How the Sun Put SummerWorks in the Hot Seat

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How the Sun Put SummerWorks in the Hot Seat

Editor’s note: This morning the SummerWorks Theatre Festival issued an urgent statement regarding changes in its funding situation. From that statement: “After a tremendously productive five-year partnership with Heritage Canada, the Festival has just received notice that this partnership is not going to be renewed for the 2011 season.” This cut amounts to 20 per cent of the festival’s budget—a large hole to fill in just five-and-a-half weeks. (SummerWorks begins August 4). Below is the story we wrote about the controversies surrounding the festival, originally published August 4, 2010.
In December 2010, shortly after we named them a Villain for their treatment of Summerworks, the Toronto Sun followed up with a story about how Heritage Canada administrators extended a deadline to ensure the festival would receive its funding—funding that Summerworks has now, for as-yet-undetermined reasons, not been granted.”

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SummerWorks Artistic Director Michael Rubenfeld holds up a copy of the July 31 Toronto Sun, the first in a series of articles in which the Sun criticized his festival’s mandate and funding. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.

The SummerWorks Festival closed this past Sunday, and by most accounts, it was a tremendous success. More than twenty thousand people enjoyed plays, concerts, performance art, and walking tours over eleven days, setting a new record for attendance.
Despite all the good, there was also some less pleasant business—the coverage of one play in particular, by one media outlet in particular. Homegrown is based on playwright Catherine Frid’s interactions with Shareef Abdelhaleem, who spent more than three years waiting for a trial (and eventual conviction) for his part in the Toronto 18 terror plot. The play has received a larger-than-usual amount of press attention for a SummerWorks show, much of it generated by the Toronto Sun, which published an inflammatory cover story about Homegrown (pictured above) several days before it opened.
The controversy that followed was messy and ugly. (Our interview with the play’s creators about it all is here.) In order to get a better handle on developments, we’ve put together a timeline charting how events unfolded.


July 30: The Toronto Star profiles Homegrown in advance of its August 5 premiere. Playwright Catherine Frid describes Homegrown as “about the criminal justice system in Canada and about injustices that I believe are happening.” She adds that “it’s about one person [Abdelhaleem], but it’s also about what he has undergone under the guise of [our government] fighting terrorism, which may well be orchestrating it.” Frid’s focus is on Abdelhaleem’s experiences in the justice system, with the events that lead to the arrest of the Toronto 18 as background. The article’s headline: “Play Takes Sympathetic Look at Toronto 18.”
July 31: The Toronto Sun also covers the story, focusing on public funding that Homegrown and the SummerWorks Festival have received. The Sun‘s article opens with: “Tax dollars from the very governments he’s convicted of plotting to blow up are helping ensure the curtain goes up next week on a ‘sympathetic portrayal’ of one of the members of the so-called Toronto 18 terror plotters.” It then goes on to enumerate precisely how much money the SummerWorks festival as a whole has gotten from each level of government, in addition to how much Homegrown itself received ($90,000 and $6,000, respectively). The piece also solicits comments on the play—which nobody has seen yet—from local city councillors, as well as from representatives of the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils. The article is posted online the evening of July 30 and is featured on the cover of the July 31 print edition.
Later that same day, the Sun publishes the first of many articles responding to its own coverage, quoting a Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation spokesperson, who refers to Homegrown as “a terrorist love-in.” Meanwhile, the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council are the first of the festival’s sponsors to affirm their support for SummerWorks, and its mandate to program “risky” content.
August 2: The Sun‘s parent corporation, Sun Media, turns Homegrown into a national story, sending senior Parliament Hill correspondent Brian Lilley to report on Heritage Canada’s response (which is essentially to refrain from commenting, citing the fact that “Mr. Abdelhaleem’s case is still before the courts” among other things).
August 3: Sun Media’s parliamentary bureau chief, David Akin, garners some choice quotes from the Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson, including this: “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism.” Corporate sponsors, including Steamwhistle Brewery and TD Canada Trust, reaffirm their support for the festival and its mandate when contacted, statements they’re forced to repeat over and over to angry callers when Akin, in an August 4 blog post, publishes a contact list for every sponsor of the SummerWorks festival.
August 5: Homegrown sells out its opening and enjoys strong houses throughout its run. Most of the major print theatre critics post reviews by the next day. Sun Media sends Akin (who worked earlier in his career as a theatre critic) to review the play; the Toronto Sun, rather than send their local reviewer, publishes an editorial calling for a boycott of Homegrown.
Akin’s review is positive, more so than several others. (“Judged only on its performance and production values—leaving aside some content problems for now—it was pretty good.”) The consensus among reviewers is that while the play may have flaws in its execution, it decidedly is not “pro”-terrorism.

