Award-winning playwright Michael Healey has left Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in a dispute over a new drama he's written featuring a character based on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In an interview on Wednesday evening, Mr. Healey, 49, confirmed he closed his office at the theatre last Sunday, ending a residency with the Tarragon dating to 2001. He said the action was precipitated by a Tarragon decision late last month not to program his latest play, Proud, for the theatre's 2012-13 season. Mr. Healey, who has been critical of the Harper government, said the company's artistic director Richard Rose told him there was "concern the play could potentially libel Stephen Harper," even though the playwright earlier had received a lawyer's opinion stating that that would not be an issue "as long as it's clear the play is a work of fiction."
Mr. Rose confirmed Mr. Healey's departure but did not elaborate on the specifics. "We hope and expect to work with Michael in the future as we have great admiration for his work," he said in an e-mail.
Proud exists only as a first draft, Mr. Healey said, and is subject to many revisions. It was written "very quickly" shortly after Mr. Harper achieved a majority government in May, 2011, and conceived as the concluding drama in a trilogy "about Canadian societal virtues" that began with Generous and Courageous, both Tarragon productions that won Dora Awards as best new plays in their respective debut seasons.
Mr. Healey, who won a Governor-General's Award for his 1999 play The Drawer Boy, said that, while Mr. Harper's name is not used in Proud, one of four characters is called "Mr. Prime Minister," the setting is the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa – and it's "very clear this character is the current Prime Minister. I don't want to be cute about that. I want to talk directly about the current political climate to get at the other things I wanted to get at." Proud, he added, ends 20 years from now, with a character delivering a monologue on the Harper legacy.
Mr. Healey asserted his portrayal is "incredibly sympathetic. I've gone to great lengths to embody the Prime Minister's point of view. ... In fact, my plan was to play the part myself because I wanted to avoid a situation where an actor comes in with preconceived negative notions about the guy . . . I'm not interested in polemic, in running down a laundry list of his short-comings or his government's. I want it to be a Shavian event [as in George Bernard Shaw]where one guy stops talking, and you say, 'That guy is absolutely right' until another guy starts talking and you say, 'No that guy's absolutely right.'"
Other theatre companies are looking at Mr. Healey's draft, but he acknowledged it may be too late for any of them to schedule it for 2012-13. As a result, he indicated he might consider producing it himself.