Doesn’t anyone have the guts to tell Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre to fuck off?
By Richard Burnett
Evidently we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Just look at the increasingly conservative theatre world in Canada: This past January award-winning Canadian playwright Michael Healey submitted an early draft of his play Proud to Richard Rose, artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre where Healey was playwright-in-residence the previous 11 years.
Most importantly the play features a character simply called “the Prime Minister” that some have likened to Canadian PM Stephen Harper.
That’s when Tarragon reportedly got nervous: retired lawyer and Tarragon board member John McKellar (father of actor/writer/director Don McKellar) feared the play was potentially libelous and defamatory to Stephen Harper. But libel specialist Peter Jacobsen told Healey the play is clearly satire and therefore fair comment. Rose still chose not to produce the play, so Healey resigned his position at Tarragon, went public and here we are.
End of story? Not quite.
“I called Michael Healey’s office about doing a stage reading benefit in Montreal after I read an article about John McKellar questioning whether this play should be done,” says Montreal playwright Michael Mitchell. “I thought this is indicative of what a board at a Canadian theatre thinks these days. What direction is this medium going to go in if we’re faced with people asking questions like, ‘Should this even be done?’ I mean, are we not allowed to ask questions in society anymore?”
|Schulman (photo by
The Healey Affair reminds me of the public bashing famed author and playwright Sarah Schulman took from the American right for her 2008 book The Child (Arsenal Pulp Press) which deals with teen sexuality: Her character Stew is a 15-year-old boy who goes online looking for an older man to have sex with.
“Has there been a more fucked-up country than America?” Schulman asked me rhetorically at the height of that controversy. “The problem has always been those Puritans who left England because they thought that country was too permissive! That tells you everything.”
But if you think it’s just religious fundamentalists who have a problem with Schulman, think again. She and playwright Craig Lucas (he also wrote the screenplay for the landmark AIDS movie Longtime Companion) developed a play version of The Child that had apoplectic artistic directors screaming for the exits.
“Theatre is [actually] the most conservative art form in America,” Schulman says. “There isn’t even one lesbian play in the rep. And the sexual content of [The Child] was censored out of existence.”
In the end, the real problem isn’t conservatives, Schulman says. It’s mostly liberals.
“They are our cultural gatekeepers,” she explains. “Even though they see themselves as progressive, because of their fear [of conservatives], they are reinforcing the dominant culture. This happened during McCarthyism as well. Artists themselves feared being called communist, so they stopped communists from working.”
The following year, in 2009, Bryden MacDonald told me Montreal’s Centaur Theatre was the only mainstream theatre in this country that would touch his play With Bated Breath. “I don’t know if it’s the nudity or the queer subject matter, but if you look at mainstream theatres across the country [these days], our stories are not being presented,” Bryden says.
Meanwhile, like Schulman, famed Canadian playwright Brad Fraser doesn’t have a problem biting the hand that feeds him. Shortly after I interviewed Schulman and Bryden MacDonald, Brad told me, “Sarah and Bryden are brilliant people and what they say is absolutely true. If [my play] Unidentified Human Remains was written today, it would not be produced. With True Love Lies, some people didn’t want to produce it because [the play says] it’s just as good to be gay as it is to be straight. People I know and care for had problems with that! My first response was, ‘So what? Why not put forward a challenging proposition?’”
Brad Fraser, as well as Montreal playwrights Steve Galluccio (Mambo Italiano) and Michael Mitchell were among the few in Canada’s theatre “community” to publicly slam Tarragon for their appalling decision (you can read their op-eds in The Charlebois Post about The Healey Affair by clicking here).
“In Proud Michael Healey wonders what would have happened if the Conservatives had won all of the NDP seats, and what a Prime Minister would do with such a vast, sweeping majority,” Mitchell says. “Interestingly, the play focuses on the revival of the abortion debate which just came up last week [in Canada] by a Tory backbencher.
Talk about life imitating art.
Says Mitchell, “Healey put it in his play – total fiction – and here you go.”
Mitchell says Healey’s office initially thought his proposal for a Proud stage-reading benefit was “kooky” but the idea took off across Canada. Actors across the country have volunteered their services. Montreal actor and stand-up comic Tom Hein will read the role of the Prime Minister in the May 9 stage reading at Montreal’s Mainline Theatre.
“If Tarragon chose not to produce this play because they were fearful of any retribution – loss of funding or even a libel charge –the truth is [in this play] the Prime Minister is really quite a sympathetic character,” Hein told me this week. “Upon reading the play, I was surprised about Tarragon’s reaction to it. It’s done with humour and satire, and sympathetically.”
Then Hein adds, “I also think it’s ironic that an openly-gay guy is going to play the role of the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper is not dead, but if he was, I think he’d roll over in his grave knowing an openly-gay guy was going to play him!”
Not that this play is about Stephen Harper. But even if it was, who gives a fuck? It’s fiction.
“Art isn’t about making chocolate chip cookies. Proud is a good play with a sympathetic portrayal of a fictional character,” Mitchell says. “What are we [the theatre community] here for? We’re here to look at the hopes and fears of society. That’s what art is. But if you look at any major theatre company across the country, they’re all putting on the same shows. Most audiences don’t care for the sterile stuff out there masquerading as informed commentary. It’s very middle-brow. Theatre is becoming more and more irrelevant.”
Which makes a play like Proud even more relevant.
“Let the public decide,” Mitchell continues. “Why be afraid of it? And if you’re afraid of your government, what does that say about you and your society? How can you be comfortable living in fear of your government? How can you like living like that? And if you tell others to live like that too, what kind of world is that? You know, the [1980 play] Maggie and Pierre: A Fantasy of Love, Politics and the Media played to rave reviews while [former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott] Trudeau was still in office. Nobody cared about it back then.”
But Harper is no Trudeau.
What Tarragon should have said was pretty much what Trudeau told Tim Ralfe of the CBC when asked how far the PM would go to end the October Crisis in 1970. “Just watch me,” Trudeau famously replied.
Is Tarragon afraid Harper will invoke his own War Measures Act against their theatre?
Without trying to be politically correct, the Tarragon are a bunch of pussies if they pulled Healey’s play because they’re afraid of offending Stephen Harper
Fittingly, it is Michael Healey who is the hero in this unfinished story. He is staging an independent production of Proud at the Berkeley Street Theatre from Sept. 20 to Oct. 6. Healey will also play the Prime Minister and Miles Potter will direct.
But after all of this, doesn’t anyone have the guts to tell Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre to fuck off?
Fortunately I asked Mainline Theatre’s head honcho Jeremy Hechtman.
“Without trying to be politically correct, the Tarragon are a bunch of pussies if they pulled Healey’s play because they’re afraid of offending Stephen Harper,” Hechtman told me this week. “There is a reason we do art and it’s not to please the Prime Minister. What’s he going to do – off with our heads?”
Check out the stage reading of Proud – starring Tom Hein, Kristina Sandev, Frank Babics, Shebli Zarghami and Michael Mitchell –at Montreal’s Mainline Theatre (3997 St-Laurent), May 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $12. All proceeds will benefit Michael Healey’s independent production of Proud at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto this September. Click here for the official Mainline Theatre page for Proud.
Stand-up comic Tom Hein also performs in "Royal Riot" at the very popular Montreal queer bar The Royal Phoenix (5788 St-Laurent) on May 28 at 8:30 p.m. "Royal Riot", the bar's comedy night, is held the last Monday of each month. Click here for the official Royal Phoenix website.