Playwright MICHAEL HEALEY has been in the news lately, after Tarragon Theatre -where he’s been a playwright-in-residence for ten plus years- elected not to program his new play, Proud, on the grounds that it could be considered libelous towards Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
THE POP GROUP sent Mr. Healey a series of questions on the subject, and on the overall state of the Toronto theatre community, and he answered with his usual eloquence and wisdom.
Following the elimination of Summerworks’ funding last year by Canada Heritage, and with Rob Ford’s attempts to cut arts funding, the Toronto theatre community is operating in this state of almost constant or constantly impending attack; what effect do you see this having on the artist and on the institutions -Tarragon Theatre, for instance- that facilitate art?
I mean no disrespect at all toward the passion this question is founded on, but it’s Syrian civilians who are under attack. What we’re involved in is the push-pull of points of view in a reasonably healthy democracy. I think it’s important to frame things this way, because civil debate is the only way to get things done, in my view. Plus, the problem with passion is that it gets spent.
That’s not to say that the outrage over Summerworks wasn’t justified, but unless a response is considered with an endgame in mind, then we just shout at them, they just shout at us. We dismiss each other. We need to do more of what the current government does so well: don’t engage unless there’s a point, focus on what we want to accomplish, create a message that captivates those who might come to our way of thinking.
To answer your question about theatres and artists: we need to be reminded that the stakes are higher than we tend to assume. It’s natural to assume that because we’ve had these institutions flourish for decades, they will continue to do so. People are genetically disposed to taking things for granted. But the fact is, like any other social agreement, a viable theatre scene exists only as long as we believe that it should. It’s boring to constantly be questioning our own relevance, but that’s what it takes.
You mentioned before that Tarragon has taken some lumps since declining to program Proud, but that you weren’t interested in laying blame at their feet as so many others have, wanting the discussion on the issue to focus on the atmosphere that the government has created instead; to kind of bridge the two arguments, what do you think a theatre facing declining ticket sales and threats to cultural funding can do? Theatre, at its best, has always been a social critic, but do we now keep our mouths shut until the regime changes -and risk becoming irrelevant- or is this the time when we shout the loudest?
David Hare says that theatre is a vast supermarket. If your theatre faces declining ticket sales, try another part of the supermarket. If your funding is threatened, employ strategies for securing it or replacing it. That sounds easier than it actually is, of course. Stratford is a model of how to handle those problems: they happily wheel down the musical aisle and load up yearly. And they fundraise to the point where they now say proudly that public subsidy represents less than 5% of their revenue.
If you don’t care for that model, and many don’t, and if your goals are political, then you need to indemnify yourself to as great an extent as possible against the problems of ticket sales and funding oscillations. Fundraising becomes key. Ticket sales you try to secure by making important, impossible-to-miss events of theatre.
Public funding problems are addressed in a group setting. If you’re getting bullied by a public funder, the bully’s main tactic is isolation. When the group surrounding the bullied theatre becomes large enough, it’s politically disadvantageous for the bully, and that’s the only thing that stops it.
Was the writing of Proud any kind of attempt to pick a bit of a fight? Were you throwing water in the bully’s face? You are, with the wild success of The Drawer Boy and many of your other plays, in the position of being able to speak and have others listen.
It was the play that arrived next, that’s all. The two previous plays, Generous and Courageous, addressed questions of Canadian values, but their politics were more or less benign. Proud speaks to other Canadian values, but the context is overtly political. It’s a testament to the degree of freedom I’ve enjoyed as an artist that it never occurred to me that the next one would be problematic for anyone. Also a bit of an awakening — I’m as susceptible to taking things for granted as anyone.
You are also -and I’m assuming here- in the position financially because of those successes to be able to speak without necessarily having your livelihood threatened; do you feel any kind of responsibility to speak up for the playwrights and actors who are coming up in your footsteps, but who may be wary to do so because they depend on grants?
Sadly, the financial freedom the Drawer Boy provided has dried up; most every theatre that wanted to do that play has done it. It gave me many good years, but now I’m back needing a hit like everyone else, almost certainly at a subsidized theatre. The responsibility I feel to younger theatre artists is more in the vein of wanting to make sure they see the landscape clearly.
Any political aspirations?
You can read THE POP GROUP’s original post on the Proud situation HERE.