Oil City, part of ArtsAdmin Two Degrees festival (June 2013) is a site-specific immersive piece by Platform, taking place in and around the City (London’s financial district), merging fictional characters with real locations in a story about the very real ecologically devastating but financially rewarding Alberta tar sands. An audience of six are asked to be intermediaries between a lawyer with a hutch about an oil deal, a journalist trying to uncover the truth, the whistle blower from inside big oil, a banker trying to keep it all quiet, a Canadian activist trying to protect her people’s land, and a cleaner with access to damning information. This interactive performance blurs the line between reality and fiction. The specifics of the performance are fictional but the locations and the major players (Royal Bank of Scotland, Canadian government and UK government) are real. The audience talks to, follows and spies on actors around the City surrounded by actual bankers, lawyers and journals. At one point, the Canadian activist leads the audience past the RBS offices and points out that is the place where the tar sands deal was signed. This blurring or layering of theatrical fiction with reality allows the audience access to the issues and world of the piece in a unique way. This structure creates an investment for the audience as they are given tasks to complete and are positioned as central figures in the story. It also reframes the City, as the audience are asked to look like they blend in but also to be suspicious and make sure they are not followed. Innocent passers-by are scrutinized as potential suspects, buildings are seen as the home of underhanded deals; everybody could potentially be involved. This re-framing also acted as a way of disclosing ecological relationships because in way everyone is involved in this story. We are all consumers of oil and petroleum-based products and it is this insatiable demand that has lead to the tar sands oil extraction. There are clear villains in the performance (big oil and banks) but you come away feeling that we are all accountable in some way. This feeling is in part facilitated by the dramaturgical device of having the actor’s play multiple roles so that the same actor plays both a banker and a cleaner, for example. During an informal chat with my fellow audience members after the performance, they said the interactive structure made them much more invested in the issues of the piece. Not only did it raise awareness about the way oil is being extracted at great ecological expense, it provided an phenomenological experience of the story in a way no news article could. By taking place in the literal spaces where the deals are struck and financial rewards are reaped, the non-fictional circumstances took on a new significance. The performance also took a seemingly foreign problem and disclosed the UK’s involvement, compliance and profits. The Canadian activist told the audience a very personal story about the significance the of the land of the tar sands to First Nation’s people of Canada which had a lot of resonance and was commented on as a side of the story not heard much, especially in the UK media. My fellow audience members said they would be interested in following the real story of the tar sands after the performance as they felt they were now invested in it.
Oil City is running from June 10-21, 2013 as part of the Two Degrees Festival at ArtsAdmin.