Jimmy Mitchell, Jason Wilson and Sunny Sun Credit: Tim Matheson
Jimmy Mitchell, Jason Wilson and Sunny Sun
Credit: Tim Matheson

At The Cultch. No more performances

Posted on March 11, 2013

Not often is the whole less than the sum of its parts. So while Extraction didn’t hang together perfectly, its parts were startlingly and often disturbingly informative.

What does the word ‘extraction’ mean to Canadians? Harvesting our natural resources? Or does it mean, as it does to the Chinese who need gas for the five million cars in Beijing (population 20 million), ‘rip from the earth’? Fact: five thousand new cars go on the road every day in China. So you can call them tar sands or oil sands, but whatever you call them, China needs both our raw and unrefined fossil fuels to keep their cars running and their economy booming.

Theatre Conspiracy, under artistic producer Tim Carlson, is “committed to creating art that activates discussion on vital contemporary themes in the global conversation”, according to its mandate. With Enbridge lobbying hard for the Northern Gateway Pipeline project and Kinder Morgan Canada proposing twinning its present pipeline into its Burnaby terminal on Burrard Inlet, there could hardly be a more pressing conversation for British Columbians.

Former Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, who introduced China to the concept of market economy, famously said, “Zhifù guāngrong”, meaning “To get rich is glory.” Enbridge Inc. and Kinder Morgan Canada stand to get gloriously rich but at what price to the environment here and in China? Fact: Beijing recently experienced a ten-day traffic jam. And what everyone knows to be ‘smog’ in Beijing, the current Chinese regime officially calls ‘fog’.

Carlson, who created Extraction, chose three non-actors to talk about their real-life experience ostensibly with regard to the petroleum industry. That was the theory, anyway, but it really didn’t work out that way. Still, I was interested in what they had to say.

Sunny Sun was born in Mongolia, has a Master’s degree in computer science and worked in the IT industry in Beijing before moving to Vancouver. She rode her bike in Beijing until the ‘fog’ got too bad. She rode her bike in Vancouver until she was in an accident while riding. Jason Wilson is Dene and worked for a while up in Fort McMurray as a safety officer in the camps. He once earned $4200 for three days work up there. Zhifù guāngróng, indeed. The third performer was Jimmy Mitchell, an Albertan with a Master’s degree in Chinese History who worked in Shanghai and Taipei in the Canadian Foreign Service for a decade. In Excavation, Sun sometimes spoke English; sometimes Mandarin (with surtitles); Mitchell spoke both English and fluent Mandarin. And, amusingly, sometimes when Sun spoke English, Mitchell was speaking Mandarin. Not being actors, the performers were quite self-conscious with the exception of relaxed, boyish Mitchell who studied theatre for a while as a young man and it paid off.

And what in any language did they talk about? Not a lot about extraction, actually. But after advising us to keep our cellphones turned on but silenced, they ran a bunch of phone-in polls. “How many of you drove to the theatre in your car?” Text Y for ‘yes’ and N for ‘no’.” Fifty-four percent came by car. Thirty-nine percent had more than one language spoken at home. “Do you have someone in the house speaking a language you don’t understand?” “Have you lost your first language?” to which twelve percent said ‘yes’.

Facts and figures piled up but Extraction, despite worthy intentions, jumped from one subject to another. However, it didn’t hurt to be reminded that the Harper government claims to be opposed to foreign state-owned oil companies buying up Canadian companies yet China has invested thirty-five billion dollars in Canada in the last three years.

Simply, if somewhat statically staged by director Amiel Gladstone, Extraction was definitely made more theatrical by musician/composer Ron Samworth’s live music, ably – and exotically – aided by a multitude of curious instruments played by Randy Raine-Reusch.

It’s kind of ironic that Extraction was made possible by the $60,000 Rio Tinto Alcan Award won by Theatre Conspiracy. Alcan has been extracting minerals out of Canadian soil since 1902. Good to know, though, that while glorying in its riches, Rio Tinto Alcan support the arts.

Jimmy Mitchell, Sunny Sun and Jason Wilson Credit: Tim Matheson
Jimmy Mitchell, Sunny Sun and Jason Wilson
Credit: Tim Matheson