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  • Good Fences's Scripted Truths:Cultivating Dialogue in Post-Real Times
  • Kelsey Jacobson (bio)

"Everything is true. Some things are scripted, and some things are not," says Artistic Director Ellen Close in response to an audience member's question asking how much of the show Good Fences is real. This type of question, and those similar to it, inquiring about what was true, how much was real, or how the actors really felt was invariably a part of each talkback of the performances I attended on the show's 2015 community tour across Southern Alberta. Produced by the Downstage Theatre company, Good Fences follows the story of Devon, an executive at an oil and gas company whose family has recently purchased land in a ranching community outside of Calgary. Another oil and gas company decides to build a sour gas pipeline through Devon's new property, and he begins to meet and organize an opposition with the local ranchers, including his neighbour, Caroline, a woman whose family has had a ranch in the area for generations. This fictional narrative is punctuated by moments in which the actors directly address the audience as themselves, revealing the creative process and sharing stories about their experiences making the show.

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The bituminous sands near Mildred Lake, Alberta. These kinds of images are turned into memes for use on both sides of the debate: to showcase the negative effects of the oil industry, or to be used in comparison with other, more environmentally degrading industries like copper mining.

Photo by TastyCakes, colour by Jamitzky. Wiki Commons; Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Good Fences was created by the Downstage ensemble of Ellen Close, Ethan Cole, Col Cseke, Anton de Groot, Nicola Elson, Braden Griffiths, and Simon Mallett, and was based on interviews with ranchers, oil workers, and other Albertans. Though the show uses interviews with real-world individuals, the creators do not classify it as verbatim or documentary theatre. Further, though the cast members play themselves at various moments in which they describe their experience of creating the show, they also do not perceive the play to be autobiographical. Instead, as Close explained, "There's nothing verbatim in the show, and it's not documentary theatre, and actually everything is quite carefully fictionalized from—taken a step or two from real people that we met" (Close et al.).

By avoiding classification, Good Fences manages to engage with multiple 'reals' rather than only one; it may feature elements of each of the aforementioned modes of theatre of the real. The show's 2015 community tour also made use of a careful curation of multi-use space through performances in town halls, community centres, and post-secondary schools. A multiplicity of times is also presented, in both the fictional narrative and the metatheatrical moments of direct address. Taken together, the multitude of forms of theatre of the real, the multi-use space, and the multiplicity of times result in the presentation of a multiplicity of truths. It is important here to make a distinction between the real and truth: I consider realness to be a quality of method and aesthetics, whereas I use 'truth' to refer to a quality of accuracy or fairness in the representation of an issue. Rather than attempting to be factually true in the sense of a singular dominant objective perspective, the presentation of a multiplicity of truths contributes to a persistent unresolved, fragmentary, unstable, and entirely subjective presentation. This indeterminacy is, I will argue, ideal for a company whose mandate, according to their website, is to "create meaningful conversation," as they tackle a highly contentious, often hotly debated issue in Alberta's provincial politics. [End Page 8]

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Wickenden Hall, in the United Church of Calgary, AB, is set up for a performance of Good Fences, March 2015.

Photo by Ellen Close

In an economy so dominated by one industry, aspects of day-to-day life in Alberta, including the arts, are bound up with the rise and fall of oil prices. The show premiered at a festival titled the "Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays" in 2012, Enbridge being...


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