Lwam Ghebrehariat and Shannon Perreault star in Homegrown, a one act play at the 2010 SummerWorks Festival that became a national hot topic, due to its characterization of one of the Toronto 18 prisoners. Photo courtesy of the Homegrown Project.
Starting with our own mayoral election and spreading throughout the entire country, Toronto artists and creators have been on edge since the shift towards little and big C conservatism. The mindsets of those who now govern both nationally and municipally normally do not jive with those “artsy” types—the “elites” who have extra cash to blow on hundred-dollar opera tickets and produce plays that support terrorism. Renowned for an environment that supports the new and experimental, Toronto’s theatre community has been preparing for the potential blowback that may arrive with a Conservative majority government and Rob Ford’s administration. Despite that, few were expecting the announcement that came down yesterday that the SummerWorks Festival would not be receiving a grant from Heritage Canada for the first time in five years—a grant that was supposed to account for 20 per cent of its entire operating budget.
“We got a call on Wednesday,” SummerWorks’s artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld told us at last night’s Dora Awards, where the recent news about the cuts added an edge of fear and anger to the otherwise joyous celebration of Toronto’s best theatre. Heritage Canada issued a statement saying it could not approve SummerWorks’s request for a grant of $48,000 on the grounds that the festival does not have tangible results or meet the needs of Canadians.
Whatever that means.
“Attendance has been increasing every year, every year we grow,” Rubenfeld said, noticeably exhausted from a day fielding questions and responding to the outpouring of support from friends of the festival. After a call for donations, Rubenfeld said he’s unsure of the amount raised over the course of the day, but he was overwhelmed by the reactions. Several Dora recipients last night alone announced during their acceptance speeches that a portion of their winnings would go directly to keeping the festival alive.
“It’s impossible to ignore the importance of this festival. Without SummerWorks, we wouldn’t have this community,” Rubenfeld said. While he can’t say exactly why funding was pulled this year, many are attributing it to last year’s controversial play Homegrown, which was perceived by some as being sympathetic to terrorism—Stephen Harper not least among those critics.
Winning the Pauline McGibbon Award at last night’s Doras was projection designer Ben Chaisson; he announced he would be donating a portion of his prize money to SummerWorks and called the funding decision “reprehensible.” “I think that’s absolutely what it’s all about,” he said of the Homegrown controversy. “I think this is probably the beginning of tough ideological negotiations between the current government and the Canadian Council for the Arts.”
The sudden announcement has left the theatre community wondering what might come next, now that such an iconic festival—one that’s launched the careers of many Dora winners, for instance—has had its funding destabilized so quickly and without cause.
There are no plans to cancel the festival, but SummerWorks may have to nix some events and raise ticket prices. “The festival is in 39 days,” Rubenfeld pointed out. “Now we have to put all of our energy into finding the funding, instead of what’s important. The art.”