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Ottawa cancels funding for Toronto theatre festival that presented terrorist play

A promotional image for the play "Homegrown," which SummerWorks presented last summer to the ire of the Prime Minister's Office.


Toronto's SummerWorks theatre and music festival, which was criticized by the Stephen Harper government in the past for staging a play related to the Toronto 18 terrorist plot, has lost its funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

With only weeks before the festival begins on Aug. 5, the department has pulled its approximately $47,000 to $48,000 annual grant for 2011, which represented 20 per cent of the SummerWorks' budget.

The festival will go on as planned, although ticket prices will have to be raised from $10 to $15, some of its outdoor presentations will be cancelled and its advertising budget cut, said Michael Rubenfeld, SummerWorks artistic director. The festival has also started a fundraising drive, which is said to have already received strong support from the public.

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Toronto theatre director and SummerWorks board member Ruth Madoc-Jones said Monday that the festival would like to re-establish its relationship with Heritage. The department had been providing grants to the festival for five years, helping it to grow and show more works from across Canada.

"They've played a really important role with this festival up to this point - both in terms of our core funding, but also in terms of allowing us to present work from across the country," Madoc-Jones said.

The rejection letter from the department's director of Ontario programming gave no hint of the past criticism Ottawa had directed at the festival. The letter said in general language that it was looking for "tangible results, which contribute to Program objectives; provide the best possible value for money; and meet the needs of Canadians."

Last August, a spokesman for Prime Minister Harper criticized the use of public funds to help SummerWorks stage Homegrown, by lawyer and playwright Catherine Frid, about her friendship with one of the convicted members of the Toronto 18 terrorist plot.

Then in December, the Prime Minister's Office criticized the way in which SummerWorks' 2010 grant application had been apparently backdated by Heritage department staff in order to qualify for funding. Rubenfeld said at the time that this kind of assistance is common, given the complexities of grant applications.

James Maunder, a spokesman for Heritage Minister James Moore, wouldn't comment specifically on SummerWorks but said Monday that "last year, the Department of Canadian Heritage received over 10,000 funding requests for local events and festivals across Canada. The total demand far exceeds available funding, and therefore choices must be made."

For the past five years, Canadian Heritage has funded SummerWorks through its Canada Arts Presentation Fund (formerly Arts Presentation Canada) - money that was used to bring in Canadian productions from outside Toronto and also formed part of its core budget. Last year, the local Heritage arts consultant working with Rubenfeld urged the growing festival to apply for multiyear funding to increase its stability.

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In June 2009, Moore announced that the Canada Arts Presentation Fund would remain at current levels for fiscal years 2010-11 to 2014-15.

Madoc-Jones said that it would be only speculation to view the rejection as being related to past criticism, because the letter doesn't directly talk about content. She added that the festival's juried selection process will continue to be based on the quality of the works, rather than with an eye to Ottawa.

"We are very proud of what we program. We have a jury of theatre professionals. We will continue to choose work that is vibrant and fresh, provocative and challenging, and diverse in subject matter and reflects the characteristics of the country. I don't think our juries will make decisions for any other reason but the quality of the art," Madoc-Jones said.

The immediate problem was how late the festival was told that funding would be cut. However, the response from the arts community to the last-minute fundraising drive has been "unbelievable," Madoc-Jones said. "We've had a really strong response so far. We need it to continue."

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