Like many charities across the country, we recently ran an #UNselfie campaign for Giving Tuesday. For the campaign, I posted a picture of myself holding a sign that said, “I support Magnetic North because I support saying things that piss off people like Donald Trump.” In the moment, I thought it was timely and a bit witty – for us theatre-folk, the incident of the cast of Hamilton calling out future Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence and Donald Trump’s subsequent tweets stand out as one of 2016’s biggest theatre stories – but I felt embarrassed by the photo almost immediately after it went up. I mean, sure, I absolutely support the right to say shit that counters the hate that Trump spouts, but is it really the theatre’s job to “piss off people like Trump”? And, as the leader of an arts organization, should that really be my priority?
This Pence/Hamilton debacle inspired a post, “Theatre must speak to the nation – and listen to it” written by Lyn Gardner of The Guardian. I was struck by a particular paragraph she wrote:
“The arts and theatre have often been seen as elite. Vikki Heyward recently observed that ‘if you look like a club and behave like a club, the chances are that you are a club.’ It means that if the accusation of being a club isn’t true then, as Heyward suggests, arts organisations will have ‘prove it’ and that means challenging how they work, where they work and who they work with and serve, and of course who they don’t currently serve.”
It speaks to a question that Magnetic North Theatre Festival has been wrestling with since its inception fifteen years ago: how can we bust open the “theatre club”, and build larger, more inclusive, audiences? To this end, the festival has deployed a number of strategies. First, we travel across the country. We’ve been to St. John’s, Vancouver, Kitchener Waterloo, Edmonton, Halifax, Calgary, Whitehorse, and Ottawa, always striving to engage local communities and get them excited about Canadian theatre. Second, the festival has attempted to present a wide diversity of perspectives and stories in its programming in an effort to bring visibility to a spectrum of Canadian experiences. Third, Magnetic North has worked to keep the festival accessible to as many people as possible, most recently with the application of a Pay-What-You-Decide price policy in Whitehorse last year. These efforts have yielded impressive results: close to 100,000 Canadians, from coast to coast, have come to our festival and experienced the amazing power of theatre.
However, recent events have affirmed that there is still a significant portion of the population who feel unheard and unseen by those who are in power and who are completed alienated and disaffected by democratic institutions such as the arts (and, let me be clear, I don’t believe that this is an American thing – western democracies everywhere are experiencing this and Canada is certainly no exception). Are festivals such as Magnetic North partially responsible for such disconnect between big chunks of the population and the arts? What can the arts do to change the feeling of disempowerment within so many communities?
The day after the American election, the NAC English Theatre staff threw a little “welcome to Ottawa” happy hour thing at a local pub for me. Artistic Director Jillian Keilley and I immediately began talking about the election result. She said to me that, in the face of such legitimized and blatant hate, our job is to put love into the world. She was referring to our “job” as citizens but she was also speaking about our job as theatre-makers and programmers. And in that moment, I thought: “Fuck yes. I agree 100%!” Two weeks later, I am posting that Giving Tuesday image. The voice in my head says: “um, maybe that’s just a tad inconsistent Brendan?”
As we move into 2017, the question of “what should the theatre do?” weighs heavily on my heart. As a citizen, I want to do my part to contribute towards greater understanding, compassion, and happiness to all people, present and future. It feels like we are entering an unprecedented moment in our history. I believe that new strategies are needed to confront the fear, frustration, and anger that lie just beneath the surface of our society. I don’t know what those strategies are yet. I don’t want to exacerbate the divisions that already exist in society. I don’t want to be simplistic. I want to offer solutions, not just point out problems. I don’t want to ignore the fact that politics have always left marginalized people behind. I don’t want to pretend that I am not angry. I want to spread love. I want everyone to experience the healing power of the theatre. I want people to come together. I want conversation. I want disagreement. I want hope. Yes, I don’t know what those strategies are but I look forward to figuring it out together, with you.
From all of us at Magnetic North, I wish you a safe and loving holiday season.