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Who's afraid of Canadian political theatre?

I have been told so often that the kind of social and political theatre I love best is no longer of any interest to the theatregoer that it would have required far greater resources of confidence than those I possess not occasionally to feel that I, and some of the writers I admire most, are practicing some sort of traditional folk craft artificially sustained by people who have not realized how the world has changed.

David Hare's comments on theatre in England in the nineties seem to apply too painfully to the state of political theatre in Canada today--or at least to the kind of author-driven theatre performed in mainstream venues. This is surprising, since at its core Canadian theatre has always been entwined with politics. The original attempt to foster a culture of theatre in Canada was an inherently political act, with the process of theatre-building coinciding with, and being influenced by, the radical politics of the day.

The Alternative Movement in Canadian Theatre

The alternative theatre movement succeeded in developing Canadian plays and playwrights, and in getting Canadian stories onstage. Under the umbrella of its Canadian mandate, a plurality of political voices could speak--provided that they could also be seen to be articulating Canadian national or regional identity. Though Canadian plays for the most part are still not being produced in the larger regional theatres, the production success of the alternatives did generate a feeling of "mission accomplished."

With the subsequent loss of urgency to tell Canadian stories, however, the economic imperative of keeping theatres running has tended increasingly to overwhelm the political impulse. More and more, theatre people began to think that it would be nice to speak politically--only if they could afford the luxury of offending the paying audience. Granting bodies ostensibly reward artistic risk-taking, but the pressure on theatres to adopt Best Business Practices, not to show a deficit and to display an increase in the numbers of tickets sold on grant applications inevitably led established companies to become more "risk averse."

A Mile in Someone Else's Moccasins

Without the covering rubric of Canadian identity, the diversity of voices and heightened awareness of the complexity of speaking positions has resulted in political self-censorship. Tomson Highway's plays challenge, edify and entertain, working politically, artistically and commercially. Nonetheless, they are too rarely performed for fear of political missteps in casting or reception. Indeed, after the difficulty getting a production of his play, Rose, Highway voiced his reluctance to continue writing theatre at all: "When it dawned on me, one cloudy day, that my career as a playwright had been destroyed by political correctness, I just about died." More recently, while acknowledging the politically fraught question of cross-casting, he has suggested that it might actually serve a purpose. For Highway, it might do "Whitey good to walk a mile in my moccasins."

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Productions of Highway's plays have engendered controversy on both the Left and the Right. The 1991 remount of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing at the commercial Royal Alexandra Theatre, following its successful original production run at Theatre Passe Muraille, is a case in point. In the larger, commercial venue, the play garnered a much different reception. The ambiguousness in form allowed the brutal enactments of male violence against women to be seen as misogynist rather than as an exposing of the poison. At the same time, the combination of form and content offered pleasure to the audience--only to ruthlessly deny it. No one was satisfied, and both sides once again squeezed the middle with a simple message: Avoid controversy.

The dilemma of political theatre always lies in the twin desires to control the message and yet simultaneously to motivate the audience to think for themselves. This problem is further complicated by the commercial imperative not to bore, to draw an audience and to fill seats. This can be a problem when, for many, a full house feels like a political sellout. Reaching a broad audience pollutes the message, but maintaining a purity of message diminishes the size of the potential audience. Ultimately, theatre is a bastardized form that places conflicting demands upon those who engage in it.

David Hare speaks of this dilemma of the political playwright: "The Right loathed me because they claimed I was doing the very thing of which the Left was meanwhile claiming I wasn't doing enough--turning the theatre from a place of harmless, corroborative entertainment into a boring dissenters' pulpit. Inevitably, one side wanted me to preach more; the other less."

Wendy Lill and David Fennario are two major artists who have continued to engage in the political onstage. Both have again recently tried to negotiate a balance by returning to alternative theatres with a political purpose.

The Work of Wendy Lill

Wendy Lill's early work is a good example of the early historical mode in Canadian theatre. Her first major play, The Fighting Days, originally produced at Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1983, details the struggles of suffragettes Nellie McClung and Francis and Lily Beynon. These women unite to fight for the vote before splitting over the issues of whether to include minority women in the franchise and whether to be pacifists during wartime. The action of the play serves the inclusive purpose of sharing Canadian stories, even while it has more specifically pacifist-feminist goals. It is direct in its arguments and politics, with the characters stating what they think and feel, even though some critics have suggested that the naturalistic form causes the audience to receive this speech passively.

In The Occupation of Heather Rose, originally produced in 1986, also at PTE, Lill turned to a different form, offering a critique of unexamined white, middle-class liberal attitudes towards First Nations. This was done through a confessional, one-woman piece in which the protagonist tells the audience of her experiences at a remote nursing station while waiting for her supervisor to arrive. The shift in form allows for direct speech to the audience, even though the speaker remains in character. In this play, the audience must actively engage in negotiating the differences between what the character says and what she does. Ultimately, the intention is for the audience to reflect upon what they themselves might say and do--or have said and done. The politics lie in the character getting things wrong, in the ambivalence of the experience and in the space between political speech and individual journey.

