Last week, one of the guys who convinced me to start blogging, Denis McGrath, wrote a heartfelt piece on his more-or-less mothballed website, "Dead Things On Sticks" entitled "One More For A Good Cause: Why Censoring Summerworks Means No More Flashpoints".
It was a passionate post decrying a recent denial of Federal funding for the Toronto "Summerworks" Theatre Festival.
As Denis laid out the scenario, "Summerworks", an important showcase for new talent and the place where he'd gotten his start as a dramatic writer, had been denied $40,000 in essential funding barely a month before the festival opens and that loss of financing threatened the very survival of this Summer's edition.
On that point, I couldn't agree more. I got my own start in theatre festivals not unlike "Summerworks" and for many years served as a board member of a Toronto theatre company intimately involved with similar enterprises as well as "Summerworks" itself.
Promoting unknown artists and experimental work is always a crapshoot. Arts Bureaucrats, audiences and especially the media don't really know what they're being sold or which shows might be worth an investment of their time and money, so it's an uphill battle to fill seats.
Yet a lot of great work has come out of "Summerworks". Given the nature of the beast, there's been a lot of crap too. But like all artistic endeavors, you try to learn from the bad while hoping the good will erase all memory of the other stuff as it builds and inspires your audience.
So "Summerworks" was given a steep final hill to climb after already running a full marathon with heavy packs. And being the kind of gung-ho, generous guy he is, one of the few in Canadian showbiz who consistently walks the walk, Denis ponied up $1000 to help them out, begging others to pitch whatever they could into the hat.
And that is magnificently admirable.
But a couple of other things in the post are not.
And since they have been picked up and parroted elsewhere by no lesser cultural luminaries than Jian Gomeshi of CBC Radio's "Q" (audio here) and expanded upon by Globe & Mail TV critic John Doyle here…
I gotta call "Bullshit!".
I have three major issues with what's been said.
POINT ONE: CENSORSHIP
Midway through his essay, Denis fingers the villain in the "Summerworks" shortfall -- The Artist-hating Harper government.
"…draw your own conclusions, but to me this feeds into a nice long narrative about what the Conservative Government does to organizations that espouse (or whom they say espouse) points of view that don't gibe with the good Conservative mindset".
But if you look closely, there's no concrete evidence that "Summerworks" was censored by anyone. Oh, there's a little smoke, but mostly the kind that somebody has to manipulate with a few mirrors to come to such a conclusion.
Back in 2009, "Summerworks" produced a play called "Homegrown" by playwright Catherine Frid, which profiled a member of the "Toronto 18" convicted of being part of a terrorist plot.
When asked for a comment, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office who hadn't even seen the play stated, "We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism”.
Later, PM Harper, when queried on the same issue, said he was "concerned" about the play.
They were "disappointed" and "concerned".
Kinda like Maple Leaf fans at every trade deadline.
But that's all anybody in power said officially.
Nobody halted the original production. Nobody banned the play. You could still put it on pretty much anyplace you want anytime you like.
Interestingly, nobody has.
Even though many theatre luminaries stepped forward to declare how important "Summerworks" was in the creation of their own seasons, and how much damage underfunding it might cause, not one has mounted another production of the play.
Maybe because it really wasn't really worth a second look?
Even the Toronto Star, which hates Stephen Harper pretty hard, warned their readers away from it…
I know the approved narrative is that Stephen Harper is this really scary man with a secret hidden agenda, just itchin' to let a buncha crazed fundamentalist Evangelicals and gun owners who wear ass-less chaps to work every day loose on the delicate hothouse flowers of the Canadian Arts.
His government just guaranteed ongoing funding for the Canadian TV and film industries.
And since he's been in power, he's insisted on keeping Canadian troops in Afghanistan so women aren't beheaded in soccer stadiums and girls can go to school there without having to duck flying acid.
He's dispatched Canadian jets to bomb the shit out of a dictator bent on slaughtering his own people in Libya.
He's been the first guy to speak up against the UN putting Syria in charge of its Human Rights Commission and having North Korea head the one on Disarmament.
Does it make any logical sense that a guy committing that much blood and treasure to oppose totalitarian regimes also harbors a desire to throttle his own artistic community? A community most of the country doesn't pay much attention to anyway?
