Artists across Canada practising political theatre

A theatre group called the Wrecking Ball, with chapters in 10 cities across the country, will be presenting an evening of political drama on Monday night.

Campaign by Canadian talent targets more than funding cuts

Playwright Wajdi Mouawad speaks Monday night. His defence of the arts has been circulating on the internet. (Matthieu Girard/National Arts Centre)
A theatre group called the Wrecking Ball, with chapters in 10 cities across the country, will be presenting an evening of political drama on Monday night.

Some of Canada's most prominent playwrights, including Judith Thompson, David Fennario, Michael Turner and Chris Craddock, have written works for the events, all of them with a political flavour.

Margaret Atwood, whose fiery tirade against the Harper Conservatives was featured in the Globe and Mail, and Wajdi Mouawad, the award-winning Quebec playwright whose passionate defence of the arts has been circulating via the internet, are to speak.

There are Wrecking Ball events in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Corner Brook, N.L.

It's the first time such an event has been held across Canada, and an indication of the extent that artists are jumping into the political process in this election.

It's not just about arts funding cuts anymore — artists are making a conscious attempt to address wider political issues.

"It's an evening of fresh theatre with uncensored content," said Koby Rogers-Hall, co-ordinator of another artist-run political organization, the Department of Culture, in Montreal.

"They might write about anything regarding the election," she said. "We're hoping Canadians will respond to it. Whatever audiences put out there, we hope to have a dialogue."

Writers are donating their work and actors are donating their time to get the works on stage in readings, songs and performances geared to showing art that's relevant to ordinary Canadians.

Jason Collett is one of dozens of Canadian musicians performing at This is Not a Conservative Party in Toronto. ((Victor Tavares))
The Department of Culture, an artist-run initiative that came together five weeks ago to get political action on arts funding cuts, will receive the proceeds of the Wrecking Ball events.

The group, started in Toronto but now operating nationally, has been the catalyst for much of the political action by artists.

Wider issues addressed

"We're targeting the two major issues that Canadians care about — the environment and the economy," said Michael Wheeler, the Toronto-based central co-ordinator of the Department of Culture.

"We're ordinary people and we're concerned about those things, too."

In Toronto, the Department of Culture has 700 volunteers who are talking with Canadians about the environment, the economy and leadership, and tackling the issue of strategic voting in swing ridings. The group has large chapters in Montreal and Winnipeg and smaller groups of supporters in other cities.

While the arts cuts and the prime minister's comments about Canadians not caring about the arts have helped mobilize artists, their political response is more focused than just a defence of the arts.

The message is strongly anti-Conservative. "We don't believe Stephen Harper represents Canadian values," Wheeler said.

"We talk about the idea of an entirely hands-off approach to the economy — it's naive in these times. We think there should be active government to make sure our economy runs smoothly," he said.

In addition to teams of artists targeting swing ridings, the Department of Culture has organized arts events across the country. Among them:

  • This is Not the Conservative Party, in Toronto this Thursday, a concert with Dave Bidini, Jason Collett, Nadjiwon and other Canadian artists.
  • This is Not the Conservative Party, taking place in Regina Tuesday, Winnipeg Wednesday and Ottawa Friday.
  • Affiliated events such as an ACTRA-Writers Guild rally in Toronto Wednesday.

The campaign also makes strong use of new technologies, with an online "election kit," artists challenged to create a 30-second online video on election issues and plans for a YouTube broadcast of the Wrecking Ball events.

Many Toronto artists have stepped out of their usual communities, which vote Liberal or NDP, to target swing ridings in Oakville and Whitby-Oshawa that might be receptive to the anything-but-Conservative message, Wheeler said.

"We didn't want to just sit [downtown] on election night and hear about how the rest of the country voted. We wanted to make our own form of political participation."

Wheeler, himself a director at Praxis Theatre, said it's easy to recruit artists for political campaigning.

"Not everyone can drop everything and work on something for six weeks, but that's the way artists operate — they're used to putting a short burst of energy into a project," he said.