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Actor Lwam Ghebrehariat in Homegrown. Photo courtesy of SummerWorks.


August 6: Akin asks Harper “about the fact that federal money is being used to support a Canadian theatre festival that features the play Homegrown.” The PM responds, “I think we’re concerned….A lot of Canadians are concerned by that. I mean, we’re living in an era where terrorism is a real and growing threat across the world.”
Meanwhile, The Sun publishes a review of Homegrown—by blogger Erica Basnicki, whose father perished in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks. On her blog, before viewing the play, Basnicki claims she’s going in with an open mind, to see if “there is something in this story that’s worth sitting around and watching. Personally, I can’t begin to imagine what that might be.” Her subsequent review of Homegrown states: “All I could think of at the beginning of the play, during a sequence about the time [Abdelhadeem] spent in solitary, was that that’s nothing compared to what my dad suffered when he was in the Twin Towers and they filled with smoke.”
August 8: The Sun publishes a blog post by Lilley, countering the Globe and Mail‘s J. Kelly Nestruck’s criticism on Twitter of the negative coverage of Homegrown: “none of the writers of these stories—Don Peat, David Akin and myself—have tried to have Homegrown censored. We have not even called for the sponsorships or tax dollars to be withdrawn. All we have done is questioned the funding.”
August 10: Nestruck writes a response to Lilley’s post: “The Sun‘s stories about Homegrown…have had an obviously negative slant. They have exaggerated the extent of—and tried to incite outrage over—the trickle of government funding that may have reached Homegrown through funding for the festival that is presenting it and forty-one other plays, plus a series of concerts and other events.”
August 13: As SummerWorks enters its final weekend, the media’s focus shifts from Homegrown to the Toronto Sun‘s coverage of it. The National Post asks in a satiric op-ed, “…should we expect taxpayers to continue to provide funding for these difficult, troubling works, such as Nickelback’s Olympic performance, or Paul Gross’s Gunless?” Arts and culture blog Arts Threat condemns the coverage more sincerely: “Rather than cultural conversations immediately recognizing that any material or topic can be on the table, suddenly, there are questions about the material potentially limiting funding…it means that art is immediately less challenging to the status quo, which in turn is damaging to society in general.”
August 14: As the festival closes, the SummerWorks board of directors issues its first public statement about the criticism of Homegrown:

The SummerWorks 2010 play Homegrown has been criticized publicly as being sympathetic to terrorism. These criticisms were made prior to the play’s first performance and could only have been made by someone with little knowledge of the play. The play in no way supports or condones acts of terrorism.
The SummerWorks Board of Directors has no doubt as to the appropriateness of the play being included in the SummerWorks 2010 line-up; they believe it has very successfully met the Festival’s mandate by engaging its audience, and the Canadian public in general, in a dialogue about the issues surrounding Canada’s response to terrorism.

Homegrown‘s creators intended to start a public discussion about a wide range of topics—Islamophobia, rendition, torture, fear-mongering, hysteria—topics that are often controversial and difficult to discuss in the current political climate. By sensationalizing the subject matter of the play, and using that as a basis for questioning the public funding SummerWorks receives, the Toronto Sun redirected that conversation, in a manner most disturbing to proponents of free speech and unfettered art. Lilley stated that he and his colleagues never called for censorship of Homegrown or SummerWorks’ other content, but by baiting their readers to object to public funding for plays with controversial topics—especially within the context of a festival that exists to encourage the creation of challenging work—they endanger the future of similarly challenging work; plays that few independent companies can afford to stage on their own.

CORRECTION: AUGUST 20, 2010 We misspelled Michael Rubenfeld’s name when we first published this article. We have corrected the error, and apologize to Mr. Rubenfeld.
CORRECTION: AUGUST 22, 2010 Additionally, Erica Basnicki’s last name was misspelled “Basnacki.” Our apologies to her, as well.

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