Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Person: Brad Fraser on The Healey Affair

(Written for The Charlebois Post)
I can’t claim to know Michael Healey particularly well. I know of his great success as a playwright, of course, and we’ve corresponded a few times on facebook in a “shared pithy observations about something in common” sort of way. He seems professional and even-tempered, so when he gives an interview stating that Tarragon Artistic Director Richard Rose (with whom Healey has shared a professional relationship for over a decade and a number of play productions) has decided not to program his latest political satire because someone on the theatre’s board of directors felt some of the material could possibly be libelous to our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, I find no reason to doubt Mr Healey’s veracity. Nor was there anything in Healey’s public statements that seemed vindictive or petty. Add to this the fact that Richard Rose has refused to confirm, deny or elaborate on these comments in any way and it’s pretty hard not to conclude that something happened that was unpleasant enough for the playwright to need to take the kind of stand playwrights generally don’t take because it can screw up their livelihood. 
As I see it there are most likely two possible explanations here.
...there are people who would not fault the theatre for taking such a stand and refusing to produce the play.

The first explanation is that everything is indeed as reported in the first Globe and Mail interview; someone got cold feet about offending the PM (who is, it must be said, most easily offended), losing Tarragon’s national funding (as is purportedly what happened with the Summerworks/Catherine Frid/"She dared to write a play based on an accused terrorist’s interview" fiasco of a year ago) and making their future livelihood much more uncertain. Given the levels of pettiness to which this government has been seen to stoop and Harper’s on-again, off-again flirtation with legal action against those who say things he doesn’t like, there are people who would not fault the theatre for taking such a stand and refusing to produce the play.
These people would be doing all of us a great disservice, however, because if the main focus of the many arts-based organizations that serve and entertain this country becomes not offending the prevailing government, it’s going to lead to increasingly lame and innocuous art.

It is the role of all art, and most particularly the theatre, to hold a mirror up to our society and show us who we truly are in ways that can either enchant or demean. Both tactics are valid and both are important. There’s no drama without comedy and there’s no laughter without pain. It’s the ability to delight while teaching, to attack and alter societal mores, to point to the phoniness, pedantry and corruption that exist all around us and to make an audience see these things in a light they’ve never experienced before that allows the theatre to continue to thrive after thousands of years. For anyone - politician, board member, artistic director or artist - to attempt to limit what the theatre can say or what it can be is one of the most shameful acts of censorship that any individual or any institution can inflict.

Through this possible act of self-censorship they are essentially taking the first step toward becoming at least a partial propagandist for the government...

That some working within the theatre, knowingly or otherwise, might be aiding the government by giving in to this sneaky and, I suspect, tactical “libel chill” (and it must be said that Healey’s legal council saw nothing libelous in the play so the accuracy of the charge is still very debatable) is horrifying. 
Horrifying because a theatre that has claimed to celebrate the best in Canadian playwriting for the last thirty years has just turfed a play in order not to offend the government and lose their funding. Through this possible act of self-censorship they are essentially taking the first step toward becoming at least a partial propagandist for the government and, perhaps eventually, an obvious shill like the Sun Media Group. This also means that any playwright wanting to submit a play to the Tarragon for production consideration will now have to vet their script to ensure it doesn’t say anything that could potentially offend our Prime Minister and, eventually perhaps, anyone else in his party. Those are not the sorts of thoughts that lead to brilliant playwrighting. Ever.
The second possibility is one certain people working in the theatre cling to and it shows in the comments that have been circulating about this matter. They suggest the play was simply not up to snuff so the libel issue took on an importance it might not have had in a better play. We don’t know if this is true because none of us has actually read the play and, as Mr Rose has made clear in his only public statement, he does not comment on programming decisions publicly.
...sometimes people you’ve collaborated with turn in something that just doesn’t work in the way you thought it would.

And he’s completely within his rights to keep silent on his choices. There are only so many spots in each season and it’s impossible for any AD to produce all of the plays he or she wants to. Very good plays are often left behind for very suspect reasons and very bad plays are often produced for even more suspect reasons. Until you’ve dealt with the many pressures that are brought to bear when lining up a group of plays to sell to subscribers, there’s really no way of understanding how complex, delicate and political it all really is. And sometimes - well sometimes people you’ve collaborated with turn in something that just doesn’t work in the way you thought it would.

