In early February, Canadian theatres felt a chill quite apart from the nip in the winter air: It was then that Michael Healey, a leading Canuck playwright best known for his three-hander The Drawer Boy, resigned from his residency at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, taking with him a play called Proud, which Tarragon had refused to produce out of fear of libel action.
What, pray tell, was the too-hot-for-the-stage subject matter that Healey addressed in Proud—the third in a trilogy of plays about contemporary Canadian politics? In this case, it was about a character named simply “Prime Minister,” who is unmistakeably modeled on Canada’s current conservative PM, Stephen Harper. Healey’s play traces the Prime Minister’s ascent and the development of his governing philosophy, and weighs the costs of both to the Canadian social contract. Though reports indicate that there’s nothing scandalous or prurient in Healey’s script, a member of the Tarragon’s board, a retired lawyer named John McKellar, voiced concerns about libel, leading the theatre’s artistic director, Richard Rose, to withdraw the play.
The play’s cancellation and Healey’s resignation have a happy ending, for Toronto theatregoers, at least: It will be mounted Sept. 7-Oct. 6 at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto, in an independently funded production starring Healey himself as the Prime Minister. Talk about putting yourself into your work.
In conjunction with its May/June special report on Canadian theatre, American Theatre interviewed Healey recently about the controversy, his intentions, and the state of Canadian politics.
Q: From what I’ve read about it, it was not conveyed to you, or you can’t say, what specifically in the content of Proud John McKellar thought risked libel action. Is this simply a political disagreement—is McKellar a Conservative and/or a Harper voter, and is thus simply not keen on a play that’s critical of the Prime Minister?
Michael Healey: Not 100 percent clear, but in an initial meeting (with Tarragon a.d. Richard Rose), I was told McKellar’s concern stemmed from a section of the play where the PM discusses the concept of personal integrity. I have no idea what McKellar’s political leanings are, but I would encourage you to ask him for clarity in these two areas. Because honest to God, I still don’t get it.
Q: Maybe I should step back and ask, Was it your intention primarily to criticize Harper, and if so, on what grounds? Could you give us Americans a sense of where he fits on the political landscape in comparison to our political spectrum, and perhaps tell me what the central objections to him might be (as well as any of his good points, if you’d like)?
Healey: The play reflects the reality that for the first time, we have a truly small-c conservative federal government. Harper himself has said that previous conservative governments were really left-of-centre. His has taken the tenants of modern conservatism—smaller government, less regulation, freer markets (as well as several aspects of social conservatism)—and applied them to this country. Basically, he’s moved us truly centre-right for the first time ever. My play looks at the slow growth of his movement (who he’s had to convince to align with him, the mistakes and sacrifices he’s made, and what he’s learned about campaigning and party discipline) and gives, I think, a pretty accurate account of what he’s gone through. He’s pulled the country toward him. He is, in some ways, Shaw’s notion of the strong man. Even though by American standards, I guess he’d still be regarded as practically socialist.
My question about this mode of governing, which comes late in a play in which the Harper character is in many ways the most sympathetic, is about whether this focused, intensely partisan way means that the people who didn’t vote for him are essentially disenfranchised until the next election. It may seem quaint to America readers, but until now, the PM campaigned as a partisan, and at least made some gesture toward governing as a leader for the whole country. This change is, to me, un-Canadian.
Q: Do you see this controversy as part of a chilling trend in which state-supported theater is expected not to be too critical of the state?
Healey: One of the things Harper has learned over the years is the importance of controlling the message. He and his team react strongly to anyone who has a message that varies from theirs. Firing of bureaucrats and diplomats, strong criticism of elder statesmen who speak up, isolating journalists who they regard as unhelpful. They are also extremely litigious, and have used lawsuits (which they later withdraw) as a tactic to slow down a counter-narrative created by someone else. I’ve said that if this play were about Paul Martin (the PM prior to Harper), then no one would have batted and eye. Of course, no one would have bought a ticket, either…
Richard always said they were worried about a cease-and-desist order (because of a libel suit) coming just as we were to start rehearsals for the play. There would be no time to program something else in its place, and the theatre would lose a sixth of its season’s revenues. This was the chance they decided not to take, or so Richard explained to me. As chill goes, that’s pretty classic, I’d say. The theatre’s margins are tight, and there’s no way to realistically assess the threat, so they choose not to take the risk.
The majority of arts funding goes through the Canada Council, which is an arm of the Heritage Ministry. Tarragon’s public funds come this way. It is transparent and peer-reviewed. But more and more, funds are being handed out directly by the ministry, which means the minister (potentially) has control. You can look up what happened to the Summerworks Festival last year to see the effect this has. (Note: Last year the Department of Canadian Heritage pulled its funding, roughly 20 percent of the festival’s budget, because Catherine Frid’s Homegrown, a play about the “Toronto 18” bomb plot, was thought too sympathetic to its terrorist subjects.)
Q: Are you concerned that the controversy has unduly raised expectations of Proud—that people will come in expecting an excoriating takedown of Harper and/or something really risqué or transgressive?
Healey: The best way for an audience to arrive is knowing nothing. That’s not going to be the case here, and I’ve traded opening quietly for the chance to speak about the profound changes taking place in this country. I hope that I can get the message out before the production that those who come for the Harper-bashing will be frustrated and bored. On the other hand, those coming to see Harper involved in something racy will…also be frustrated and bored. I simply want to find out: Is this way of doing things actually un-Canadian, or do I have to expand (or shrink, depending on your point of view) my idea of what’s Canadian?
Q: Tell me a bit about how the Berkeley Street Theatre production came about.
Healey: I decided I would self-produce when it was clear that the time the Tarragon had taken to make their decision about the play meant no other Toronto theatre could consider it for their ’12-’13 season. I became obsessed with the idea of mounting the play before the year’s end, and I found a rental space at the smaller of the two theatres at Berkeley St. I’m too late to apply for government grants, so the play is a true free-market exercise. The Harper government would approve.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is Associate Editor at American Theatre. Prior to that he was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Back Stage West, and he writes about the arts for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Time Out New York. He is also a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.