Much less sledgehammer a play nobody apparently wants to see…?
But that kind of logic has no place in an artistic community that has been taught their only path to survival comes from constantly advertising how threatened they are, be it from other cultures, changing technology or the disinterest of their own population.
So there's no evidence of censorship whatsoever.
But -- there's a lot pointing to either administrative incompetence or bureaucratic favoritism.
In his post, Denis states that the Sun newspaper chain "ginned up a bunch of controversy" about "Summerworks".
By that he means journalist David Akin, who discovered that elements within the Heritage department not only ignored their own funding rules, they actively backdated correspondence and even filled out their own forms to make sure the 2010 "Summerworks" grant application met all the required criteria. (More here).
In the real world, those activities amount to fraud, so it's unfair to brand Akin as having an ideological axe to grind.
Prior to his current Sun Media gig, Akin spent six years as the theatre critic for Thompson News. Maybe he finally succumbed to seeing one too many bad shows and went rogue, but in an email to me after the above post he affirmed his commitment to Canadian theatre:
"There's never enough money for theatre artists in this country and yet, if you want the public to support your work, you better be prepared to respond to a) challenges to the work itself and/or b) challenges to your claim to the money!"
In other words, nobody has an inalienable right to be supported and financed and above reproach.
So -- could it be that "Summerworks" simply once again botched its paperwork or didn't have anybody inside willing to help it through the process this time?
Maybe the previous embarrassment led to tighter internal controls at Heritage or some bureaucrat just didn't want to risk the wrath of his boss after the tongue lashing he got the last time around.
Maybe this is the kind of self-censorship that comes from ass-covering or just wanting a problem to go away.
And perhaps this whole media controversy is about deflecting blame rather than admitting to shortcomings.
More on that in Point Three. But first…
POINT TWO: NO MORE FLASHPOINTS
Denis makes the point that Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, the creators of CTV's hit series "Flashpoint", met during "Summerworks" and their series would not exist had it not been for the festival. What's more, without further editions of "Summerworks" there could well be no more "Flashpoint(s)".
Can I first say how grateful I am that my mom and dad met in a coffee shop during WW2?
Because if there had been no WW2, they wouldn't have ended up in that coffee shop and I would never have arrived and then gone on to write and produce about 10 times more hours of prime time television than the current total for "Flashpoint".
I'm not saying we should have more world wars to ensure our creative future, however…
I did once meet one guy with whom I did many hours of prime time Canadian television in a strip joint. And a little more Federal funding for strip joints might not only lead to an uptick in creativity, but it could also help out a lot of single moms, under-employed dental hygienists and U of T students trying to get through that tough final year of Law school.
I think it's fabulous that Mark and Stephanie met at "Summerworks". They're terrific writers more than deserving of their subsequent success.
But let's not forget that because Federal funding went to "Summerworks" and not to similar ventures in Halifax, Saskatoon or Chicoutimi, several other Marks and Stephanies did not meet and projects that might have equaled or surpassed the exceptional qualities of "Flashpoint" don't exist as a result.
All around this country, worthy plays and films and other artistic works don't get created because there's only so much money to go around.
Lack of financing bedevils Artists everywhere. But the problem is particularly acute in Canada because virtually all alternatives to State sponsorship have been eliminated. If you don't get money from the Public purse for your show, you're almost certainly not making your show.
Even the boot-strapped, self-funded plays in "Summerworks" only have a forum because somebody in government pays for the venues and the advertising and almost everything else that draws an audience.
Like me, Denis has long argued against the government funded "favorites" who continue to churn out work that attracts neither prestige nor box-office returns nor ratings, but who keep going back to the well to find another full bucket waiting for them.
You can't alter that philosophy to protect a "favorite" who benefited you or your friends. Because in doing so, you are almost certainly stopping someone else from getting the opportunity they deserve.
Maybe what all this really boils down to is that we all feel "our" entitlements have more value than anyone else's.
And that's a game nobody wins.
