Theatre production brings intercultural work to the Cultch

Tim Carlson (left) and Jimmy Mitchell (right) helped bring Extraction to the Cultch. Photo courtesy of The Cultch

Tim Carlson (left) and Jimmy Mitchell (right) helped bring Extraction to the Cultch. Photo courtesy of The Cultch

Vancouver writer and producer Tim Carlson, 49, is using documentary theatre to compare China and Fort McMurray in his new play, Extraction, premiering March 5 at The Cultch.

Instead of actors, people from China and Fort McMurray will share their real life stories. They will touch on themes ranging from living in a boomtown to Chinese and Canadian relations to reliance on oil.

“When I was a kid, Alberta and China couldn’t have been further apart or have less in common,” says Carlson, who grew up in Alberta. “Three years ago was the first time it kind of clicked for me that China was bringing a lot of money to the oil sands.”

During research and casting trips to Fort McMurray and Beijing, Carlson found similarities in the two locations. They are both examples of modern day boomtowns.

“They are full of economic possibilities and places you go to make your life better,” he says.

Carlson says both places are also known for their pollution, traffic jams and have their share of critics. He says the media often gives polarized commentary on China and the oil sands.

“I think what we can offer up in this documentary theatre piece are stories and personal elements to get beneath the surface of the heated debates and make it more human. You don’t hear about the people on the ground, and how their lives are transformed by these things,” he says.

Carlson says his approach to this type of storytelling is influenced by Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll, which uses non-actors to tell real stories in a theatrical setting – often with political themes.

Jimmy Mitchell, 49, is a key consultant to the production and one of the characters who will share his stories on stage. He’s known Carlson since high school, and lived in China for over 20 years as a journalist and Canadian diplomat. He also earned his Master’s degree in Chinese History and speaks Mandarin.

Mitchell says it’s important to use real people in the play instead of actors because it allows for a greater sense of honesty.

“They are my stories and as long as I’m alive, I want to tell them. I don’t want some actor telling my stories,” says Mitchell.

For Mitchell, documentary theatre allows audiences to engage more intimately with performers.

“They know it’s not just some dude who has some lines memorized, but it’s a story coming from that person,” he notes.

One of the plot lines in the play is inspired by the infamous 10-day traffic jam in Beijing. One of the people in the play tells the story of being caught in a traffic jam during heavy snow in Beijing and everything that happened to her during the afternoon and evening trying to get home.

“We were interested in that [traffic jam story] because it was a great boomtown metaphor and both Beijing and Fort Mac share that currently. And it’s kind of an end product of oil,” Carlson says.

“That’s not to say oil is bad,” says Mitchell, who now resides in Vancouver and is the VP of Business Development at AdvantageBC, a company that encourages international business in B.C.  “It’s just to say let’s look at what’s going on.”

Extraction is put on by local company Theatre Conspiracy where Carlson is also artistic producer.  Part of their mandate is to produce plays that “speak beyond borders.” Extraction will use both Mandarin and English, but won’t rely on subtitles.

“I think it’s kind of interesting that a theatre audience with different first languages can come together and understand the play at the end without necessarily understanding each moment,” says Carlson.

Last year Theatre Conspiracy was awarded the Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award.  The B.C. award was worth $60, 000 and administered by the Cultch. The money helped fund the researching and work shopping of the play.

The play has caught the attention of Canadian cities and other countries.  They have an invite to take the play to Fort McMurray in August. As well, Australia, Iceland and other European countries have expressed interest in the production.


Extraction premieres March 5 at The Cultch. ​