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  • Politics in theatre, both on stage and off

    Monica Prendergast

    Good political theatre can unsettle audiences towards making a better world.


    WHEN I BEGAN WRITING THIS FOCUS COLUMN in January 2014, I quoted American playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America definition of theatre as a blend of “poetry, politics and popcorn.” I believe that all theatre is political, as it either works to reinforce or undermine the societal status quo. Plays and productions that support the status quo are comforting to audiences, requiring little or no critical thinking. These are popcorn experiences, perhaps with a dash of poetry if you are lucky. 

    Performances that aim to undermine the status quo are another thing altogether. These more political plays can unsettle an audience, creating a sense of tension or even disruption. These are theatrical experiences that can be difficult to walk away from, that linger in the conscience asking, “What are you doing to make a better world?”

    Victoria audiences do not get to see the latter kind of play often enough, in my view. I have to travel off the Island to see more political theatre productions in New York, Vancouver, Toronto or London. However, this spring we have the chance to see two plays (and to not see one more) that take political positions at Langham Court and the Belfry Theatre. I’ll return to those later on. For now, I want to turn my attention to politics itself, and some recent events that highlight the theatrical nature of political actions by both politicians fighting for survival and protesters advocating for change.

    As I write this, the memory of US Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of President Trump’s State of the Union address is fresh in my mind. This was a brilliant piece of political theatre, carried out literally behind the President’s back, and enacting a kind of ritualized rejection of Trump and his corrupt regime.

    Performance has played a major role in the protests against Trump since his inauguration; think of the pink pussy-hats worn in the women’s marches, or of the use of costumes, giant puppets, and masks in gay rights marches or marches for action on climate change. The so-called “rabble” has always well understood the power of performance.

    One example of this power sticks in my mind. During the Walk for Our Lives in March of 2018, led by the young students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, one of the student leaders carried out a highly performative political action. Emma González, at the age of 18, stood before a massive crowd in the Washington Mall and remained silent with her eyes closed for the exact amount of time it took for the student gunman in her school to erase 17 lives. Six long minutes. Silence can speak volumes, as it did in this terribly moving moment, in the face of the ongoing horrors of gun violence in America.

    And what about political theatre closer to home? Can we talk about Justin Trudeau’s past penchant for blackface and brownface makeup and costume for a moment? When this story broke at the beginning of our last election, I thought he was done for, kaput. But you can never underestimate the white majority’s tolerance of performed racism. Trudeau’s weak apologetics and the surfacing of even more photos documenting his noxious partying practice did not sway the voters much at all. What this says about the Canadian public requires more reflection than I can do here. But it has left a shameful mark on all who made excuses then held their noses and voted Liberal.

    Now let’s return to the two plays scheduled for this March and April that promise some attention to political matters.

    First up is American playwright Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play Silent Sky at Langham Court Theatre (April 15 to May 2), directed by Zelda Dean. Gunderson is touted on her Wikipedia page as the most-produced living playwright in America. At the age of 38 she has written two dozen plays, so is clearly very prolific as well as popular. Silent Sky reflects some of Gunderson’s interests in women and women’s issues. The play tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th century who was denied the right to use the telescope in the laboratory. However, she persisted in the “women’s work” of examining photos taken by the telescope. This work led to her important discovery around measuring distance in space called period-luminosity relation, or “Leavitt’s law.” Silent Sky is not the most political of Gunderson’s many plays, two of which have tackled gun violence (most recently, Natural Shocks) and the contemporary political landscape in the Age of Trump (The Taming). But she is interested in the larger feminist reclamation project that is attempting to honour women’s historical contributions to science and society. In an online interview, Gunderson comments, “What is true about theatre is true about politics: it’s all personal.”

    At the Belfry Theatre, we will see Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s political comedy about the quick rise and fall of Prime Minister Joe Clark in 1979. Healey’s previous political play Proud was seen at the Belfry in 2014, and was a satirical comedy about PM Stephen Harper. This time Healey chooses to look back further, to the evening before Clark’s minority government was voted down. In the play, Clark is visited by political figures such as John Crosbie, Flora MacDonald, Pierre Trudeau, his wife Maureen McTeer, and even a young Stephen Harper. All of these figures, on both sides of the political divide, try to influence Clark, who is trying to stick to his principles in the face of almost certain defeat. Director Glynis Leyshon (who also directed Proud) is sure to pull out the full comic potential of this play, especially as two of the three actors in the cast play multiple roles. The show runs from April 21 to May 17.

    I’m going to end this column with a few thoughts on an event that happened at Langham Court Theatre over two years ago that has had a political fallout leading to the cancellation of one of Langham’s productions this spring. Before rehearsals began for a production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs in the fall of 2017, an African-Canadian woman actor was discouraged from auditioning for the show by the play’s director who envisioned the play as an all-white one. There is currently a BC Human Rights Tribunal case on this matter that has been covered in the press and has been very traumatic for Langham Court Theatre and its board of directors, who have been named in the case along with the director of the play. I was an actor in this production, and the fallout from this event, which was shared with the cast only on the night before the show opened, was and is very challenging.

    In the wake of these events, which are still to be heard in full by the Human Rights Tribunal, a decision was made to cancel the scheduled production of The Blue Light by Canadian playwright Mieko Ouchi. This play is about the life of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who is best known for her collaboration with the Nazis, particularly in the 1935 documentary/propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Both Hitler and Goebbels are characters in the play. Riefenstahl was blacklisted for the remainder of her life, a long one, as she lived to be 101 and died in Germany in 2003.

    The difficult decision to cancel this production was carried out in consultation with members of the Victoria theatre and Jewish communities, and is a decision I personally support, given the human rights case the theatre is facing. Langham Court has made admirable efforts in the wake of the 2017 event to reach out to minority communities in Victoria, and to invite minority actors to audition for its shows. These are laudable changes for a long-lived company that has perhaps been historically guilty of an unquestioning acceptance of endless all-white casts. But the challenging fact remains, a political fact, that a play by a woman of colour was withdrawn from the season. Like I have said, it’s all political in theatre, any way you look at it.

    Monica looks forward to another busy year with plenty of theatregoing along the way.

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