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Political chill and artistic courage

by Arthur Milner

This past February, Michael Healey left his position as resident playwright at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. Healey is an actor and playwright, author the The Drawer Boy, one of Canada’s best and most successful plays. Tarragon has been, for years, perhaps Canada’s most respected theatre company.

On CBC Radio’s The Current on February 7, Healey told host Anna Maria Tremonti that he resigned after the Tarragon decided it would not produce his new play. Proud “takes place in the Prime Minister’s office. The character is never called anything other than ‘Prime Minister’ … It is absolutely this government that I want to discuss and examine.” The main character, said Healey, is “nakedly our Prime Minister.”

According to Healey, “There was anxiety among members of the board, I understand, that the possibility of libel existed … I went out and hired a libel lawyer myself to vet the play, and he responded, in fairly bald, unambiguous terms, that the play isn’t libellous.”

Proud is the third play in a trilogy. The Tarragon had produced the first two: “I had hoped they’d produce this third one, and I just thought, if they don’t produce my plays, then I don’t really understand what our relationship is, and maybe it’s time for me to give up my office to a younger writer.”

These are the facts as we know them. The theatre has yet to make a public statement.

The chill

Anna Maria Tremonti asked, “What does it say to you about the climate in the theatre community right now?” Healey replied,

This government manage[s] dissent with an extremely, to my eye, heavy hand. You only have to ask [diplomat Richard] Colvin or [United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] Lousie Arbour or [Environment Canada scientist] Mark Tushingham or [Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president] Linda Keen how much fun it is to get on the wrong side of this particular government.

 

Tremonti also interviewed Lucy White, CEO of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, the management organization for Canadian theatre companies, of which Tarragon is a member. White quickly absolved Tarragon: “Most theatre companies in Canada are charities, so the financial situation of a theatre that might have to close down for six weeks while a play is under examination, that kind of risk is unsupportable.”

White explained that a typical Canadian theatre is financially dependent on its audience, on government funding and on private support: “So if you alienate any one of those supporters – typically a board of directors is your first concern –”

Tremonti interrupted: “But we’re talking about government here, so what are you saying about the alienating of government?”

White explained that Canada Council funding criteria are clear, but that funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage was not transparent, nor is it clear who makes decisions. Tremonti raised the case of the SummerWorks Theatre festival. “The SummerWorks example is a perfect one,” said White.

A bit of background: SummerWorks is an annual theatre festival held in Toronto. In the summer of 2010, the festival presented 42 plays, one of which was Catherine Frid’s Homegrown, described on the SummerWorks website: “A Toronto lawyer/writer meets a prisoner accused of ‘homegrown terrorism’ in 2008. She continues to visit him over the next year and a half, and becomes obsessed with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case. A true story.”

Homegrown opened on August 5, 2010. Two days before that, the Toronto Sun reported that Andrew MacDougall of the Prime Minister’s Office, “a spokesman for Harper,” said, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism. Had the plot hatched by the Toronto 18 succeeded, thousands of innocent Canadians would have died.”

On the day of the opening, the Sun editorialized, “It’s insulting that taxpayers are helping to fund a positive portrayal of this terrorist … SummerWorks received a grant of $35,000 from the federal government to fund the 42 productions it will put on. The Toronto Arts Council contributed $30,000 to the festival and $6,000 to the creation of Homegrown. The Ontario Arts Council contributed $24,500 to the festival.”

SummerWorks had received Heritage funding for five years running. The following year – one month before its 2011 Festival was to begin – SummerWorks was informed that it had been denied Heritage funding. As is usual, no reason was given.

Anna Maria Tremonti asked Lucy White if the loss of funding was connected to the PMO’s “disappointment”:

WHITE: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what the decision-making process was …

TREMONTI: And are you connecting the dots then?

WHITE: What I’m saying is we don’t know what the process is. It’s not clearly articulated …

TREMONTI: What are the community’s concerns?

WHITE: … What we would like is for the Department of Canadian Heritage to have the same clearly articulated processes and decision making as with the Canada Council.

TREMONTI: And if you don’t get that, what’s the danger, in your view?

WHITE: I don’t know that I would say it’s a danger. I would say that in a vacuum of information …

TREMONTI: But you’re talking essentially about a creative chill, are you not?

WHITE: I’m not going to use those words, no.

TREMONTI: You’re not. Michael Healey?

HEALEY: Should I use those words? The minister is going to come on and he’s going to deny that there’s any connection between the PMO’s astounding statements about their disappointment in that play – a play I want to point out that they didn’t see and had never read – and SummerWorks funding getting pulled. The problem is that in this atmosphere … it’s really hard not to connect those dots and that’s why the minister has to continually come on the radio and deny that there is any connection between those two events. So is there a chill?

TREMONTI: You’re talking about self-censorship.

HEALEY: Yeah, I’m talking about an arts organization or a diplomat or an Environment Canada scientist who … has to make a decision about whether or not they are going to run counter to this government’s message.

What chill?

Tremonti next spoke to Heritage Minister James Moore, whose philosophy might be “the best defence is a good offence.” Moore blamed the CBC for whatever chill there is. Here are a few tidbits:

I was a bit disappointed in your pushing your guests into your thesis, which is completely false.

