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With another departure, the Tarragon plot thickens

Morwyn Brebner in 2005

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Another award-winning playwright has cut ties with the Tarragon Theatre.

Morwyn Brebner has left the Toronto theatre company in the wake of artistic director Richard Rose's decision not to program Michael Healey's play Proud – allegedly due to concerns over its fictionalized depiction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Morwyn Brebner, the Dora-winning playwright behind the recent Shaw Festival smash The President, packed up her office at Tarragon around the same time as Healey did in January, but chose to exit more quietly.

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Her departure has only become public now that her picture has disappeared from the theatre's lobby.

Brebner's farewell to the theatre that's been her writing base since 2000 is not entirely surprising – she is, after all, married to Healey. (The couple met at the office, as it were, and wed two years ago.)

Still, it's another sad blow to Tarragon, an institution that for a long time has been synonymous with its support for Canadian playwrights and now has gained a reputation, fair or unfair, for stifling them.

When I reached her by phone Thursday, Brebner explained that her reasoning for leaving is multifaceted. Her most recent play had not been programmed, she said, and she's writing more for television these days, too.

But the timing shows the effect the continuing controversy over Proud had on her decision.

"It was a factor," admits Brebner. "How could it not be?"

The story so far: Earlier this year, Healey broke with Tarragon after a mutually beneficial 11-year residency that saw him pick up an incredible three Dora Awards for thoughtful comedies about Quebec separation, Ottawa shenanigans and gay marriage.

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Proud, however, was not selected for the upcoming Tarragon season even though Healey envisaged it as the third in a political trilogy that had premiered at the theatre.

The playwright told The Globe and Mail that Rose had informed him there was "concern the play could potentially libel Stephen Harper" – even though Healey had received a lawyer's opinion to the contrary.

The controversy since has spread to places Canadian playwriting is rarely discussed – from CBC Radio to television talk shows.

The central questions raised: In the wake of the SummerWorks Theatre Festival loss of federal funding last summer following criticism from the PMO, is the Canadian theatre community self-censoring? Did Rose decide not to stage Proud out of fear of losing his federal funding?

Rose insists that he has no worries about Tarragon losing its funding due to programming choices. "We're funded by the Canada Council – it's arm-length, it's peer-assessed, it's juried," he told me this week.

But he's still keeping mum on the specifics surrounding Proud. "I have confidential relationships with playwrights," he explains. "I just don't make any comment about why we don't choose plays." Rose's desire not to embarrass playwrights is laudable in general, but the only privacy he's protecting in this instance is his own. Healey has his own version of what happened behind closed doors, and he's had no qualms about talking about it. Indeed, he alleges that Rose didn't program Proud out of fear a character called "Prime Minister" – which Healey admits is meant to satirize Stephen Harper – might result in a libel suit.

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If Canadian theatres were always that timid about representing sitting politicians, however, the country would have been robbed of significant chapters in its theatrical history.

Linda Griffiths famously had a hit with 1979's Maggie and Pierre, an exploration of Trudeau's personal life – another supposedly taboo subject – that was staged while he was still in office.

Meanwhile, Harper certainly hasn't been immune to impersonations on This Hour Has 22 Minutes or appearances in more savage theatrical satires such as rabble-rouser Rob Salerno's Fringe Festival success with its profanity-laced title about the Stephen Harper and saving democracy.

So, we're left with a mystery: Did Rose not tell Healey the real reason for his decision? Or did he really not program a play by one of the country's top playwrights out of fear the Prime Minister would sue?

Only one man knows – and that's Rose himself. As long as he stays mum, the story won't be over.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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