The description of Claren Grosz’s new show caught my eye.
I love the smell of gasoline dives into Western alienation, the Canadian oil and gas machine and what it all means in the face of an environmental apocalypse.
Her title suggests the visceral relationship to the topic of an Albertan. If you’ve been reading Twitter or just following the news, it’s concerning, indeed a bit terrifying. Does Alberta want to separate? or do they just hate Ontario? Yes I’m intrigued. It’s an existential question for a Canadian.
But what kind of a sadist interviews the playwright just before her show opens? Me I suppose (here goes).
Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think at first glance, I’m more like my mother. We have the same smile and the same laugh. We’re both easy to make laugh. We’re both “bossy” and have strong feelings about how a dishwasher should be loaded. My mother nursed my love of art and fashion and reading fiction and picnics. I’d like to think I’m charming, fiery and fearless like her.
My father nursed my love of music with good lyrics, good design, hot dogs, and a general romanticism about day-to-day life. I would like to believe I inherited his ability to apply humour to anything, and his willingness to be the butt of a joke. I learned from him how to easily admit when I’m wrong, when I don’t know, when my mind has been changed.
From both of them I learned to work hard and offer hugs to the people who hurt me.
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do— both as a theatre artist and a math tutor— is that it’s challenging and involves building real relationships with people. I feel so lucky that in my work I get to genuinely connect with people while solving problems creatively.
The worst thing about theatre work is that so much of it is waiting for someone to give you permission to make your art. Something I don’t contend with in my visual arts practice where if I want to make something… I just do! But theatre involves so many people, and space, and resources. You need to be chosen— by granting bodies, by collaborators, by companies. One of the reasons I switched from being an actor to a director/producer upon graduating theatre school is because I could minimize the amount of waiting-for-permission, but there’s still a decent amount of it.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
King Princess. MUNA. The sound track/effects of Stardew Valley. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. The podcasts How to Save a Planet; The Big Story; and The Gray Area. Dogs in the Trinity Bellwoods off-leash bowl. The Calgary Flames, but only if my Dad takes me.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I’d really like to be able to salsa and two-step better. I know the basics. I wish I was fluent in French. I’m still working on that. And I wish I played an instrument. Not badly enough to learn, though.
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
The good answer: draw, go for walks, spend time in the sun with friends. The bad answer: binge entire seasons of tv shows in one sitting.
What was your first experience of theatre?
My earliest memory is playing the “stage manager” in a Christmas play about a Christmas play in grade five. I got to wear a sparkly holiday outfit and march around the stage with a clipboard and headset. This must have been quite formative because I still like to march around in sparkly outfits and lead rooms.
Do you believe in art as a vehicle for social change?
I think artists can definitely help incite social action. I do, however, have a bone to pick with a lot of activist art: it can be grim and oversimplified.
To incite action, art must take aim for our hearts. A lot of art utilizes rage, shock and despair in hopes that the audience then metabolizes this emotion into action. But despair and rage are notoriously difficult to metabolize! And I think, specifically around climate change, people are already aware ’n’ in despair. Art has this opportunity to also help us emotionally regulate. I leave some activist art and I feel helpless! I feel misunderstood! I feel guilty! Or I’m directing the feelings away from myself and feeling angry with those other complacent, evil humans! So one of the goals with my own play was to provide a space for us all to wade into how hard and complicated it is, to face both our fault and our helplessness together, and still come out the other end ready for action. I hope.
As a former westerner who got out do you think you have the pulse of Alberta as it is now and over the past decade of turmoil & struggle?
I barely feel like I have a sense of the Toronto pulse, let alone the Alberta pulse. Even when I was living in Alberta, I only had a sense of my own city, Calgary, and only a sense of my own socio-economic bubble. I’ve done my best to write this play in a way that honours the province without being an expert on it. I don’t assume I know what’s going on there and I think that actually allows me to be more sensitive and in tune. I’m going to be bold and say this approach works for people too. When I assume I do not and cannot fully understand my loved ones and the people around me, it allows me to be more curious and compassionate, especially when I disagree with them. When people make choices that initially make me recoil (for example, the Wexit movement), my first impulse is to think wait, there must be a piece to this puzzle I’m missing. In some ways I think this really serves me, and in others I think it makes me a little naive.
Pierre Trudeau and the federal government that set the rules for energy, have often been perceived as unfriendly, exploitive, of Alberta. How did you understand this relationship (to central Canada and the PM) when you were a child growing up out west?