Certainly when there are programs like yours and you go on the air and misrepresent what happened …

If there’s constant misrepresentations as you’ve spent the last half an hour misrepresenting things, then no wonder there’s a chill.

If somebody, for example, has a radio show on the CBC that’s funded by the taxpayers of Canada through the Stephen Harper government and wants to criticize us – you have your show.

When [CBC TV satirist] Mary Walsh ambushed [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford at his private residence, I can speak out against that. This says nothing about the internal editorial choices of the CBC to air the show. They can still do whatever it is they choose to do. Kirstine Stewart [Executive Director of Network Programming] and Hubert Lacroix [CBC President and CEO] – they can run with it.

I would call these barely veiled threats. Are they designed to create a chill in the CBC? Perhaps not, but one would have to be outstandingly naive to deny that they might do so. Of course, constant Conservative talk of cutting the CBC, well, that chill’s been around a long time – and, to us longtime CBC Radio listeners, its effect has already been heard.

More surprising is Moore’s benign view of his government’s statements. In the quotation above, he insists on his right to speak out against individual CBC transgressions and denies any effect. In response to a question about whether it was “unusual for someone in the PMO to make that statement” about SummerWorks, Moore insisted, “I can have my opinion as a Canadian citizen, yes, and as a member of Parliament, yes, as the Minister of Canadian Heritage, but the funding decisions are still made at an arm’s-length basis by the Department of Canadian Heritage.”

Tremonti asked about an artist who had had her funding cut and “got a hold of the email trail through Access to Information and the Department of Foreign Affairs and it showed a discomfort on the part of bureaucrats that her work was not consistent with government policy.” Moore answered, “Follow the exact language that you just used. You said, ‘an email trail among bureaucrats within the department’ – not Stephen Harper, not the minister, not me.”

Is Moore naive or stupid – or lying? Does he really think he’s just an ordinary citizen when he speaks out against the CBC? When the PMO’s Andrew MacDougall says “we are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism,” does Moore genuinely believe that it’s ridiculous to suggest that such public musings might influence a Heritage bureaucrat?

Even so, even if Moore adamantly denies any responsibility for a chill, it would be nice to have heard a ringing endorsement of free speech – “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death …” – from the minister responsible for publishing and the arts.

Michael Healey is right: this government has created a chill, and, I would suggest, has done so intentionally. While previous Canadian governments initiated, expanded and maintained a Court Challenges Program to fund groups opposing government legislation, this government calls opposition un-Canadian, extremist or sympathetic to child molesters.

The courage of artists

In their interviews with Tremonti, both Michael Healey and Lucy White started out talking about the Tarragon’s decision not to produce Proud, and in both cases Tremonti changed the subject. Perhaps she saw chill as the bigger, more important story. Perhaps she was explaining – or justifying – changes at the CBC.

I kept expecting Tremonti to say to Healey, “You must have been very disappointed that Tarragon wimped out.” I kept expecting her to say to White, “You must be embarrassed that a theatre company represented by your organization knuckled under to such a minor threat.”

Because a minor threat it is. Would the Prime Minister sue? Who knows? Would the courts grant an injunction? Who knows? What if the courts did force the theatre to close for six weeks?

SummerWorks lost its $50,000 Heritage grant. An emergency fundraising campaign (which included public readings of the notorious Homegrown) raised close to that amount. A six-week shutdown would have cost Tarragon more, but Tarragon also has far greater resources, including several thousand subscribers. Would the publicity hurt Tarragon? Would its subscribers actually want their money back if a prime-ministerial libel suit forced a shutdown? Who wouldn’t contribute to Tarragon under those circumstances?

In the end, this particular threat seems so small that one has to be wonder if the threat of a libel suit was the real reason for Tarragon’s decision.

Let’s review the steps: Healey submitted a draft of Proud to Tarragon’s respected and experienced Artistic Director, Richard Rose. Rose conveyed his intention to produce Proud. Next, it’s fair to surmise, Rose informed the board and something happened. If not fear of libel, what?

I’ll pass on the comment of an acquaintance, a consultant to many nongovernment organizations: “We live in conservative times, politically and economically. Recently, in search of corporate donations, many nonprofit boards have appointed conservative and Conservative members, who don’t like to hear themselves and their friends criticized.” In other words, these people aren’t responding to a chill – they’re helping to create one.

Whatever the reason, be it conservatism or fear of Conservatives, one would like to see a little resistance. Richard Rose let us down. Michael Healey’s criticism of Tarragon was remarkably restrained, but going public took courage in an artistic milieu not fond of self-criticism.

And what about Lucy White, spokesperson for (English) Canada’s theatres? Did she urge us to the barricades to fight this flagrant attempt to silence one of our finest artists?

“The financial situation of a theatre that might have to close down for six weeks while a play is under examination – that kind of risk is unsupportable.”

As a playwright, I must say it’s a great comfort to know that our artistic directors and arts organizations have my back.

Arthur Milner considers himself a close acquaintance of both Michael Healey and Richard Rose, and his plays have been rejected by the Tarragon Theatre for more than three decades. His play Facts will be performed as part of the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in August 2012.


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About the Author

Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist and a member of its editorial board. He is a former artistic director of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.




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