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Wrecking Ball challenges arts cuts

Vancouver hosts protest cabaret at the Vogue

 A world without art is a grey canvas, a blank page, an empty stage and a silent orchestra, say artists who gathered at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre Nov 23 to protest government funding cuts to the arts.

“If you take away art and you take away culture, what do we have left?” asks local writer Mark Leiren Young. “What’s the point?”

Leiren Young was among the more than 300 artists and supporters who gathered in the historic theatre to protest the BC Liberals’ plan to slash arts and community funding by up to 90 percent over the next few years.

But rather than showcase their frustration and disappointment through mere commentary, Vancouver’s theatre community hosted a cabaret.

The cabaret is the brainchild of the Wrecking Ball, a travelling arts event created in 2004 to engage Canada’s theatre community in political dialogue.

Vancouver’s one-night protest cabaret is being mirrored by similar events in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal throughout November as artists in those cities stand in solidarity with BC artists to protest the cuts announced by the Liberals in their September budget update.

Thousands of BC arts and community groups saw their access to grants derived from gaming funds curtailed this fall, leaving many with significant holes in their operating budgets.

Vancouver’s version of Wrecking Ball featured a cornucopia of who’s who in Canada’s art scene, including multiple award-winning actor/playwrights Daniel MacIvor (House, Twitch City) and Linda Griffiths (Maggie and Pierre), Leacock-winning writer Mark Leiren Young, and Alcan Award winner Carmen Aguirre. Denis Simpson hosted the event.

Prior to the show, artists were given one week to write a piece on any subject ripped from the headlines, directors were given a few days to cast the scenes and actors were allotted mere hours to rehearse.

Leiren Young’s parody of Kevin Krueger, BC’s minster of tourism, art and culture, had the crowd in stitches.

The piece saw the minister attempting to justify arts and culture budget cuts. “When you’re in the government you are faced with hard choices,” said actor Robin Richardson who played Krueger. “The money spent on museums [is taken away from] widows and orphans. The money spent on music, taken directly from puppies. And every dollar spent on theatre [is] taken directly from crippled children. Every production of the Christmas Carol forces [the government] to steal a crutch from a real-life Tiny Tim.”

Leiren Young’s piece also noted the BC Liberals’ willingness to fund Olympic ventures while turning its back on the arts – a theme that recurred throughout the show.

The cabaret also featured music from Jim Byrnes (who performed the Bob Dylan civil rights classic “The Times They Are a-Changin”) and a whodunit murder mystery with characters Dwindlyn Funding and Sally Bucks.

“So many of us [in the queer community] are involved in the arts, I think because for us we’ve had no other vehicle of expression but the arts for such a long time,” says lesbian city councillor Ellen Woodsworth, who came to lend her support.

“We were so oppressed but the arts were a place we could dance, we could sing, we could make movies, we could do performances. It was a vehicle for us and I think it still is,” Woodsworth says. “And so I think we need to stand up and fight for the arts.”

“Art is a catalyst to understanding humanity,” says artist Sufeh Lee. “[It inspires] new ways of thinking about life and how people should love each other and what it means to be human.”

“Art is the most important thing the city could possibly offer,” says Fay Nass, a local emerging theatre director. “It brings diversity. It reconnects people, creates bridges between different groups of people and it gives hope and inspiration.”

While the funding cuts haven’t yet affected her directly, Nass says it is only a matter of time.

“It is making it much more difficult to apply for grants,” she says, adding that if established artists are having difficulty getting grants emerging artists may not have a hope.

Donations from the Nov 23 Wrecking Ball cabaret/protest will go directly to the Arts Alliance as well as the BC Association for Charitable Gaming.