As far as I absorbed as a child and teen (again, keeping in mind that I perhaps did not have my finger on the pulse), Albertans hated the Liberals and yes, I think this stems from Pierre Trudeau. Out West there is a strong distrust of the federal government, the same I see reflected in my own peers, but whereas in my circles the consensus seems to be ok, more, better funded government with more accountability, the general Albertan consensus seems to be ok, less government because there is no way to achieve accountability. There’s also a perception in Alberta that Ontario is biting the hand that feeds it— that is, accepting cashflow from Alberta through equalization payments while shaming it for the industry that provides that cashflow. There’s also small things that I imagine every province that isn’t Ontario feels. “Canadian” media is often actually Ontarian media. It’s run by Ontarians and focuses on Ontario. My Dad used to joke that the TV people would sooner play a rerun of the Maple Leafs game instead of show the live Flames game. Even when national media covers issues outside of Ontario, it’s from an outsider lens. I remember watching CBC’s national election coverage and it so obviously was taking place in Ottawa because they talked about other provinces in a tone of oh hmm… what’s going on over there.
When did you come to Ontario, and what ties (if any) do you currently maintain with Alberta?
I moved here in 2011 for university when I was 17. My parents and sister still live in Calgary, and I visit home twice a year. I think when I talk about Alberta, I mostly picture my immediate family. To me, they are home, wherever they are. And they are in Alberta!
Were you surprised to discover we –the denizens of Ontario—weren’t the way popular mythology portrays us back out west..? OR Were we precisely as you expected?
I’m thinking of the Rick Mercer Report: Special Report on Toronto Snow, in which he makes a heavy Toronto snowfall out to be a national crisis.
This bit of satire does feel apt. My parents and I have a running joke that Toronto is the self-appointed centre of the universe. There’s some laughable truth to it, and I say this with great affection as someone who now identifies as a Torontonian and also fits the stereotype— a little self-righteous and a little out of touch with the rest of the country. But hey, you kind of get to be that way when you make up a third of the nation’s population, as Southern Ontario does!
You describe your show I Love the Smell of Gasoline this way:
Overhead projection meets performative research essay meets personal narrative as Claren attempts to reconcile her Alberta oil-industry roots with the current environmental emergency. The project was born of a frustration with divisive Canadian politics, rampant hypocrisy, and a lack of team spirit when facing impending doom. It unpacks some of the forces that drive global warming and Western alienation in a personal account of what it is to live in a modern, capitalist environment, be a self-serving organism, and also care about the earth and fellow creature kind. What does it really mean to sacrifice and to survive? How can we harness our agency and responsibility in a global crisis?
Should we expect you to challenge us in the theatre?
Yes, I think so. I hope it pokes holes in people’s worldviews, opens them to the idea that maybe there’s a lot more going on than they can possibly understand.
That’s how I felt building the play, anyways. The more I researched, the less I knew. The show might challenge some people to grieve. I hope it challenges people to switch from an us vs. them mentality to an us vs. the problem mentality. I hope it challenges us to ditch the guilt and lean into problem solving. Perhaps that’s too grandiose for a little 75 minute solo show. Definitely the audience will join me on my own journey as I roll out research, arguments and statistics, as I tell quippy first date stories, as I recall important familial memories, as I explore poetic and existential questions I have about our place in the universe.
How did you handle the pandemic, both professionally & personally?
Kurt Vonnegut has said that “we are here on Earth to fart around,” and I really embraced this in the pandemic. I committed to filling my days with the most mundane things. Walks. Taking note of how the sun reached different parts of my room as the months went on. Quite literally sitting with my chin on the porch railing and watching the garden grow. I’d sit there for an hour, gazing at the plants, thinking about possibilities and watching bees. Once a man walked by twice within 30 minutes and on his return trip he commented “has anything grown since you’ve been watching?” and we shared a neighbourly laugh.
Puttering is a privilege. I was blessed with financial stability, an amazing roommate, and deep friendships that still felt fulfilling through three hour phone calls. I didn’t have any projects that were slashed because of the pandemic. Part of my personal sense of activism is to prioritize joy and also to prioritize puttering. For everyone!
Do you have any influences you’d like to acknowledge?
An artist and poet and tremendous friend who regularly inspires me is Jessica Hiemstra (who also made us some beautiful plastic bag installations to compliment Echo Zhou’s set for I love the smell of gasoline). I like the way her work makes room for multiplicity and complication. I like the way she looks at the world. She wrote to me in an email that with this play I “hold our hope and despair in one hand,” and perhaps I actually learned to do this from— or at least alongside— her.
You can discover more about Claren’s collective — Pencil Kit Productions—and their commitment to exciting theatre through their website.
Their next show is I love the smell of gasoline at Aki Studio Theatre 585 Dundas Street East running from Thursday March 9th to Sunday March 19th. For tickets click here.