Inspired by the train derailment disaster that devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 and by the ongoing debates over the environmental and social impact of the Alberta oil sands and the transportation of oil in Canada, Lac/Athabasca takes audiences on a cross-Canada journey that begins in the Rocky Mountains and ends in a small town in northern New Brunswick.
The play’s cast of five actors—Rebekah Chassé, Jake Martin, Alex Donovan, Dani Brun, and Jean-Michel Cliche—each play several characters in a series of stories that range freely through time and space, but that all centre on rivers and railways that connect Canada from West to East, including a pair of nineteenth-century fur traders pursued by an unseen terror along Alberta’s Athabasca River; two scientists studying fish kills and cancer rates downstream from the tar sands; an oil worker who uncovers a horrible secret; and the residents of a small town united in grief after an entirely preventable disaster. While at first seemingly disconnected, the play’s multiple narrative strands are eventually woven together in ways that are shocking, thought-provoking, and deeply moving.
After premiering at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2014, Lac/Athabasca was selected for production at the 2015 SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto, where it attracted national media attention and earned rave reviews, including selections from NOW Magazine as one of its “Best of the Fest” and for “Best Ensemble.” The play received Second Prize in both the 2015 Herman Voaden National Playwriting Contest and the Ottawa Little Theatre National Playwriting Contest, awards that included workshop readings of the play in Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario. The play has also been performed in Fredericton (with NotaBle Acts Theatre Company), Sackville, NB (with Live Bait Theatre Company), and Saint John New Brunswick (with Saint John Theatre Company).
Lac/Athabasca was inspired by the disaster in Lac Mégantic, and out of a desire to create a work that viewed what occurred there within a larger geographical, economic, and social context. While it is based in actual facts (most true and provable, some disputed), the play is not a documentary, and freely melds fact with fiction. Although it draws on the chain of circumstances that occurred in Lac-Mégantic, some facts have been altered (including the origin of the oil on board the train) and any resemblance between characters in the play and real people is not intended. The play also melds events that took place in Lac-Mégantic with the setting and some circumstances surrounding subsequent oil train derailments that have occurred over the last two years in northern New Brunswick and Ontario, with part of the point being that similar accidents continue to occur. In the space of just two years after the play was first written, several monumental and quite unexpected events have occurred: Conservative governments in Ottawa and Edmonton have been replaced by the Liberals and NDP (!) respectively, the price of oil has collapsed, and a massive fire has ravaged Fort McMurray (putting a weirdly ironic real-world twist on the ending of the play). However, three years after the disaster, little has changed to prevent another Lac-Mégantic from happening, and issues surrounding how to best develop and transport our natural resources, our dependency on oil, and the environmental, social, and economic impacts of all of the above remain as pressing as ever.