This doesn’t mean the script is bad, although sometimes it is. It could mean the script isn’t ready or that the director is no longer sympathetic to the material or that it just didn’t turn out as expected. Sometimes it can be very hard to explain to the playwright why you don’t want to produce the play. The kind of critical comments required to make this clear can be very hard to say and the likelihood of those comments causing bruised feelings and shaken egos between friends or collaborators can lead some to say things that are much easier, like “We don’t want to libel the PM”. It’s a short, snappy answer that thrusts the responsibility squarely onto the shoulders of Stephen Harper, a man many love to hate 
Sadly, neither of these scenarios cast Richard Rose in a particularly flattering light as it seems he either chose not to produce the play out of the fear of an unspoken threat or he was unable or unwilling to articulate to a writer he’s worked with for over a decade, a writer who has brought considerable acclaim and income into the theatre, the real reason he doesn’t want to produce the play. 
It’s just a place that sells lies.

Whatever the fiscal or legal issues, a theatre that cannot speak the truth of what its writers see in a candid and robust manner - no matter how unpleasant or dangerous the ideas might be - is not a theatre at all. It's just a place that sells lies.

But the real questions being posed by this situation are much larger than they may appear at first. The entire Canadian theatre community is beginning to realize this. Will the government continue to penalize theatres who produce projects the government doesn’t approve of? What are the specific criteria for not offending the government? Will there be a checklist that will keep us safe from silent retribution, or just amorphous rules that are never truly known until you break one? This is how many right wing organizations and governments control people. Not through actual persecution, denial or punishment but by implying such things will happen and, in doing so, forcing people to censor themselves.

Will there be cuts if the offended?

How will Stephen Harper’s rather frightening, soon to arrive, “Office of Religious Freedom” figure into arts funding? Will there be cuts if that office is offended?
Many of us, in our passive Canadian way, hate these sorts of controversies. They force us to deal with complicated and emotional issues. We are a small, close-knit community. Most everyone likes Richard Rose. Most everyone likes Michael Healey. Both of these men are potential future employers for many. They are not people we want to offend or hurt. But, at the same time, the very worst thing we can do right now is not talk about all of this and what it means. The conflict this is creating within the community and within us is very important. 

Without conflict there’s no drama and no forward-moving narrative. Conflict forces us out of stasis and demands the energy that leads to change. Some of our best ideas can come from our enemies - and some of the worst ideas come from those we trust the most. Nothing teaches us with greater efficacy than that which physically, emotionally or psychically hurts, surprises or frightens us. Conflict is essential to progress and we go nowhere without it. 
Let’s look at it as a lesson that has initiated an important and overdue discussion.

So let’s not look at this breach between Mr. Healey and Mr. Rose as some sort of a fight in which sides need to be taken. Let’s look at it as a lesson that has initiated an important and overdue discussion.

We need to find a way to ensure that all government and corporate money invested in the arts comes without conditions or provisos that constrict artists and their support organizations.

We need to discuss the role of the boards of directors at non-profit theatres and how much control and influence they should have over artistic decisions. We must be sure the mandate of individual or influential board members or contributors is not in conflict with the mandate of the theatre’s artistic staff.

We need to discuss and look for alternate ways to raise both awareness and funds in order to keep all of our arts groups free of partisan interference. We must discuss how successful we, the theatre professionals, are at attracting an ever-expanding audience and how we can do better.

We need to discuss whether our mid-sized theatres have the professional expertise required to properly promote the scripts they produce. We need to discuss programming that keeps taking risks in order to keep generating hits and revenue, remembering that the most fiscally successful theatre events were all new and often risky works at one time.
In the end, whatever we might learn about Richard Rose’s reasoning in all of this, we still have to thank him for not copping out like so many in his position would do with some lame, false excuse for not producing the play. In coming out and stating that Michael Healey’s show wouldn’t be produced because it might, in some way, lead to questionable legal action from our Prime Minister, he has introduced us to a discussion we all need to share.
And in speaking out publicly and telling his side of the story with passion and intelligence Mr Healey has taken a risk every playwright knows rarely pays off in the short term. But if this discussion leads to actual change then the gift he’s given us all is beyond measure.
So let’s not not talk about it. Okay?

See also Brad Fraser's open letter to Richard Rose


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