LISTEN: Elter hits the stage with dark comedy about Fort McMurray fire

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019 10:46am


Image Caption

Sheldon Elter


“That’s what he’s striving for, to find balance in his own life. His mind changes and is open to a more spiritual calling. He starts to see new things. That element adds to the magical realism that happens in Matt’s plays.” — Sheldon Elter
By Sam Laskaris Contributor
With files from Jeremey Harpe of CJWE-FM


After the fire

There’s been a number of revisions and even a name change, but after almost two decades since he first started writing the play, Edmonton playwright Matt MacKenzie, (Metis) is gearing up for the world premiere of “After The Fire”.

Opening night at The Theatre Centre in Toronto is set for this Thursday, Jan. 10. Eight other performances are scheduled. It will be held nightly until Jan. 19, excluding Jan. 13. The play is also scheduled to have an Edmonton run this spring, from late March until early April. And performances will be staged in a number of other Alberta communities, including Maskwacis, Canmore, Saddle Lake and Morley.

“After the Fire”, a 90-minute dark comedy, revolves around a pair of couples in the Alberta city of Fort McMurray. The couples are trying to put their lives back together after the devastating 2016 wildfire that destroyed large parts of the city.

The massive fire was national news for several weeks.

“I think having a bit of distance from it now has allowed us to take some more risks,” MacKenzie said of his play.

The Fort McMurray wildfire burned for more than three months and spread to other parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. About 100,000 people from Fort McMurray and surrounding areas were evacuated from their homes. It is estimated about 20 per cent of the homes in Fort McMurray were destroyed by the fire.

When the wildfire began in May 2016, MacKenzie was putting some finishing touches on his play titled “Bust”, which he first started back in 2000. This play was about the downturn the oil industry had taken in Fort McMurray.

“The fire happened as I was writing “Bust” and I thought ‘holy cow, I can’t ignore this’,” said MacKenzie.

“Bust” had originally been penciled in to play at an Edmonton theatre during the summer of 2016. Those plans were put on hold as MacKenzie was forced to do a rewrite, incorporating details of the devastating wildfire which hit Fort McMurray.

“Bust” then had a number of performances in Edmonton, starting in February of 2017.

Following some more rewrites, “Bust” was renamed “After the Fire”.

MacKenzie anticipates audiences will have varying reactions to the play, especially since there are some cultural references tossed in.

“I think different things will resonate with people,” said MacKenzie, a graduate of the playwriting program at Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada.

Besides MacKenzie, “After the Fire” has a number of other Indigenous connections.

The two male leads of the play for the Toronto production are Sheldon Elter and Jesse Gervais, both Metis.

Also, the play is co-produced by Punctuate! Theatre, an Edmonton-based company that features MacKenzie as its artistic director.

The play is co-produced by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Theatre Centre.

For Elter, appearing in “After the Fire” gives him another opportunity to perform in a MacKenzie-written play.

Last year he was the lead in the multiple award-winning play “Bears”, also a dark comedy which explores Canada’s controversial pipeline issues.

“He finds this way to explore the dark humour of these very serious topics,” Elter said of MacKenzie.

In “After the Fire”, Elter plays Barry, a Metis man who is having an identity crisis dealing with the fire and economic downturn in his hometown of Fort McMurray.

Despite its comedic moments, Elter praises MacKenzie for the way the play was written –mentioning the misfortunes but not making fun of working class people.

Elter’s character has a life-altering moment in the play after he finds a two-headed chickadee. He takes in the chickadee as he feels it is a good omen, pleased this bird can see different ways with its two heads.

“That’s what he’s striving for, to find balance in his own life,” Elter said of his character. “His mind changes and is open to a more spiritual calling. He starts to see new things. That element adds to the magical realism that happens in Matt’s plays.”

The set of “After The Fire” is comprised of dirt, Elter told Jeremy Harpe of CJWE 88.1 FM. He says the play delves into the balance of providing for family while not ignoring responsibilities to the earth and Indigenous heritage.

MacKenzie is well-known for his unapologetic approach to writing about pipeline politics. “Bears” will be at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in February. It will also feature Elter again.

In “Bears”, Elter plays a Metis pipefitter “who is on the run from corporate hired mercenaries and the RCMP, travelling along the Trans Mountain pipeline on his way to the B.C. coast as he’s slowly turning into a bear.”