POINT THREE: ENTITLED TO OUR ENTITLEMENTS
John Doyle, the Globe and Mail critic, used the "Summerworks" affair to vent his displeasure with the Canadian Walk of Fame celebration, an annual exercise in which plaques bearing the names of Canadians famous for one thing or another are embedded in Toronto sidewalks.
It's pretty much a social season circle jerk tarted up as a celebration of excellence designed to attract tourist dollars by spending Public ones.
And while the argument can be made that the entire event could easily be financed by the banks and elite law firms listed as supporters and thus Public money could be better used by "Summerworks", that's not an argument that's going to get us very far.
The sad reality of this country is that any self-respecting executive at RBC is going to support a sidewalk ceremony or film festival where his wife can rub shoulders with a movie star long before he'll ever actually approve a bank loan to a Canadian producer trying to make a film with that same star.
There's no percentage to doing otherwise.
Like a lot of things, our culture is more about appearances than content. So it's pointless to argue that one Arts event, tourist attraction or industry has priority over another when it comes to accessing tax dollars.
Because that money can always be spent more intelligently or on those more deserving.
Should any money go to the theatre when many aboriginal Canadians still don't have access to clean drinking water?
How many dialysis machines can you buy with what it apparently costs to put brass plaques in a sidewalk?
Who most deserves government largess, the fella with the best idea, the partner of an influential consulting firm or the guy who can write an air-tight grant application?
In any given year somebody will bellyache about the Calgary Stampede getting a half million dollars when a local Pride parade gets nothing or when the government cuts a big check for Stratford to do some old chestnut by a dead European White Guy versus a pittance for somebody who has distilled the voice of his generation.
None of us ever get what we think we deserve.
Some douchebag is always getting something he shouldn't.
And there's never enough to satisfy everybody.
If you ask me, the solution to all this is for all of us to get off the government teat and do exactly what Mr. McGrath did, put our own money where our mouths are.
You want to park a slab of granite marked Ryan Gosling next to a sewer grate? Go Nuts! Where's your money?
You want a play about aboriginal lesbian urban planners that can only be performed in the back of a moving taxi? Cool. Don't forget to bring the money.
You can't have a legitimate, vibrant culture if you're constantly standing around waiting for somebody else to pay for it.
If everybody who'd gotten a break from "Summerworks" had kicked in $1000, the festival would have been solvent in an afternoon. And then who gives a fuck why it didn't get any government support.
Let's go. On with the show.
Instead, we've become a country that expects others to pay for what we want, instead of a people who find a way to get it for ourselves.
We got that way by allowing our governments to make our decisions for us, instead of demanding they follow our lead and try to keep up.
I won't be in Toronto for "Summerworks", but I'm making my own commitment here and now to match Denis' kind and thoughtful donation by buying tickets to a theatre or two or three in another part of the country.
Backing the things we believe in is the only way to put an end to all the "I'm not getting my fair share" whining that takes up most of what passes for artistic discourse in this country.
Maybe if the government wants to both help out as well as alleviate some of the rancor Arts funding engenders, they just need to calculate how much they pump into the Arts plus what they budget to staff their funding bodies, get rid of all that and give us an equivalent tax break for supporting the arts.
Yeah, maybe a lot of that "individual choice" money would end up going to clog dancing and fiddle contests, but a lot of it would go to places like "Summerworks" as well.
It's a model that's worked in this country before.
In what's known now as the "bad old tax credit days", the Canadian film business was primarily populated by hustlers and dentists looking to shelter revenue. But it also saw the creation of some of the best movies we've made and spawned companies that were able to keep making them.
Maybe the answer is as simple as getting rid of entertainment taxes so it costs 25% less to go to the theatre or buy a ticket to a Canadian film. Because if you don't have a large bureaucracy of consultants and deciders to support, you don't need to take in all the money it costs to keep one going.
The main thing is, we've got to find alternatives to the current Artistic Welfare State. It nurtures nobody. It creates regional, cultural and personal animosities. It breeds conspiracy theories and divides us by class and taste and spheres of influence.
That system creates the opposite of what Art is supposed to do, driving us apart instead of bringing us together.
And the more shattered we become the less the chance we'll ever create anything that makes all of us proud.
And then there really will be no more "Flashpoint(s)" or anyone even wanting to make them.