Culture, oil sand and the markers of change

We live in one of the fastest growing regions in the country. The growth the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) has gone through in the past decade is almost impossible to quantify. The growth that the oil sands region is about to go through again will be “unlike anything we have seen before,” according to Jeff Fitzner, President of the Casman Group of Companies, also the recently appointed Chair of the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games organizing committee.

The question of how culture helps define and understand change in this place that just over 100,000 of us call home is interesting. One would think that in a community that has expanded by over 100 percent in the past decade (2000 – 2010), cultural facilities and activities would have followed a similar exponential growth path. That is not the case according to homegrown actor and playwright Jeff Hoffman, who won three awards at this year’s ADFA Provincial One-Act Play Festival for his original creation of One Man Macbeth.

“The world of theatre has grown and shrunk over the course of my years in Fort McMurray,” he said. “Many brilliant artists come and go. Since there is a lack of professional opportunities for them, artists have a hard time developing roots here, so their stay tends to be notoriously brief.”

So interestingly, the inflow and outflow of artists mirrors the transiency inherent to Wood Buffalo.

According to Alan Roberts, Director of the Theatre & Arts Centre at Keyano College and a leader in the cultural sector since he arrived in Fort McMurray in 1988, growth and development in the arts has waxed and waned over the years.

“When I first arrived I was embraced right away by an active, thriving local theatre community,” said Roberts. “As a newcomer I was amazed at what Fort McMurray had to offer.”

Roberts has seen the vibrancy of the arts scene go up and down, related somewhat to tumultuous economic changes, but also to the human dynamics that define the scene.

“We made some choices to move into the direction of being more of a professional theatre a number of years ago,” shares Alan. “That may not have been the best choice as we lost a lot of strength in our community theatre base. I think this is changing, that we’re heading down a better path now that will allow our theatre community, as an example, to grow.”

Part of the challenge in developing a community and indie theatre scene is the high cost and low availability of space. The lack of places to practice your craft and share it with others is a consistent theme across all artistic disciplines.

As the infrastructure catch-up game continues across the region, attempting to close the gap created during the lean and mean Klein years, improvements are coming into focus just beyond the horizon. Keyano College has struggled to manage increased demand on its cultural and performance venues, often apologizing for a lack of available space and resources to meet the need. Only this month, a new facility has opened as part of the Holy Trinity Catholic High School.

The need for cultural investment is not lost on the municipal government, which has recently added a culture branch to its operations.

“The expression of wants and needs from the community itself led to much of the growth in the RMWB culture portfolio,” said Leigh Agozzino-Organ, Culture Supervisor. “The Municipality’s commitment and support has bolstered a sense of optimism amongst the arts community. This increased capacity has enabled the amplification of voices from within the cultural sector.”

Cultural activities and diverse styles of artistic expression have brilliantly marked the change from being a relatively homogenous region to being one that is incredibly multi-cultural. In step with the influx of new Canadians from countries like Pakistan, India, Philippines, Venezuela, and Somalia, new-to-us forms of dance, music, visual art and theatre have been popping up more frequently.

An excellent example of this is the one-act play Rubbish that became a runaway sensation at the annual interPLAY Festival. According to director Michael Beamish, a trained theatre artist working as a student recruiter for Keyano College, new Canadians provide amazing collaboration opportunities.

“With Rubbish I was able to work with Francis Mennigke, a physical theatre artist from South Africa,” he said. “We were able to combine our different cultural experiences to make an award winning show. He was able to expose me to a completely new type of theatre that could only have happened in a culturally diverse place such as Fort McMurray.”

As a theatre patron I was completely blown away by Rubbish. I would stack it up against any production I’ve seen here in Fort McMurray or anywhere else in the world for that matter. An actor and writer from the southern tip of Africa, an Aboriginal actor whose family has lived in Wood Buffalo for generations, and a director who grew up on an Alberta farm created a theatre piece that was completely compelling and unique, with only the clothes on their backs and two pools of light.

The problem remains though as to how to engender a sense of artistic permanency to a community that is so isolated, transitory, and constantly in a state of perpetual motion and flux.

“I see huge potential in Fort McMurray for artistic growth,” said Beamish. “That’s why I moved up here."

This sense of optimism pervades through the hallways at the RMWB.

“There is so much potential in our community to build capacity in the cultural sector,” said Agozzino. “The creation of formalized cultural foundations, such as arts councils, policies and stable cultural funding structures, are imperative to continuing the energy and growth in the arts.”

Much like the bold dream of the oil sands and the economic promise it provides containing the second largest supply of recoverable oil on the planet, culture in the north stands ready to evolve, explode and explore the far reaches of creative possibility.

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