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Playwright Christopher Morris performs during a production of his play, The Runner. Vancouver's PuSh Festival has opted to not host the play after initially continuing with plans for it to go ahead.Dylan Hewlett/The Canadian Press

After a week of publicly defending the award-winning Canadian production The Runner, a play set in Israel, Vancouver’s PuSh Festival became the second British Columbia arts organization to cancel its presentation of the show amid heightened tensions in Canada over the Israel-Hamas war.

The first cancellation happened earlier this month, when the Belfry Theatre in Victoria called off a planned March run of Christopher Morris’s one-man play about an Israeli member of the emergency response organization ZAKA, citing a need to “ensure the well-being of all segments of our community.” There had been duelling petitions arguing for and against the play. After a heated community meeting, Belfry’s building was spray-painted with the words “Free Palestine.”

At the time, PuSh said it would continue on with The Runner. The festival’s leaders, Gabrielle Martin and Keltie Forsyth, wrote a blog post in which they positioned the show as part of a larger lineup of programming that offered opportunities for understanding others’ experiences. This included a presentation of Dear Laila, an installation by the Britain-based Palestinian musician and visual artist Basel Zaraa.

But pro-Palestinian activists continued to press the festival, its board of directors, co-presenters and participating artists to take action to cancel the play this week. On Thursday, Ms. Martin and Ms. Forsyth said PuSh had made the “difficult decision” to change course after a conversation with Mr. Zaraa, who said he would withdraw his installation – a recreation in miniature of his childhood home in the Al Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus – if it were presented in the same lineup as Mr. Morris’s drama.

“As Israel’s genocide in Gaza continues, I cannot agree for Dear Laila to be shown alongside The Runner, a play which reinforces dehumanizing narratives about Palestinians,” Mr. Zaraa wrote in a statement put out by PuSh. He was not available for interviews.

Two PuSh board members, chair Jorge Amigo and director Kimberly Ho, resigned from their posts on Thursday. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Martin, PuSh’s director of programming, told The Globe and Mail that the festival’s leadership had been attempting to honour its commitment to The Runner since December, when the show first came on the radar of pro-Palestinian activists, who objected to its content and focus on an Israeli protagonist.

Efforts to allow the play to go on safely included exploring the hiring of security guards, as well as trauma-informed counsellors. “We knew protesters were going to be there, we knew they had bought tickets and had planned strategies of disruption,” Ms. Martin said.

But, faced with losing one show or another, PuSh decided to prioritize the voice of an artist with lived experience in the region, one Ms. Martin described as “severely underrepresented” in Canadian theatre, over that of Mr. Morris, who has no religious or cultural connection to Israel or the Palestinian territories.

“If we have to choose, it makes more sense for us to support Basel right now,” Ms. Martin said, adding that she respects Mr. Zaraa’s perspective and regrets co-writing the blog post last week before she was able to reach the Palestinian artist to discuss it – a choice she said she made because of “the urgency of calls for a response from the community.” She said the two board members who resigned on Thursday did so, at least in part, because the festival stood behind The Runner as long as it did.

PuSh has agreed to fulfill all financial commitments to Mr. Morris and his theatre company, Human Cargo. In his own statement, distributed through the festival, Mr. Morris reiterated that his stream-of-consciousness show – dramaturged and directed by the late Daniel Brooks – is “a fictional story about an Israeli man who saves the life of a young Palestinian woman and is ostracized by his peers for doing so.”

“PuSh’s leadership has navigated this complicated situation with transparency and care,” Mr. Morris said. ”If removing The Runner is the only way Canadians can hear Basel’s crucial voice, then there is value in stepping aside.”

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But, the playwright, actor and director added, “it’s unsettling when Canadian theatres cannot be a space for the public to engage in a dynamic exchange of ideas.”

Past PuSh board chair Mira Oreck was among many members of the Vancouver arts community who voiced concern and disappointment about the cancellation. She and a group of other previous board members had sent a letter to the current administration praising their initial decision to move forward with the play.

“At a time when so many people are struggling with the horrific events in the Middle East, we regret that PuSh has chosen to limit what audiences see, and silence voices. Why not grapple with these stories rather than shut them down? And if PuSh can’t do that, who will?” Ms. Oreck said in an interview.

A group of artists who had organized an online open letter calling for the removal of The Runner from PuSh called the show’s cancellation “powerful news” in an update on their Substack site, where they took partial credit for the move. The group’s letter had amassed more than 350 signatures.

“This sent the undeniable message that Zionist narratives and the dehumanization of Palestinians have no place in our cultural sphere … We are thrilled to know that [Mr. Zaraa’s] work will now get to stand alone, in its power, impact and merit,” the update said. The letter’s core group of organizers declined further comment.

With a report from Marsha Lederman

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