Canadian Theatres Under Siege

Robert Cushman, National Post
Tuesday, Mar. 20, 2012

Three shocks have hit the Canadian theatre recently. There has been the [external] abrupt closure of the Vancouver Playhouse, a million dollars in the red; the announcement that the annual 2012/03/16/canadian-theatre-dealt-harsh-blow-with-end-of-siminovitch-prize; and the cancellation by Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre of Michael Healey’s new play Proud because — according to the author — the theatre feared that the play’s portrayal of Canada’s Prime Minister might result in a libel suit.

I would like to be able to construct a single grand narrative out of these events, but I can’t. So, some individual thoughts instead.

Of the three, the Siminovitch termination is the least serious. According to Joseph Rotman, one of the award’s founders and chairman of the Canada Council, the prize was only intended to exist for 10 years anyway; after that, the money would run out, though it does seem unfortunate that this wasn’t made clearer at the outset.

It’s been given on a rotation system: a playwright one year, a director the next, a designer after that, and then back to square one. (It’s never, for some reason, been given to actors, although actors and audience are the irreducible essentials of a theatrical experience. All other elements can, if absolutely necessary, be done without. Even a theatre.) It’s arguable that the cash could have been given to more people in smaller amounts over a longer period, but it wasn’t public money and the donors were entitled to bestow it as they wished.

They obviously made a substantial difference to the lives of a certain number of practitioners: actually to two a year as the cash value of the prize is not quite as spectacular as it might seem. The award is given to an artist “in mid-career” (though I’ve never understood by what actuarial means this state is determined), who has to donate a quarter of it to a younger artist, a protégé, of his or her choice. It’s an investment in the future as well as a reward for past and present. Even so, it’s affected only a tiny number of people and its disappearance will make no difference to the theatre at large.

The disappearance of the Playhouse will, and not just in Vancouver. It was part of an informal network of Canadian civic theatres that feed into and off of one another. Sometimes these theatres act as co-producers; the Manitoba Theatre Centre currently houses a production of God of Carnage that was all set to transfer to the Playhouse at the end of its run in Winnipeg.

This is healthy practice;if a production is good, it makes sense to have it seen by as many people as possible. Co-productions apart, Miles Potter, who directed God of Carnage and has worked across Canada as actor and director for 40 years, is surely right to refer to this network as “our unofficial national theatre.” They are interdependent training-grounds for our younger actors and our very best older actors return to them; the MTC’s concurrent production of August: Osage County stars Martha Henry.

Any number of reasons have been suggested for the demise of the Playhouse: that it was profligate, that it was underfunded, that the city behaved more like a landlord than a patron. Its fundamental problem, one shared with most big regional theatres, may have been a lack of identity. Some former patrons have accused it of being elitist in its programming, others of being populist. Chances are both were right, depending on which week it was. It’s pointless to blame audiences; nobody has an obligation to go to the theatre, and a show that nobody enjoys is a show that has failed.

There is, by the same token, no such thing as a show that everybody would enjoy, even though people persist in talking about “the audience” as if it were a monolith. Tastes differ; and it’s suicidal, artistically and probably economically, to try to appeal to all of them. A theatre’s job is to do work it believes in. Subsidy’s job is to make that work available and affordable to the people who would enjoy it.

The Arts Council of Great Britain used to say that it didn’t subsidise artists, it subsidised audiences, which is the right approach. If nobody comes under those circumstances, then it’s time for a regime change. Matthew Jocelyn, artistic director of Canadian Stage, said in an article in last week’s Toronto Star that we should be talking in terms of insitutions rather than companies. I question his terminology (it seems to me that the word “company” has an honourable theatrical lineage, at least as old as its commercial one) but I do like the word “resource.” A theatre is something to be used, by whoever can use it best.

Healey’s Proud was given a public reading at Theatre Passe Muraille on Monday. I couldn’t get in, and it would have been unethical for me to review it in any case. I did, though, read the scene that was printed in the Globe and Mail at the weekend. An encounter, full of double meanings and misunderstandings, between Stephen Harper and a Tory backbencher, it seemed, out of context, to be funny on a revue sketch level. If the rest of the play is like it, and if there were to be legal action, the Harper government would be passing up a golden opportunity to look like good sports. So far, we only have Healey’s word that libel chill is what got the play cancelled.

Richard Rose, Tarragon’s artistic director, has declined to comment. Maybe he thinks the play isn’t good enough; Healey is one of our best playwrights but he isn’t infallible. But the play is the third of a trilogy whose previous instalments, Generous and Courageous, have been among Tarragon’s biggest recent successes. They would surely have wanted to complete the set, so any decline in quality must have been precipitous indeed.

As it is, it looks as if whatever theatre picks up the play is almost assured of a hit, if only from curiosity value. If there really has been political pressure at work, or just the fear of it, then that’s a disgrace. There’s a case to be made against subsidising the arts at all; I don’t agree with it but I recognise that it exists. But as long as there is subsidy, it has to be independent of the wishes and sensitivities of the government of the day. Otherwise it’s censorship by another name.

Besides, a sensible ruler has always recognized the value of publicly funded criticism, even if it stings, even if it comes wrapped as comedy. It’s why kings had jesters.

Posted in: Arts Tags: On Stage, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Matthew Jocelyn, Michael Healy, OnStage, Osage County, Proud, Siminovitch Prize, Tarragon Theatre, Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Vancouver Playhouse

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