In Conversation with Kevin Matthew Wong, Co-Creator of THE CHEMICAL VALLEY PROJECT at SummerWorks
Interview by Brittany Kay
Kevin Matthew Wong is known to have his creative hands in a lot of things. A creator/actor/director/musician/producer/artistic director/environmentalist… this man is one of the busiest working artists in the city and for good reason. The environmental work and passion he brings to the Toronto theatre community is incredibly important, urgent and inspiring. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Kevin to discuss his current piece The Chemical Valley Project on stage now at the SummerWorks Performance Festival.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show.
Kevin Matthew Wong: The Chemical Valley Project is a show about the Sarnia Chemical Valley and its impact on the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve, which is a community of 800 people that is surrounded by Canadian and American petrochemical factories. On the Canadian side, those factories represent 40% of all of the petrochemical industry in this country… so it’s a very small community with huge health impacts from these factories.
BK: How did this project come about?
KMW: I’ve known about the Chemical Valley for 3 or 4 years now. I’ve thought about creating theatre about it, but I didn’t know if it was right. I didn’t really have an “in”. What did I have to say about it?
I had also been thinking about documentary theatre recently and from our last show Bite-Sized, I think the strongest parts of it were the parts that were based in docu-theatre. I was lucky enough to meet with Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, who are two climate activists but also land defenders and water protectors from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. They’re incredible and they do such important work. I met them last year on my first visit to the Chemical Valley. I went to talks that they were on the panels for and did my research on them. Finally I got the courage to contact Vanessa and say, “Hey, do you want to just chat about what you do and your work?” I didn’t know it was going to be a theatre thing yet.
BK: It never hurts to reach out. It can create relationships and new working opportunities.
KMW: Exactly. Now we’re good acquaintances… I daresay friends! That was only just a year ago.
KMW: Yeah. it’s crazy. It’s been so fast. It’s a piece about so many things beyond just that base narrative… It’s about reconciliation of how this community gives people an in for understanding wider things about how Indigenous people and settlers interact in this country. How this story, in a settler or white community, would be totally different than what it is right now with an Indigenous community. There are tons of these stories that we aren’t able to tell in the show as it’s only 30 minutes long.
BK: It’s only 30 minutes?
KMW: Yeah! We’re in a double bill with a comedy magic show called Perfection, but for us it’s a step. We didn’t know that we were going to get into SummerWorks. We didn’t know that the piece would develop as quickly. We didn’t know that people would respond to it so strongly. People who I’ve never met have come up to me and said, “I saw your piece and I remember it and it’s making me think and want to do more.” It’s really timely.
BK: How has Vanessa and Lindsay Gray helped your piece dramaturgically?
KMW: They are a part of it. They appear through the show. You hear their words and see them. They have advised on the way that this story should be told and what’s missing. Every time we have a new version of the piece, we show them. We want to honour their words. The climate right now, artistically, is so much about voice. Of course co-creator Julia [Howman] and I are hyper-conscious of that.
BK: How did you first discover The Sarnia Chemical Valley?
KMW: I’m going to preface with the fact that I think a lot of our conversations on environment are very vague. They’re about degrees of warming and CO2 and methane and those are sort of abstract. A lot of the coverage we get on the environment is very American still. America pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and we’re all doomed. Per capita we have a huge impact in this country.
I stumbled upon a Vice documentary that talked about the Chemical Valley and Vanessa Gray was actually in it, but I didn’t put two and two together until we met. I also learned about the Valley following this major legal battle that Vanessa and two of her friends were involved in – she was dealing with it when I reconnected with her. I wanted to make sure people in the theatre community knew about this issue and unjust charge. That story is part of the show so I don’t want to give too much away.
BK: And what are petrochemicals for some people that aren’t as environmentally savvy?
KMW: They are compounds that are created from petrol. Chemical compounds made from petroleum.
BK: How do they affect our health?
KMW: They’re used for tons of things. In part of the show, there’s like a Ted-Talk-y/info-graph section describing and educating about different petrochemicals. For example, there are chemicals called styrene, which is used for Styrofoam and plastics. Petrochemicals are everywhere and in our everyday lives. Part of the show is about the way that we live our lives and how the way that we live creates a necessity for these products. I don’t imply that they’re essential. I think the playwriting is sort of cautious and conscious in that way. I don’t want to suggest that there’s no way to get away from them. It’s a big issue.
BK: An issue also affecting the Aamjiwnaang First Nations Reserve?
KMW: Yes. It’s about the settlement and placement of this community in one location, when, historically, they are traditional people of the water. They’re not stationary. But with the Reserve system, Indigenous people are told to stay on the land that “we tell you that you own and furthermore the traditional lands that you take care of, we have treaties that you might not have even understood when they were signed, that form the legal basis of this country” which are also are very manipulative and sneaky.
BK: Why is being close to these factories unsafe?
KMW: In short, it has to do with leaks. I bumped into Trevor Schwellnus, the lighting designer, the other day and I mentioned this project to him and he said, “ Oh yeah, when I was a kid one of my buddies swam in the Sarnia blob.” The Sarnia blob was this oil spill into the water that took a lot of lobbying to clean up and it was there for years. That’s just one example of a very obvious spill. Spills are also not just liquid, there are also airborne spills.
It’s very hard for these chemical factories to track these spills and very often it is the community that tracks them and warns everybody else. One of the most tragic and impactful stories that I learned about was this spill of benzene into the air. They didn’t let people know about it and kids that were playing outside were affected by the spill and one child developed leukemia and passed away. It’s frightening when it’s the job of the Chief to go house to house to say what is happening, to stay in your house and to listen to the radio for the code for what type of spill it is, what the direction is, and the wind speed. All of those things impact your day-to-day life.
BK: That’s really scary.
