In an upcoming episode of Theatre New Brunswick’s podcast Behind the Play, Fredericton playwright Len Falkenstein shares the story behind his new play Wood Buffalo which makes its world premiere with TNB this fall.
Len Falkenstein is a bit of a theatre superhero. By day, he is the Director of Drama at the University of New Brunswick. By night, he is the Artistic Director of both Bard in the Barracks and the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival. All three of these endeavours are linked by his passion for encouraging new and emerging theatre artists. For these reasons alone, it’s no exaggeration to call Falkenstein Fredericton’s most influential theatre artist.
But his commitment to the craft doesn’t end there. He also finds the time to work on his own art as a playwright. His plays have been staged at Toronto’s SummerWorks Performance Festival and at fringe festivals across Canada, and his play Lac/Athabasca was published by Playwright’s Canada Press in 2018. One of the few items missing from his staggering list of accomplishments is a professional production of his work. But that will all change this fall when Theatre New Brunswick produce the world premiere of his new play, Wood Buffalo, a story that combines two of Falkenstein’s greatest passions – theatre and environmental stewardship.
“The play is largely about the need for change,” said Falkenstein, speaking on an upcoming episode of Theatre New Brunswick’s podcast, Behind the Play. “We’ve created an industry that is in many ways killing us. We need to transition out of fossil fuels, and we need to entirely change the way that we live, pretty radically, if we’re going to have a civilization a few generations from now. But of course, for human beings, change is one of the hardest things to do.
You know what else is hard to do? Writing a play about environmental issues that can stand on its own as an engaging story and not simply come across as another preachy, oil is bad, narrative. But that’s just what Frankenstein has done with Wood Buffalo.
Drawing on his own experience growing up in Western Canada watching oil production’s rapid expansion and following some of the themes touched on in Lac/Athabasca, Falkenstein has crafted a diverse environment populated by a multitude of characters from all sides and opinions. This melting pot approach gives the play an exciting and dynamic voice while also reflecting the current population of Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region.
The play’s origins go back to 2018 when Falkenstein was TNB’s playwright in residence. At the time, he was hesitant to pitch a story about Alberta as a focus of his residency to a company largely dedicated to New Brunswick stories. But he received nothing but encouragement from Thomas Morgan Jones, TNB’s previous Artistic Director, and so he set to work on a playwriting adventure that would continue for the next five years.
“I’m a bit of a political animal and an environmentalist,” said Falkenstein. “If you are political and into the environment, the oil industry in Canada and Fort McMurray and everything that it represents is at the centre of everything. So, I thought if I’m going to be true to what my interests are and if I want to write a play that is about Canada and the climate crisis and how we’re all part of that, Wood Buffalo, which is the region where Fort MacMurray is, would be a good place to start.”
Over the past five years, Falkenstein has traveled to Fort McMurray more than once to research the story. Early drafts of the script were workshopped at Humber College in Ontario and later as part of TNB’s Fall Festival of New Plays.
“The play really came out of a few trips I made to Fort McMurray,” said Falkenstein. “So many of the characters and locations and scenes are a result of people I spoke with while I was there. In some ways, the fictional characters that I had have been shaped subsequently by meeting their real-life equivalents.
“It’s been in development for four or five years. The pandemic interrupted plans for the production here, but I am so thrilled that it is finally happening and all these strange and wonderful things that have been in my head for so long are actually going to come to life on stage. It’s a pretty fantastic moment for me,” he said.
Wood Buffalo will make its world premiere at the Open Space Theatre November 8-12, before touring the province. Tickets for are on sale now.