You’re in a cage roughly the size of a freight elevator. It’s designed to hold 15 people, but there are 40 of you, and everyone is handcuffed. Your wrists are bleeding. You haven’t been charged. You have no legal counsel. There’s a porta-potty with no toilet paper and no door. In the adjoining women’s cell, occupants form a human shield to stop the goons in uniform from leering. Nine hours pass before you’re offered any water. After 15 hours of standing—cold, wet, dehydrated, and scared—you faint.
Guantánamo? Chile under Pinochet? A scene from Children of Men? Try again.
“If you know nothing about G20, come see the show,” says Tommy Taylor, who endured all of the above, and more, when he was arrested in Toronto while Stephen Harper hosted a $1.2-billion party elsewhere in the city with taxpayer money. “I was there, I can tell you about it,” he says.
The show, called You Should Have Stayed Home (which opens at the Firehall Arts Centre on Tuesday [September 24]), is Taylor’s adaptation of his own Facebook note detailing what happened when an innocent walk through Toronto’s Esplanade went seriously sideways on that notorious weekend in 2010.
Taylor was with his girlfriend, taking a casual interest in the protests that erupted on the event horizon of the controversial world leaders’ summit. Everything seemed peaceful at first. Within hours, they found themselves kettled by riot cops, arrested, tagged, and shipped off to a freezing temporary detention centre, built—adding to the nightmarish quality of the experience—into an old film studio.
“It was very sci-fi inside because it was all air-conditioned by this cold air that was blowing through fabric tubes, wafting up in the darkness above you,” Taylor recalls, speaking to the Straight from his Toronto home. “You can’t even see the ceiling ’cause it’s over 200 feet high. It’s one of the biggest buildings in Toronto, and you can’t see the walls, there’s no windows… Yeah. It was something else.”
After 23 hours in his overpopulated cage, Taylor was finally released. He stumbled home and composed the Facebook entry, which has the urgent, enervated quality you might expect from a sleep-deprived victim of “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history” (according to Ontario’s ombudsman). When “How I Got Arrested and Abused at the G20 Toronto, Ontario” went viral, the young actor-playwright realized that he was bearing witness for the other thousand or so people who were swept up in the country’s largest-ever mass arrest. Right below the Facebook entry, the first comment reads, “turn water into wine: this would make an absolutely AMAZING play…”.
“It took me a long time to wrap my head around what I wanted to do with it,” Taylor says, referring to the elegant dramatization he ultimately spun from the ordeal. It was a slew of media appearances “as a sort of spokesperson” that primed him for the right approach.
“What had worked for me—whether it was with traditionally left media or all the way to Sun Media—is that I didn’t yell and scream and stomp and shake my fist,” he explains. “I just told the story. I sat down and said exactly what happened. And that’s what the show is, in many ways.”
There’s a little more to it than that. You Should Have Stayed Home also includes a section in which Taylor makes a return visit to his cage, built on-stage, accompanied by 25 other people. “No matter how good a storyteller I am, there’s some things that happened in there that I can’t really communicate,” he says. “There are some things that you just have to see and hear to really get an idea.”
As the show travels from Vancouver to Whitehorse, Ottawa, and Montreal, Taylor will drum up community volunteers to play his cellmates. (Vancouverites who want to do some hard time with the performer can introduce themselves at email@example.com.) It’s a nice way to underline the show as a piece of grassroots political theatre. But Taylor readily sees his own activism, such as it is, as the result of a kind of disabused innocence from a relatively privileged point of view.
“I always sort of believed there was corruption in the system,” he says. “I was like, ‘Hey, I watch The Daily Show, I know what’s going on!’ It was like I disapproved, and that was enough. Then that happened, and hey: I’m a straight white dude from Mississauga. I’m not going to encounter any oppression in life—it’s just not going to happen. I won the universe’s lottery, but at G20, I got a taste. Like, .001 percent, I get a little taste of it, and then I get it. Because let me tell you, the aboriginal people inside? Not surprised. They weren’t freakin’ out. They saw it all coming, and yeah. For some people it’s G20 every day."