With Rob Ford as Mayor, Toronto Artists Play Hard Wrecking Ball
Rob Ford is now our mayor. He’s already promising to end the war on cars (they won), freeze property taxes, cut council expenses, hire more cops, and effectively tear down Transit City. He’s received his first official protest as our fearless leader, and also happened to briefly lock himself in his office.
Tuesday, His Worship met with his newly formed city council for the first time.
Now what, you ask? Good question.
It’s one that Ruth Madoc-Jones immediately asked herself when the ballot results came in on October 25. And as one of nine committee members of the local political theatre initiative The Wrecking Ball (TWB), she was already planning the group’s next evening of socially charged ten-minute plays.
“I called [co-Wrecking Ball committee member] Michael Wheeler in shock—shock over the results, shock over the lead up to the election…I thought ‘Artists need to respond to this. We need to have a Wrecking Ball,'” she recounted.
In general, Canada’s governments haven’t always been exactly supportive of the arts, from Stephen Harper declaring that “Ordinary folks don’t care about the arts” to massive arts funding cuts in British Columbia. Since 2004, The Wrecking Ball—which aims to give theatre artists a chance to vocalize their views on hot-topic political events—has hosted cabarets revolving around issues just like those. Inspired by the question “Now What?” Toronto artists were once again invited to sound off, this time over Rob Ford and what the next four years will do to this city.
Actors stomped all over a chalk drawing of this map.
On Monday night, in the dark, industrial underground space of The Theatre Centre on Queen Street West, members and supporters of Toronto’s arts community formed what felt like their own theatrical Fight Club. The audience gathered around a center ring with cheers and jeers, watching as six playwrights lobbed jab after jab at the new mayorship. Refereeing the rounds of rebellious repertoire was a sample of The Wrecking Ball’s organizers: Madoc-Jones, Wheeler, Julie Tepperman, and TWB co-founder Ross Manson.
And, like Fight Club, The Wrecking Ball has a few rules. In order to capture the political moment, the playwrights invited to participate have one week to create their scripts, and directors and casts have one week to rehearse (if schedules permit even that). With few guidelines for content, last night’s short plays ranged from the simply sorrowful, to the searingly satirical, from calling Ford an outright racist to describing a near-future Toronto as a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the homeless and jobless where the remaining useful employees are forced to flee to Calgary (Yvette Nolan’s “Perfect Storm”). One thing was consistent, though—none of them were positive.
“We don’t think that there’s any real point to an evening all about bashing one particular person. But what he represents just doesn’t jive with the needs of many people downtown. We could be perceived as anti-Ford and lefty-lefty, but the facts speak for themselves,” Madoc-Jones said. And though she was never a Ford fan before, when Don Cherry, who introduced Ford at the inaugural meeting, said that “people are sick of the elites and artsy people running the show,” it was the last straw.
“Now the gloves are off.”
Jovanni Sy’s “Outsourced Anger” kicked off the show with a solid hit, with Anand Rajaram and Pamela Sinha as two call centre workers in India who are hired to pose as hopping-mad right-wing radio show callers, which brought the laughs until they read the words of “Brad from Brampton,” who praised Ford’s anti-immigration stance and cursed the presence of South Asians in his town.
Anthony Furey’s “Citizen Michael” took a more morose turn through a short interaction between an ousted mayor, who is about to witness all his projects go under, and a former employee/love interest who now works for the new administration.
And Canadian theatre icon Judith Thompson delivered a definite highlight of the night with a monologue inspired by Ford’s belief that “Those orientals work like dogs” and the recent Maclean’s controversy, excellently performed by Marjorie Chan. Chan played a bubbly Chinese economist who, along with the rest of Canada’s Chinese population, is hell bent on taking over the country. Half tongue-in-cheek, half boot-in-the-ass, Now What? was energized, current, meaningful, creative, and exuded the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that is more rarely found on professional stages today.
Too bad those who heard last night’s message were probably the same ones who first heard it in 2004 (or at least of the same mindset). Since The Wrecking Ball’s events are voluntarily produced, no resources exist for publicity or extended performances. Even though the seats were filled to standing room only, the audience is only those who know about The Wrecking Ball, and those who know about it are already in the arts community, and those in the arts community aren’t the ones that TWB should be directing their messages towards. As the room buzzed with excited chatter, and viewers zoomed around the space to greet newly arrived friends—again: like Fight Club—it felt like the monthly meeting of a secret society, whose membership runs deep and exclusive (but not “elite,” though Don Cherry would argue otherwise).
“Are we preaching to the converted? That’s true, but we need the opportunity to speak. When a bully steps up like that you have to step up as well,” Madoc-Jones said.
Not that opposers aren’t welcome. Madoc-Jones said that Rob Ford and all the councilors were invited to attend. Unsurprisingly, no one showed. “David Miller made it out to a lot of arts events,” she notes.
Despite the backlash so early on in Rob Ford’s reign, he won’t budge from his earlier promises. A wrecking ball may be one tough machine, but it’s hard to say yet whether it’ll prove any match with a Ford truck.
Photos by Alex Williams.