January 2012 saw a mini shock wave rumble through the Canadian arts community, when Tarragon Theatre writer-in-residence Michael Healey abruptly quit his post at the Toronto theatre.
The celebrated artist had been with the company for 11 years. They’d premiered six of his plays during that time, including Generous and Courageous, the first two parts of his trilogy exploring Canadian values. But when it came to the third in the series, Proud, artistic director Richard Rose balked. Written in the wake of Stephen Harper’s successful stab at a majority government in 2011, Proud featured an unnamed character known only as “the Prime Minister,” portrayed in a less than flattering light.
Healey had run the script by a libel lawyer and received the all clear. But a member of the theatre’s board (also a lawyer) worried it could prompt a defamation lawsuit. Rose announced it would not be produced. Stunned and mystified, Healey (after prolonged contemplation) packed up his office and left.
Had the gesture come at a different time, it may have mattered less. But Rose’s refusal to stage the work was hot on the heels of two other controversies — the SummerWorks festival’s federal funding being slashed after presenting Homegrown (a play the Prime Minister’s Office said “glorified terrorism”) and visual artist Franke James (whose works addressing climate change sometimes take direct aim at the prime minister) seeing funding for her European tour cancelled.
Whether or not the PMO was censoring artists whose politics it didn’t like, it certainly felt like it was.
Despite the initial disappointment, the publicity surrounding these events did nothing but benefit the artists. SummerWorks launched a successful fundraising campaign, more than making up for its lost grant. James made censorship the subject of a successful new body of work. And Healey had companies from Halifax to Vancouver to Whitehorse stage readings of the play to raise money for his own production.
After the successful staging in Toronto, Healey brings the work to the doorstep of its principal subject, playing the lead role himself (as he did in the original). Is he hopeful Harper might attend?
“It would make for a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event,” Healey says with a laugh. “Everyone watching him watching me, sort of playing him. Imagine how alive that room would be! In truth, the tendency to demonize Harper has as much to do with a change in our political atmosphere as anything he’s done. I’m more interested in the challenge of trying to explain him to people.”