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The Dangers of Playing It Safe

How kindness is killing Canadian political theatre

BY J. Kelly Nestruck
Photo by Rolline Laporte, Courtesy of Les Filles Électriques and Festival Voix d’Amériques

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” —Bill Cosby

There’s more than one way to kill a playwright. Tomson Highway, for instance, has been smothered into silence by a pillow disguised as cultural sensitivity. (That’s the preferred method of euthanizing certain stage voices these days.)

Highway’s plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing are studied in university classes across Canada and, indeed, around the world. And yet, the Cree playwright from Manitoba, one of the country’s best writers, rarely sees his characters actually brought to life on stage, which is, of course, the whole purpose of writing for the theatre.

Highway is blunt about what he believes is the reason for this: Directors worried about being accused of “cultural appropriation” are loath to put on shows about Aboriginal characters using actors who are not Aboriginal themselves. And given Highway’s propensity for large casts, it’s a real headache finding enough professional Aboriginal stage actors who are available at the same time, and are right for the parts. So, his plays don’t get put on—and a native voice is muted in the name of hearing more native voices in the theatre. Could it be any more ironic?

“When it dawned on me, one cloudy day, that my career as a playwright had been destroyed by political correctness, I just about died,” Highway wrote in his postscript to Rose—a play that took 10 years to get on stage, and has still never had a professional production.

Thankfully, Highway didn’t die. But Highway the playwright essentially has. The last time I interviewed him, he was abandoning the theatre for novels. “Michel Tremblay: If he were told that he could only use French-Canadian actors for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t get very far either,” he told me. “Atom Egoyan: Tell him that he is to use only Armenian actors for the rest of his life. His career would die tomorrow.”

I was reminded of Highway’s plight when the story of the New York Theatre Workshop’s “postponement” of My Name is Rachel Corrie made headlines around the world in March. After speaking with members of the Jewish community, NYTW artistic director James Nicola decided it was perhaps not the right time to put on the play, which was assembled by Alan Rickman and Guardian editor Katharine Viner from the letters, emails and diary entries of a 23-year-old American activist who died under an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in the Gaza strip. Ariel Sharon’s stroke and the recent election of Hamas had made “this community very defensive and very edgy,” Nicola told The New York Times. Time was needed to put My Name is Rachel Corrie in proper context, to organize post-performance discussions and, presumably, to wait for every community in New York to become relaxed and unconcerned about the situation in the Middle East.

Though the symptoms were different from Highway’s case, the disease was the same: A play was silenced out of a desire to avoid offending a particular group.

The NYTW’s history as a gutsy institution—it staged the first production of the AIDS musical Rent, as well as plays by such political playwrights as Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill—made the story that much more disturbing. There are good plays that offend and bad plays that offend, but that a play offends is not in itself a reason to shelve or produce it. If Nicola had come out and said that, upon further consideration, My Name is Rachel Corrie was an unbalanced piece of propaganda that didn’t really stand up on stage, I would defend his decision. But, alarmingly, he continued to profess that it was a worthy play—it just had to be presented at the correct time, and cushioned with feel-good feathers, so that if someone got angry, he could say, “Don’t blame us…. We had post-performance discussions!”

The situation in New York concluded rather well in the end, thanks to the international theatre community’s swift and fiery reaction. Everyone from Harold Pinter to Billy Bragg to Kushner condemned or questioned Nicola’s move; within a couple of weeks, My Name is Rachel Corrie had a new American premiere scheduled at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and the NYTW’s reputation was in tatters.

Alas, most plays that get timidly postponed into oblivion don’t have a famous martyr or the editor of a world-renowned newspaper behind them.

Playwright Jason Sherman, one of the founders of The Wrecking Ball, a Toronto group dedicated to political theatre, writes about some of these in an essay in Modern Jewish Plays, a recently released anthology he edited for Playwrights Canada Press. The plays he collected—including Motti Lerner’s The Murder of Isaac (about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) and Jonathan Garfinkel’s The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret—have two things in common beyond the background of the playwrights: They deal with the subject of Israel and “not a single one has crossed from the fringes into the mainstream.”

Sherman, a Governor-General’s Award winner, believes there is a climate of fear gripping theatre programmers in Canada and elsewhere and writes about how it has inhibited productions of his own play dealing with Israel, Reading Hebron:

“At a meeting of a Jewish theatre organization many years ago, in Montreal, a youngish artistic director approached me in the quiet corner of a boardroom to tell me in hushed tones, eyes flitting about, how much Reading Hebron meant to him, how he wished he could produce it—but how difficult it would be to get it past his board. In New York, at a conference of young directors, the artistic director of a Jewish theatre in a fair-sized American city told me—also in ‘between you and me’ fashion—that he ‘loved’ Reading Hebron, wished he could produce it, knew how much it would mean to his audience—but would ‘have to get it past my board.’ At a round-table discussion with all the young directors the next day, this very conscientious arts leader raised the subject of ‘how we can present such difficult plays as Reading Hebron.’ Suggestions were made: There could be discussions before the play and after; educational outreach could be done; forums; consultations with the community. I listened in disgusted silence, then asked, ‘Why not just come out before each performance and apologize for doing the play?’”

Here’s another suggestion for how to present “difficult” plays without causing a ruckus: Put them on in an undisclosed, secret location and fill your seats by invitation only. It sounds like a joke, but this was actually the ludicrous situation in which My Name is Rachel Corrie had its first “public” reading in Canada.

A Toronto Star article about the April event noted that the reading at Hart House at the University of Toronto had gone off “without incident.” Director Paul Leishman told the paper that 50 or so audience members, who were “from all constituencies, which was exactly what we had planned,” had made the reading “a very civilized event where the play was really heard.”

The whole thing sounds like a scene from one of Mordecai Richler’s satires. And it leads to the question: If a political play was put on in the woods and no one reacted passionately, what was the point?

Sherman writes that the current atmosphere in the theatre leaves the serious playwright with two options: Adapt or die. “To adapt is to write down to the level of the marketplace (thus the steady supply of anodyne family dramas and bubbly musicals); to die is to continue to write up to your audience, to see productions fall away to a couple of amateur shows at a university and finally to say fuck it and join the ranks of television writers.”

When folks like Highway and Sherman are ditching the theatre for novels and TV because of our theatres’ genteel desire to please everybody, it’s clear that taking the path of least resistance has become a serious problem. Theatres are flirting with the possibility of irrelevancy, because they are afraid to be relevant and make any decisions that could possibly be construed as controversial—afraid of losing subscribers, of imaginary mobs descending on their auditoriums, of angry columnists lambasting them, of perturbed donors putting their cash elsewhere…. And while producers, directors and playwrights are self-censoring because they worry about rocking the boat, they have failed to notice that it is politely and silently sinking.

Glug, glug. That’s another way to kill playwrights—drown the lot of them in a sea of kindness. 


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