Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during the tête-à-tête where Tarragon Theatre artistic director Richard Rose told playwright Michael Healey that the Toronto theatre wouldn’t be programming his comedy about Stephen Harper, Proud.
That private conversation between one of Canada’s foremost directors and one of its leading playwrights has led to many heated public ones over the past few months. Healey alleges that Rose feared a lawsuit from the prime minister, but Rose has kept mum as to what he said, and why he said it.
Well, in the absence of the emergence of a Nixon-style tape recording of the encounter between these two Canadian titans of theatre, award-winning playwright Brad Fraser has stepped up to provide up the next best thing: a play about it.
On Wednesday, Fraser’s How They Won will premiere in Toronto as part of the latest edition of the popular political cabaret, The Wrecking Ball.
“This is my imagining of what the meeting between Michael and Richard might have been like – if they were two people who aren’t Michael and Richard, but are similar,” Fraser explains.
Gemini nominee Ron White will play Rose by another name, while Tom Barnett – one of the original cast members of Healey’s international hit, The Drawer Boy – will play a fictional version of the playwright. Kelly Thornton, up for a Dora for directing for her work on Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, is staging the short piece.
Kelly Thornton, currently up for a Dora award for directing for her work on Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, is staging the short piece.
In the wake of Rose’s decision not to program Proud, Healey quit his post as Tarragon playwright-in-residence and a debate about libel chill and whether Canadian artists were self-censoring out of fear of losing public funding raged in newspapers, TV and radio.
Fraser, the famously outspoken Alberta-born, Toronto-based writer whose hit plays include True Love Lies and Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, has not been shy to add fuel to the fire.
Fraser wrote an open letter to Rose withholding his support “as an artist and a ticket buyer” at Tarragon until an explanation was offered, as well an article for theatre blog The Charlebois Post warning about the perils of theatre that is afraid to offend.
With How They Won, however, Fraser says he’s striving to see both sides of the story. “I’m trying to get into the minds of both characters,” he says. “As a playwright, I’m finding it really hard to justify self-censorship because of potential problems, but I’m doing my best.”
The Wrecking Ball was formed back in 2004 by a group of directors and playwrights who felt that Canadian theatre artists – in comparison to their American and British counterparts – were avoiding tackling political subject matter in their work. (Given what happened with Proud, is it any wonder that they do?) Playwrights are given a week to write a ten-minute play inspired by the hot-button issues of the day; then, directors get a week to rehearse it.
Wednesday’s edition of the cabaret, the 13th installment, is being held in conjunction with a festival honouring visiting British playwright Edward Bond.
How They Won‘s subject matter couldn’t be a more perfect match, given that the 1965 premiere of Bond’s controversial play Saved was an important milestone on the road to the abolishment of official theatre censorship in the U.K. (Other playwrights presenting Bond-inspired pieces on Wednesday include Djanet Sears, Jason Sherman, Cliff Cardinal and Rosa Laborde.)
Healey has certainly landed on his feet after the skirmish over Proud. A sold-out reading of the play took place in March, and a full production will premiere in an directed by Miles Potter will premiere in September – with Healey playing the prime minister.
Still, Fraser believes the controversy shouldn’t just be swept under the rug, especially given what he describes as a rise in arts funding decisions that seem “arbitrary” rather than arm’s length.
“It’s an interesting discussion that the theatre community still hasn’t really had publicly,” Fraser says. “Who are we here to please? The audiences, our peers, or the people who are giving us money?”
The Wrecking Ball takes place at the Theatre Centre on Wednesday at 8 p.m. For a full list of Edward Bond Festival events, visit edwardbondfestival.wordpress.com.