Benefit reading boosts SummerWorks theatre fest

More than 70 theatre troupes across Canada take part in a staged reading of a controversial play to support Toronto's SummerWorks Theatre Festival, which recently had its funding cut by the federal government.

Dozens of theatre companies across Canada presented staged readings of Catherine Frid's controversial play Homegrown on Friday night — a show of unity and support for Toronto's SummerWorks Theatre Festival, which recently had its funding cut by the federal government.

The initiative was a way to raise awareness of the company's plight and a fundraiser for SummerWorks. The more than 70 participating theatre troupes — from Vancouver, Whitehorse, Edmonton and Winnipeg to Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax — asked attendees to pay what they could for admission.

Actors in Toronto take part in a staged reading of the play Homegrown in support of the city's SummerWorks theatre festival, which had its federal funding cut. (CBC)

"This is happening across the country, in 14 locations that I know of," said Trevor Schwellnus, artistic producer at Aluna Theatre, which co-produced Homegrown at last year's edition of SummerWorks.

"Summerworks is super important to us, because it's the place where we launched our company. The first production we did was a Summerworks production," Schwellnus added. "It really gave us our start."

In late June, Canadian Heritage informed the Toronto-based festival there would be no government funding for its 2011 season, which starts in August.

The indie theatre festival — which highlights new plays and new artists, often bringing them to national attention — had received government support for several years, with the annual amount comprising about 20 per cent of its budget.

Organizers of the Friday night readings were aiming to supplement the roughly $35,000 in private donations that patrons and supporters have already made to SummerWorks this month after news spread about the funding gap.

Controversy over Homegrown

Some connected the halted funding to the festival's 2010 presentation of Homegrown, which dramatizes a friendship between lawyer-playwright Frid and Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the so-called Toronto 18 who was convicted of participating in a bomb plot in March.

"We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism," a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office told a Toronto newspaper in 2010.

Frid has said her work wasn't a means to express sympathy for the group, but an attempt to spark dialogue about the world in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently said arts groups should not assume they will get federal funding year after year. Heritage Minister James Moore reiterated the point this week in an interview with CBC, and also denied that political interference led to SummerWorks losing its funding.

"The [SummerWorks] request this year was for $45,000. To be blunt, it had nothing to do with the Homegrown play. I haven't seen it — I've heard the debate on it, but I'm not interested in it," Moore said during an interview with CBC Radio's cultural affairs show Q.

He added that the cut to SummerWorks meant other festivals could receive government grants.

"People can draw up whatever conspiracy theories they want," Moore said. "The fact is that funding went to another festival, and other festivals are going forward."