KMW: The Chemical Valley is the sight of chemical activity AND legal action. It’s not only about the health effects but also about inequity.
BK: Yes, you use a wonderful term in your show description: Environmental Racism.
KMW: It’s not a term that people are using right now very often. It is quite particular in this country.
BK: Your piece uses projections and miniature object puppetry. Can you talk about this a bit?
KMW: I think people are interested in this visual style. It’s something I’ve been working on for the past three years and refining until this point. I’m very lucky to have Julia Howman as my co-creator and as the person who is creating these visuals with me. All of the projections take place on only two surfaces. One is the back wall of the theatre and the other is a sheet. The sheet is completely moveable. I manipulate it in different places in the theatre and different orientations. I’m not interested in seeing something on a screen. I’m so tired of people projecting something on the cyc and it’s flat. I can go home and watch a video on Vimeo. That’s not interesting to me. There are a lot of projections that are unsatisfying. Instead, what is it about the liveness of it that you can play with? The visual style, I hope, is augmenting that liveness and also giving you projections in a way that you don’t usually see them and also giving them to you in a way that they’re interacting with physical objects.
A projector is a light. We love staring at campfires. We love moving light. Moving light is this primal thing. Moving light and movement is a way for us to incorporate elemental things and even though you’re in this black box theatre space, we want you to have a little hint of the magic of nature.
The miniature objects are different important objects that we interacted with on our way to creating the piece. Those are about scale. I’m always interested in seeing things in two scales at once, if possible, because to put claim to being environmentally conscious is about seeing things in a different scale.
BK: Oh, that was a beautiful line you just said.
KMW: It’s not just that these objects are cool, but it’s about us begging you to see things and re-examine them differently.
BK: How did you get into environmental theatre?
KMW: It depends how far you want to go back… like [back when I saw] Pocahontas?
BK: What made you want to create and learn more and develop a whole theatre company based on environmentalism?
KMW: I think it started in high school. I ran both the environmental club and the theatre club. Very nerdy. But they never crossed paths. One very formative part of running the environmental club was going to town hall meetings and hearing about this thing called the Food Belt in Markham. That was about trying to protect land north of a certain street and make sure that further housing development didn’t happen because the best farmland in Canada is found half an hour away from Toronto. It was hearing the two sides of the coin at these meetings that made me realize that any piece of art that relates to the environment can’t be this one-sided thing.
In my second year at UofT, I had a conversation with a peer of mine, Nathaniel Rose, about making art that was based on environmental issues. We were in acting class and we loved the training that we were doing, but the Canadian classic plays where our scenes were from didn’t relate to the issues we found most urgent, which were environmental issues in this country. From that, we created our first piece, which was called The Broadleaf Plays. We’ve always had shitty titles (he laughs). They’re very blatant.
That became a project called Bite-Sized, which we presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year. The concept of that was how do we connect with younger, millennial audiences in presenting short bits of engaging stuff, which became 18 plays in 60 minutes with all things that related to Canadian environmental issues.
BK: What and who is Broadleaf Theatre?
KMW: Broadleaf Theatre creates works based on local, national and global environmental issues. Broadleaf Theatre is whoever’s interacting with the company and whoever has interacted with our company and really all of the people who come to see the work. One thing about the environmental movement is that it’s very disparate. It happens in little chunks of leadership and community. You know… grassroots. When everyone is doing their own thing, that’s the movement. It’s not some top-heavy thing. What Broadleaf Theatre is, and who it is, is changing a lot. Of course I would definitely shout out Mirka Loiselle who is our associate producer and Angela Sun and who does the social networking for the company.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
KMW: Conversation… Conversation. I would love for them to join us at the Aamjiwnaang Water Gathering.
BK: Tell me more!?
KMW: It’s a beautiful event. It’s a weekend in Aamjiwnaang. There are classes on Anishinaabe culture and beliefs and the sacredness of water. It happens on August 18th-20th. It’s all free and accessible…they even provide free childcare. You can camp if you want to. It’s also where the Toxic Tour happens, where you go on a school bus with Vanessa or Lindsay and they will tell you about all the factories and history of the land.
KMW: It’s a wonderful event that I can’t stress enough. I think one of the big things about this show is that it’s always related to a real ask in the world. It doesn’t finish. One of the parts of the show that I’m still writing is this sort of meta thing… it’s not finished because it’s not. We want to have a longer version and more of the threads to go further, but it’s also not finished until you do something and even when you do something it’s still not really finished. That line is so blurry. Now that you know about this thing, the show is you, isn’t it? The show is whatever you make of it, whatever you do with it. Hopefully people engage with us, support Vanessa and Lindsay and learn about the traditional keepers of this land and the protocols of the land.
BK: Any shows you are looking forward to see at SummerWorks?
Rapid Fire Question Round:
Favourite food: Sushi
Favourite movie: Whatever documentary I’m thinking about in the moment.
Favourite play: Cock by Mark Bartlett.
Favourite book: The Giving Tree.
Favourite place in Toronto: The waterfront.
Inspiration when creating: Visual Art and just seeing as many plays as I can.
Best advice or mantra: Just do it. Just do the work.
The Chemical Valley Project
Company: Broadleaf Theatre
Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Dramaturgy by Vanessa Gray and Lindsay Gray
Produced by Kevin Matthew Wong
Associate Produced by Mirka Loiselle
Music by Minha Lee and Michael Henley.
Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin and Julia document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial past and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.
Chemical Valley Project is part of a double bill with Perfection.
Pia Bouman – Scotiabank Studio Theatre
6 Noble Street, Toronto, ON
Friday August 11th 6:00pm – 7:15pm
Saturday August 12th 1:45pm – 3:00pm
Sunday August 13th 6:30pm – 7:45pm