has been back to Fort Mac three times since its original visit, performing the play for a local audience on each trip. Asked what it was like performing in front of the people who inspired the play’s characters, Seinen responded: “Terrifying!”
On Tuesday, the troop will celebrate the second anniversary of their pilgrimage at Earl’s on King Street West. Why Earl’s?
“Because that’s the coolest restaurant to go in Fort McMurray,” said Seinen. Like its creators, the play celebrates the seemingly mundane facts that characterize the town, giving this play about oil real heart.
“People from the community were really proud of the play. I think that’s because it shows them that their lives are worthy of art. That is not a notion that Canadians in general are use to.”
Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show runs until February 26 at Theatre Passe Muraille.