"The rich people have their lobbyists and the poor people have their feet."
- Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of Canadian Civil Liberties Association speaking at a post-show panel at after You Should Have Stayed Home at The 2011 SummerWorks Festival.
This summer I directed You Should Have Stayed Home, a play about theatre artist Tommy Taylor's experience over 48 hours of the G20 weekend in Toronto presented at the 2011 SummerWorks Festival. While trying to return home from his first ever protest as a law-abiding citizen at the "Free Speech Zone" at Queen's Park, Taylor was swept up in a mass arrest, caged with 40 other people in a 10ft by 20ft cage and denied drinking water until he passed out from dehydration.
Taylor contacted me in February to talk about collaborating on a piece of theatre adapted from his Facebook note, How I Got Arrested and Abused at G20 in Toronto. Having read the post, I knew the story presented an excellent opportunity to dramatize and address the deterioration of civil rights in Canada.
The question for me was how to present the narrative in way that could not be mistaken for propaganda. Our approach was to eliminate all editorial content and stick to the story of what happened to Tommy: These things happened to this guy and his friends. Draw your own conclusions.
The other question Tommy and I faced was how to address more than just him and his experience. We were motivated to create a show that highlighted a societal injustice, not an individual one. How then to use a singular story as an entry point to a broader conversation? The script did not discuss some important issues we wanted to address:
- Class: This type of incident already happens frequently in Canada. The largest mass arrest in Canadian history was possible because individual rights and freedoms, specifically those of underprivileged and racialized groups have been under attack. A long journey of disempowerment has brought us to the point where the middle class can be summarily stripped of their Charter rights.
- Context: The story didn't address some of the most important and shocking events that took place at the summit itself. It was at this summit that the world's leaders agreed to the "austerity measures" that have placed the burden of repairing the damage done by unregulated financial markets squarely on the backs of their least fortunate citizens.
Partnering with The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) allowed the show to expand this discussion beyond Tommy's experience and discuss some of these broader issues.
At a post-show panel hosted by the CCLA and moderated by Emily Burke, Editor of The Mark News, panellists Ajamu Nangwaya, a labour lawyer who specializes in police accountability, and Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of Canadian Civil Liberties Association, used the play to launch a discussion about the challenges many communities face in terms of profiling, race and class, as well as other issues surrounding the criminalization of dissent at G20 Toronto.
We also wanted to find a way for the community to explore some of these issues in a safe, structured, but creative way. For our midnight performance, during one 15-minute segment that takes place inside the Eastern Avenue Detention Centre, we augmented our cast of 27 performers with an additional 13.
Since Taylor's cage contained 40 people, this mirrored the actual conditions and community members could experience what it felt like to stand in a crowded cage, summarily deprived of their liberty, access to water, and legal counsel. Participants included people who were detained at G20, previous audience members, and other theatre artists including actor R.H. Thompson and playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
Tommy Taylor's terrible experience at G20 was one of many. Michael Puddy was swept up in a mass arrest at Queen and Spadina. When he was acquitted of all charges on Aug. 11, 2011, Justice Melvyn Green ruled, "The Defendant was deprived of his liberty without cognizable reason and while engaged in a protected form of political expression." In the introduction to his decision Puddy lists different responses to law enforcement that "serve as the backdrop to the defendants prosecution":
"They have also been the subject of innumerable media accounts, and several government-initiated inquiries, and internal police reports, and at least one piece of theatre" (emphasis added)
It is impossible to know if the ruling refers specifically to You Should Have Stayed Home -- The Toronto Fringe Festival included three different G20-themed plays, all of which were critical of law enforcement.
Regardless of which play it was, what is extraordinary about this statement is that it is a rarely tangible moment where we can see the direct effect of artistic expression.
Art matters. It can impact numerous members of society, including decision-makers in the legal system charged with handling the fallout from what Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin called, "the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history".
It is difficult to convey the degree to which this experience has inspired me as artistic director of a theatre company with a socio-political mandate. More than anything, it has convinced me that the disempowered have more than their feet, they also have their collective voice, and art can play a powerful role in amplifying that voice.
Michael Wheeler is the Artistic Director of Praxis Theatre, editor of praxistheatre.com and the director of You Should Have Stayed Home co-produced by The Original Norwegian and Praxis Theatre.
This November, Praxis Theatre premiers Jesus Chrysler by Native Earth Performing Arts Artistic Director Tara Beagan, which centres around legendary 1930s Toronto artist and activist Eugenia "Jim" Watts, presented in association with Theatre Passe Muraille.