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Christopher Morris in The Runner at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.Dylan Hewlett/Handout

A long-touring Canadian one-man play about an Israeli first responder’s crisis of conscience has suddenly become the centre of a debate over artistic freedom, with one British Columbia performing arts organization deciding to cancel its run of the show after outcry from pro-Palestinian protesters, and another reaffirming its commitment to it in the face of similar pushback.

Since Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel responded with retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip, the political tension has not been limited to the Middle East.

Canada’s arts community has not been immune. Pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, and Wanda Nanibush departed from her role as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Indigenous curator because of controversy linked to the conflict.

The reverberations have now divided B.C.’s theatre community, where two separate institutions had programmed The Runner, a 2018 play by Christopher Morris about a volunteer with the Israeli emergency response organization ZAKA, whose life is upended after his split-second decision to give medical attention to an Arab girl instead of an Israel Defense Forces soldier.

Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, run by artistic director Michael Shamata and executive director Isaac Thomas, decided to cancel its upcoming March run of the show after being pressed to do so, first by an online petition and then, according to local press coverage, at a heated in-person community meeting. Later, the theatre’s exterior was spray-painted with the words “Free Palestine.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the regional theatre company said that “presenting The Runner at this particular time does not ensure the well-being of all segments of our community.”

“Given the current conflict in the Middle East, this is not the time for a play which may further tensions among our community,” the unsigned statement continued. The theatre declined to give any interviews about its decision.

The response to similar objections was very different at the PuSh Festival, Vancouver’s international performance festival. In a statement, leaders Gabrielle Martin, its director of programming, and Keltie Forsyth, its director of operations, acknowledged “those watching or connected to the conflict in Gaza and Israel and the feelings of hurt and helplessness at the atrocities being committed.” They called the objections to The Runner an expression of that “shared hurt.”

But Ms. Martin and Ms. Forsyth stood by their decision to program this visually dazzling touring show – the last directed by the late, great Daniel Brooks to still have life on stage. They corrected misrepresentations about the content and authorship of Mr. Morris’s play, and they took the opportunity to highlight an installation called Dear Laila, created by the Palestinian refugee Basel Zaraa, which the PuSh Festival is programming in parallel.

In a separate blog post, the pair also emphasized the festival’s mission: “Our aim is that PuSh brings us together and inspires us to have complex and nuanced conversations; to challenge ourselves and each other not only to think differently, but to feel differently.”

PuSh, which rigorously rethought its practices after previous controversy and is under fresh collective leadership, has made all the right moves in a challenging situation.

The Belfry, however, has not. Most unfortunately, its unsigned statement throws Mr. Morris and any upcoming presenters of this humanistic production from the Human Cargo theatre company under the bus, by suggesting that harm might come from staging the show.

The Runner is an inappropriate target for the justifiable grief and anger of pro-Palestinian protesters for two reasons, both of which should have been easy for anyone familiar enough with the show to program it to articulate.

The first is that the online petition calling for its cancellation at the Belfry, started by a group called Teach for Liberation last month, is full of misunderstandings and inaccuracies. It invokes a call for a cultural boycott of Israel, even though this play was written by a self-described ex-Catholic Canadian man with no funding from the Israeli government.

The petition also falsely asserts that The Runner “features the violent and racist rhetoric of Zionism from an exclusively Israeli perspective.” The anonymous authors demonstrate theatrical illiteracy by attributing the perspective of an unlikeable character in the play, an extremist Israeli settler, with that of the play itself. They selectively quote lines that are part of a diatribe aimed at the play’s deeply conflicted protagonist, Jacob, which ends with the speaker suggesting that he leave Israel for the “real Jews.”

The second reason those who support the Palestinian cause should know better than to target this play, or any play, is because they have long been on the opposite end of attempts to restrict expression in theatre.

In Toronto, where I am based, there have been regular controversies over attempts to stage plays told from a pro-Palestinian perspective, beginning long before the phrase “cancel culture” became a common term of art.

A 2006 about-face by Canadian Stage on My Name is Rachel Corrie, a documentary play adapted by journalist Katharine Viner and actor Alan Rickman from the journals of an anti-war protester killed by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer, comes to mind.

So does Crow’s Theatre’s presentation of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza at the city-owned Theatre Passe Muraille in 2009, which David Miller, who was Toronto’s mayor at the time, resisted calls from B’nai Brith to cancel.

Of course, people are free to protest – even against a play, even if they are wrong about it. But those who run artistic organizations should stand up for their programming and their artists, even when world circumstances change. Especially after years of pandemic shutdowns, which compromised the livelihoods of independent artists such as Mr. Morris, well-heeled artistic directors and administrators must find solutions that are more nuanced than cancellations.

The PuSh Festival leaders, in their conscientious curation, in responding proactively to the Hamas attacks and subsequent Israeli decimation of Gaza by recording a podcast with Mr. Morris in November, and in their transparent communications internally and externally, have set a new standard for how to steer a cultural organization in a principled way through our polarized times.

But the Belfry Theatre’s leaders will need to answer for their decision – especially given that a second petition, with more signatures, was demanding the show go on. While I have some sympathy for the extra pressure they have been under, the unsigned statement they released this week is hard to understand, and particularly disrespectful to the memory of Mr. Brooks, who can’t respond to the slandering of his last living show.

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