Like they say, mess with the bull and you might get the horns. When playwright-in-residence Michael Healey handed in a draft of his new work Proud to Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 2012, board members took one look at the thinly veiled portrait of Stephen Harper—a man whose administration is noted for a certain vindictive streak, not to mention a basic intolerance of anything that looks like art—and promptly shat their pants. With the quasi-excuse that it might leave the theatre open to a libel suit, artistic director Richard Rose rejected the play. Healey subsequently quit his 11-year post in protest, and Proud became a cause célèbre that morphed into a critical and popular smash when it was eventually performed, lawsuit-free—the bull had evidently retreated—by the Berkeley Street Theatre. Trumpeted the Toronto Star: “It makes you proud of Canadian theatre.”
“When I read the play, I went, ‘Well, I don’t understand why this is so controversial,’ ” recalls Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer, talking to the Straight in the theatre’s green room on the day Proud opens its first previews. “But if you go back and look at what was going on at the time, I can understand to a degree why that choice would have been made.” Spencer adds that she wasn’t there and “shouldn’t really comment”, but Healey hasn’t shrunk from claiming that Tarragon feared for its funding, especially in light of the government’s misguided attack on the play Homegrown in 2010. Some people think that situation cost Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival nearly $50,000 in support from the Ministry of Canadian Heritage in 2011.
“I didn’t spend a lot of sleepless nights thinking about that,” says Spencer, with a shrug. “You have to ask yourself as an artist, do you choose to do something because you feel it needs to be said, or do you back off and go, ‘Well, somebody else can do that’?”
Well said, but there still seems to be a tacit admission in there that some blowback is possible. Andrew Wheeler, the play’s lead and the man whose picture has been circulating in promotional material for the Firehall production—complete with the signature pewter-coloured hair-helmet and what he calls “a sardonic smile with no warmth in it”—seems to have given the matter some thought. Or his friends have, at any rate. One of them texted Wheeler after seeing the shot and said, “You know you’re going to get audited this year, right?”
“We don’t fear our politicians for the most part, we don’t fear what’s going to happen to us, but there is this sense of ‘Wait a minute, who are we, where are we going, and who are we putting in charge of where we are going?’ ” he says, joining his director in the green room. They agree that the Harper government represents a turning point in Canadian political life, and this was presumably the impetus for Healey. In 2013, he told Artsmania that his “heavily fictionalized depiction” of our weirdly opaque PM was designed to “ask the questions that I want to ask about our politics”.
Here’s the rub, however. “I want to fall in love with my character,” says Wheeler, with an almost apologetic laugh. “You always do. You want to get into their shoes, and get into their brain, and I don’t find this character in the play to be anything less than empathetic. I have a soft spot for him just as a character, and yet my politics are such that I step out and I go, ‘Jeez, this guy’s ruining the country.’”
It should probably be stated at this point that Proud is not strictly about Stephen Harper. In Healey’s alternate universe, the Conservative party has returned to power in 2011 with a majority that includes 59 MPs from Quebec, including the fictional earthy single mom Jisbella Lyth (Emmelia Gordon). She prefers to be called Jis (ahem), while Wheeler’s curiously stiff economist-turned-reluctant-politician is only ever referred to as “the Prime Minister”. A chance encounter (she’s looking for a condom so she can bang the CBC’s Evan Solomon) provides the Prime Minister with the chance to manoeuvre Jis into sponsoring an anti-abortion bill that will divert attention from his plans to dismantle the Privy Council. Jis’s comprehensive lesson in modern politics comes with an equally comprehensive—and reportedly very funny—insight into the interior life of a man who looks, sounds, and thinks a lot like our real prime minister.
“What the playwright is more interested in, rather than giving us an imitation of Stephen Harper, is creating a man who is obsessed with a certain kind of control and then throwing a character in with him who has no idea how to be controlled,” offers Wheeler. “There’s a sort of Pygmalion quality to it. And she’s so filled with life—for the two of them to find themselves in the same room together presents all kinds of really interesting dramatic possibilities.”
In contrast to what passes for political satire in the States (Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, in a nutshell), Proud appears to hew a little more closely to the British model. Wheeler eagerly compares Healey’s work to the classic Britcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, in which the behind-the-scenes contortions and pretzel logic of parliamentary politics—what Wheeler memorably describes as “the minute strand between function and dysfunction”—were reduced to a kind of Dadaist poetry. “Intelligent people discussing situations with such seriousness sometimes that there’s an absurdity to it,” as he puts it.
“You’re looking for variations and musicality in any text that you’re doing,” Wheeler continues. “Michael Healey’s done a great job of presenting a man who’s intelligent, who loves the art of debate, who’s fairly clear in his vision, and who espouses that vision in a very adroit manner. And that’s what you’re looking for as an actor. I am, anyway.”
Spencer, meanwhile, is confident that she’s got a true hot potato on her hands. Proud appears to be a humanizing meditation on a figure about whom a vast number of us fail to see anything human at all, it comes with a solid-gold back story, and if you’re a junkie for Canadian politics—the director notes the play’s references to the F-35 jet fighter scandal among other Conservative snafus—it contains the real red meat of good satire.
“There is a buzz about it,” she says, with a self-assured nod. “I find it really interesting that there are people who I don’t think normally go to theatre will want to see it. Political pundit people. I hope we don’t disappoint them. I think they’ll have a fabulous time, actually.”
Proud is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Wednesday (April 9) to April 26.