The theme of the eighth annual Carol Shields Festival of New Works is theatre in dangerous times.
The current poster boy for hazardous playwriting is Toronto's Michael Healey, best known for his much sought after hit drama The Drawer Boy (MTC, 2001).
His latest, Proud, not so much.
Since Toronto's Tarragon Theatre declined to produce the last instalment of his trilogy, it has become a lightning rod for debate about theatrical self-censorship and libel chill. Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose was concerned the company could be open to a lawsuit over the main character who was named the prime minister and obviously based on Stephen Harper.
Healey quit the Tarragon, where he has been playwright-in-residence for a decade, and is planning to self-produce Proud in Toronto in September. A half dozen Canadian theatres are planning readings with the hope of raising funds to support the premiere.
Proud will be read Saturday at 9 p.m. at PTE and Winnipeggers can hear for themselves what the uproar is all about. Healey says he is worried what all the controversy will do to the expectations of audiences.
"The play getting heard and being discussed on its own merit is not going to happen," Healey says over the telephone from Toronto yesterday. "It's always going to be tied to this controversy about its supposed content. It's going to get discussed that way."
Proud is about a young newly elected Quebec Conservative MP who did not expect to be elected. The prime minister recognizes in her certain strengths and takes her under his wing a la Pygmalion to teach her the nature of contemporary politics in this country
"Through enormous research, I've tried to as close as possible create a character as much like Stephen Harper as I can and surrounding him with fictional characters," he says. "This is not a docu-drama. This is my attempt at examining his point of view."
Healey doesn't see the festival theme as an overstatement but as disturbingly accurate.
"I think stakes are higher with this government," he says. "If I had written a play about Paul Martin, no one would have balked at putting it on, or come to see it probably. The government does a great job of controlling their message and they have a record now of going after people who want to knock them off of that message."
Healey says he doesn't expect to be sued before or after Proud's September debut. And if it is well received he could find takers for a cross-country tour.
The festival is also presenting free readings of:
7 p.m. -- Social Studies by Tricia Cooper
7:30 p.m. -- Talk (in French) by Michael Nathanson, as translated by Marc Prescott
8:30 p.m. -- Eye Through the Window by Sarah Constible and Ross MacMillan
2 p.m. -- Jesus of St. Vital by Bob Armstrong
7 p.m. -- Maple Route by Jeremy Scarth Bowkett
9 p.m. -- Proud by Michael Healey
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For the first time an Irish theatre company will be hosting the Acting Irish International Festival and Winnipeg's Tara Players will be there with its current production of The Muesli Belt.
"It was something we also had a hope to do," says Tara general manger Brendan Carruthers, who is also a member of the cast. "We've never had an opportunity before to bring a play there."
For the festival's first 17 years, the host city alternated between Canada and the United States. Winnipeg last hosted it in 2009 and the Tara Players have performed south of the border in Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee and Florida. In recent years Irish troupes have performed at the festival.
Dublin's Head on Stage is hosting the May 14-19 festival at the Axis Centre in Ballymun on the north side of the city.
It's especially meaningful for Winnipeggers like Carruthers who called Ireland home until immigrating to Canada in 1968. The Tara players will be in the spotlight on May 17 with Jimmy Murphy's comedy/drama The Muesli Belt.
"I've never had an opportunity to do stagework in Ireland," says Carruthers. "I think it will be tremendously exciting for all of us."
The Muesli Belt is a story of a neighbourhood bar in Dublin and the people who inhabit it. The title is the Irish equivalent for the granola belt, a gentrified area of the city like Wolseley where residents are more environmentally aware. Their pub is targeted for demolition to make way for an apartment block. Carruthers plays Tommy, a just retired blue-collar type whose plans are dashed by developers.
The Tara Players are presenting The Muesli Belt through Sunday at the Irish Association of Manitoba at 654 Erin. Show times are 8 p.m. nightly and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 at 774-8272.
"It's going to be quite a challenge to bring a production to the Dublin audience, particularly a play about Dublin," says Carruthers.