Just before she ran for office and became the NDP Member of Parliament for Dartmouth, Lill returned in her play Corker to a more directly naturalistic form. In this play, she wanted to illustrate the increasing problems of mental illness and home-lessness by having the character of Corker move into the home of the protagonist, Merit, a high-ranking government functionary. Corker's unwanted but undeniable presence forces a personal response, which she finally resolves by accepting him and rejecting her job. At least one critic assailed it from the Right for being too preachy, too direct about its message--but its happy ending also was open to criticism from the Left because its ending seems to relieve audience and government of responsibility. In the face of such dual criticism, Lill strives to balance story and message. Her move to Parliament suggests that she certainly believes in fighting at both personal and political levels.

Chimera, originally produced in 2007 at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, marks Lill's return to playwriting after her years in Parliament from 1997 to 2004. In this play, she insists on continuing her parliamentary work in theatrical form by focusing on the ethics of stem-cell research. Once again, she does so in a balanced form that tries to tell a story and communicate a message. Lill has been criticized for her continued use of bourgeois forms, but since she comes from and is trying to speak to a middle-class audience, perhaps this is actually appropriate.

Where Is David Fennario?

As early as 1986, Jim Dresson and Bruce K. Filson were asking in Canadian Theatre Review, "Where is David Fennario now?" Part of that reaction has to do with the phenomenal success of his early and still most famous play, Balconville, which was originally produced in 1979 at Montreal's Centaur Theatre and spoke to the linguistic, cultural and economic divisions in Montreal's Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood. But that success came at a price. In his 1994 play, Banana Boots, first produced by Mixed Company at Toronto's Annex Theatre, Fennario documents himself and his reactions to the international touring of Balconville. Speaking as the author on stage, he describes a production in Belfast and his growing disillusionment with the places his play is speaking in, the people it is speaking to, and the purposes it is serving. Balconville had seemingly been commercially, artistically and politically successful--but that success and the ambivalences of its naturalistic form allowed other facets, like the purely comic, to be emphasized at the expense of its working-class message. Ultimately, Fennario rejects both the middle-class theatre and the naturalistic form, and concludes with the decision to work in small community the-atres and to be more direct in his speaking.

A growing disenchantment with the changes in the nationalist movement in Quebec and its betrayal of its unionist roots led him to his critique, The Death of Rene Levesque. In this play, Fennario comments on the creeping betrayal of the social-democratic impulse in favour of what later became called "winning conditions." He does this by placing five of the movement's important participants, including Levesque, onstage throughout, speaking directly to the audience in epic style about their experiences and commenting on one another's failures. But the francophone audience was not ready to hear this criticism, yet. In its original run at the Centaur in 1991, the company received death threats and broken windows, and the play needed security guards at performances and garnered scathing reviews in the French press, including a front-page pan in Le Devoir by Robert Levesque, which stated simply, "Theatralement, c'est une merde."

Fennario revised the play in 2003, however, and brought it back, believing that the changing political climate in response to globalization made a common working-class anglophone and francophone protest possible. He also brought back Balconville, in a sense, by agreeing to The Centaur's request for a sequel, Condoville.

In this play, the working-class characters of both backgrounds are tensely united against the common enemy of gentrification. Though he also returns to the naturalistic form of the earlier piece, Fennario chooses to end this latter play with direct address. Indeed, Globe & Mail critic Matthew Hays argues that this choice was Fennario's biggest mistake, because it explained the fate of the residents rather than leaving the audience "as he did so brilliantly in the first play, on an uncertain ambiguous note." Fennario's revision of Levesque and his revisiting of Balconville show that he believes a wider engagement is currently possible--but he does not want one that leaves the message at the mercy of context. He wants the theatre to be "a weapon in the struggle."

Negotiating the Claims

Both David Fennario and Wendy Lill (and the alternatives that produce them) try to negotiate the criticisms from both sides that beset political theatre by striking their own balances between attracting audiences and communicating to provoke political change. That they both do so in relatively mainstream venues suggests a belief that political theatre can still be effective in the centre, provided it find a way to incorporate the conflicting demands of political message, artistic form and commercial necessity.

Political theatre must communicate directly and clearly, but if audiences are to be actively engaged, they have to be left with opportunities to form their own interpretations. While an audience that does not demand much from its playwrights tends to get the plays it deserves, playwrights who do not trust their publics also tend to get the audiences they deserve.
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Title Annotation:Artists & Politics
Author:Kerr, Bill
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:1983
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