Who does a theatre company belong to?
I understand the technical answer to this question. I know about the governance structures and fiscal responsibilities of not-for-profits. My question is existential. It’s being asked in the context of Alberta Theatre Projects’ sudden decision to cancel Without the Rule of Law by Michaela Jeffery, and fire the artists who were working on it seven months before opening.
In 2015, ATP, then under exclusively female leadership, collapsed under the weight of a global oil crash. I cared a lot about their finances then. I gave as much money as I could to help them through because of their principled mandate and history and only after other members of the community led the way. Obviously, that exercise didn’t give individual donors control over the future operations of the company, but it did compel them forward with our confidence. In political campaign terms, we gave them a mandate to continue. After last week, I’ll bet a lot of us want our money back.
I remember when Vicki Stroich called me to confirm that Vanessa Porteus had agreed to produce my play, The Apology. It was the biggest deal I had ever made. Moreover, the play was about transgressive sexuality. It was a risk. Like Jeffery, I had graduated from NTS, paid my dues, hoped and prayed, gotten into the Banff Colony and then struck gold when I met Vicki there. I imagine Jefferies felt just as blessed when she got the good news.
The spring before I was to participate in the Enbridge PlayRights Festival, I had been in Kitimat BC, literally campaigning on doorsteps against the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Not to worry, Vicki assured me. ATP wouldn’t be censored by their sponsor in any way. In fact, they were producing an environmentalist play about the evils of big oil right now. She invited me to a fancy dinner with the oil execs. I was not told not to talk about politics.
A few months later, I told them I was pregnant. Not to worry, I was told for the second time. They would pay for me to have a bigger room so my family could help me with my five-week (!!) old baby. They would allow for any accommodation I needed. Diane Goodman would drive me places and cook me several pasta casseroles.
On the evening that my play opened, Joan MacLeod was there, premiering one of her new works. She took me aside while I was nursing the baby and said: “I just want you to know that after my first play premiered at the PlayRights Festival, my entire career took off. It was a huge night for me.”
Joan MacLeod would not be Joan MacLeod without ATP. I would not still be a playwright without ATP. Countless female writers would not be where they are without ATP. Of course, I feel grateful, but I also feel we deserved the opportunities they gave us, the accommodations they made for us, and the feminist stories they told when they staged our plays.
Michaela Jeffery is entitled to those experiences. They are no longer how theatre should be made: they are examples of the treatment we are entitled to. Since then, I’ve demanded nothing less from any other institution I work for.
It was pernicious for APT ED Darcy Evans to exploit a diversity justification in his first of two announcements regarding the cancellation of WROL. Creating false distinctions between racial, sexual, class and gender justice is bad politics, as any intersectional feminist will tell you. In theatre terms, measuring the artistic “diversity” content of both plays is an offensive exercise in leveraging oppression against the value of the individual artists: Who’s weightier when quantifying diversity? An actor? A director? A designer? Both plays are written by white people. Besides, Evans and his board made this decision because of money.
Fundamental change is required to support racial diversification of Canadian theatre, including at ATP. What Evans wrote to the public last week was an unhelpful appropriation of that work and the language of equity.
We should care, separately, that our theatres are underfunded, that big oil divestments from institutions are an example of why corporate capitalism and art are incompatible, and that crowdsourcing to keep a theatre from closing its doors is a sad failure of a dysfunctional artistic ecosystem. In this case, deprogramming the first big play of a homegrown young writer – one that was nurtured, developed and programmed within that company – is such unethical behaviour that it obliterates all rationalizations. Eleven local artists (three people of colour, and eight women for those who insist on counting) were fired. The play is already billed up on the marquee for the whole world to see.
More than most theatre companies, Alberta Theatre Projects belongs to the community. ATP has premiered more Canadian playwrights than any other company west of Ontario. (More than 150 of our plays have premiered there.) It has seeded and grown a theatre-going audience of Calgarians that wants to see new Canadian plays. Over the past decade, under the leadership of Porteous, Stroich, Goodman and Green, it has manifested a feminist practice rooted in their methodologies, the transformative political plays programmed there, and the very fact that they supported and paid for new work (sadly, a radical act in itself).
A company like ATP exists in a mutual symbiosis between audiences, artists and producers. A change of leadership may have the legal right to obliterate this legacy, but it does not have the social or moral right.
Theatres are not like other businesses. (I know! I just said that!) They don’t only provide a service to the public, they also create the possibility of art in society. When they fail, they take the futures of hundreds of artists with them. I believe every person in every community has the right to art in their lives. I don’t think Darcy Evans should have the right to cancel it, with or without the rule of law.