Arts and Culture

Defying Fear of Censorship, Theatre Companies Act

After 'Proud' play satirizing Harper government was nixed in Toronto, nine cities hold readings. This Sunday in Vancouver.

By Shannon Rupp 21 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

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'We need to be careful not to succumb to a culture of fear,' says David Bloom, director of Vancouver's 'Proud' staging.

There's an old saying in journalism that news is what they don't want you to know, and it turns out that something similar is true of theatre -- the art that really counts is the stuff they try to censor.

In this case "they" may (or may not) be the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), and the stuff defiantly being staged in Vancouver this Sunday evening is supposedly censored playwright Michael Healey's controversial play Proud. It features a controlling character named The Prime Minister, and Healey makes it clear he's skewering Stephen Harper. It's one of at least nine* protest readings done across the country.

Healey made headlines earlier this year when he quit his 11-year gig as playwright-in-residence with Toronto's Tarragon Theatre after the board of directors declined to produce his third play in a trilogy about being Canadian. The play is set in the PMO immediately after the last election, and features The Prime Minister in an imaginary conversation with staff. The official reason Tarragon turned down the play was that they worried about defaming Harper.

The playwright consulted a libel lawyer and was assured the board's fears were groundless -- as obvious satire, the play meets the test for fair comment. Then Healey spoke publicly about his suspicion that Tarragon's board of directors just felt the chill wind of funding cuts blowing their way.

"This government manages dissent with an extremely heavy hand," Healey told The Current on CBC Radio, adding that no one could blame Tarragon for being wary. He noted that you only have to ask the many high profile bureaucrats, scientists, and researchers who have been fired or muzzled about the repercussions of criticizing the Harper Government.™

Theatre funding lost and found

Fears of politically motivated funding cuts are not unfounded. In 2010 stories broke about the PMO publicly criticizing Toronto's SummerWorks Theatre Festival for producing Homegrown, a play about the Toronto 18.

"We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism," said Andrew MacDougall, spokesperson for the PMO.

By all accounts the play does no such thing, something the PMO would have known had anyone seen the play or even read reviews. But last June SummerWorks made news again when the 20-year-old festival lost $45,000 in funding they thought was already secured from Canadian Heritage. The reason given was the vague and always plausible excuse that there was too little funding to go around, and the move appeared to be political.

But in another surprise move, Canadian Heritage restored SummerWorks funding in early June of this year, raising the question of whether Proud readings across the country are having some impact.

David Bloom, who is directing the play reading in Vancouver, says that while we can't know what happens in the backrooms of bureaucrats, theatre companies or the PMO, the real hazard is in what we fear might be going on.

"We need to be careful not to succumb to a culture of fear," Bloom says. "It doesn't matter if they did it, the fact is we believe it's possible and that leads to self-censorship."

"When it comes to money arts people are always scared, but we wanted to make a statement that we're not going to censor ourselves," he says, explaining why so many theatres across the country are staging readings.

Bloom admits that this is an unusual move since Canadian theatre isn't known for having a political bent. Decades of funding cuts have tamed radical impulses, and the most popular theatres deliver a steady stream of familiar movies remade for the stage.

But the Proud kerfuffle hits on the real reason all democracies fund the arts at arm's length and all totalitarian states either censor them or buy them for propaganda -- the theatres are as essential to democracy's discussion forum as the schools, the courts or the news media.

Proud 'not a hatchet job'

Although the Proud readings are taking place amidst political controversy, Bloom says the real reason to mount the play is that it's complex, nuanced, and very funny.

"It's not a hatchet job on Harper," Bloom says. "Michael is a very astute guy about political issues and when you have a play that is such an intelligent contribution to the political discourse, that needs to be seen."

The Sunday reading is a co-production including Bloom's own company Felix Culpa, Neworld Theatre, Touchstone Theatre, Arts Club Theatre, Playwrights Theatre Centre, Ruby Slippers, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Compassionate Bone, Leaky Heaven Circus, and Pi Theatre. The actors reading the script are Tom McBeath, John Cassini, Quelemia Sparrow and Gaelan Beatty.

Bloom doubts that there will be any repercussions for the companies involved in the readings. But he's proud that Vancouver's theatre artists are standing up with the rest of the country to either defy the Harper government's attempts to chill public discourse, or just say no to the paranoia.

"While it's possible to believe this government is vindictive and hostile to the arts, I think we also have to acknowledge that it's more likely that we're not that important and they just don't care," says Bloom, with a weary chuckle.

With only 100 seats in the tiny Eastside venue, the show is sold out, but there's a waiting list at proudvancouver@gmail.com. It happens Sunday July 22, 8 p.m. at PL 1422 in Vancouver, 1422 Williams Street, and tickets are by donation.

*Note: Original reports of more than 70 cities across Canada hosting readings were made in error. Story updated July 21, 2012 at 5:43 p.m.  [Tyee]

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