On Political Theatre

The following was presented as part of a panel on Political Theatre presented by the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa. The panel included Katherine Kaszas and Richard Greenblatt.

I’m not sure that political  theatre should be produced any more than romantic theatre or musical  theatre or clown theatre.  That decision  has more to do with the taste of the artists and the taste of the audiences.   From my perspective, audiences can find political theatre as interesting as anything else.  West Wing is popular.    So is Sex in the City.  Michael Healey’s Plan B, a play with a political backdrop, won best play but then so did his The Drawer Boy which had a farm as a backdrop.  Mamet says that all an audience wants is see is what happens next.  I think an audience wants to see human behaviour.  Put together and we have a story and characters.  A play about theatre or theatre ideas is a lecture and will at best be ‘very interesting’.   But a theatre of story and character can have anything as a backdrop.  Gangsters, con men and grifters are popular.  Not a big step to politicians is it?

I disagree with my colleague Richard Greenblatt who says that political theatre only works only on children.  I disagree because my own political activism has emerged in adulthood as a result of theatre.  When I was 28 I read George Grant’s Lament For a Nation which explained (in 1963 mark you) why Canada would inevitably become part of the United States.  Being a nationalist he called his book a Lament.  Not an outrage because he seriously didn’t think outrage would change anything but sorrowfully.  I, however, was outraged and I wrote a play called Booster McCrane P.M. (Catherine Kaszas directed two very successful productions) in which a Prime Minister declares war on the United States, proceeds to win the war only to be defeated in a non confidence motion by his own government.  Head a Tete is a play about schoolyard games that mirrored the terrifying cold war posturing between the United States and the USSR.  Danny, King of the Basement which Richard so brilliantly directed was inspired by my shock at the levels of child poverty in Toronto.  Having Hope at Home  asks the political question, who has control over childbirth?  The medical patriarchy or midwives and mothers.

When we think of politics and theatre, we can begin with the idea of the Magnetic North Theatre festival. The decision to program Canadian work is of course intentionally exclusive.  We are celebrating excellent theatre art but we are also saying, in that celebration, that theatre made in Canada, made by Northern North Americans, is valuable as opposed to doing theatre from England or America or 100 miles South of here in New York State.

It may seem axiomatic to say that a country should  celebrate it’s artistic creation but it’s not.  I recently had a conversation with a senior producer at the National Film Board.  We were discussing the film adaptation of my play, Danny, King of the Basement.  She deplored the divide between Canadian film and Canadian theatre while at the same time saying,  without a trace of irony, how much she adored British theatre and was looking forward to a trip to London where she already had tickets to see a play by David Mamet.  I felt, somehow, less than significant in a place I thought would be home base.  Now I don’t want to pretend to be better than this producer.  She rattled on about Canadian film makers, whose names I haven’t heard of and whose films I haven’t seen, but it was interesting that a champion of Canadian culture should instantly turn to foreign culture as soon as she left the office.  If that confusion exists in our cultural industries, think what it  must be like for the public.

The best revenge and the only revenge of course is being good.  That is the thing we all want and the only thing ultimately we have control over.  But WHEN we are good, it would be nice to be noticed or even, god forbid, celebrated and that’s how we come to be where we are today and it’s a very good thing.