The Arty Semite

Was a Festival's Funding Cut for Putting On a Terrorist Play?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Courtesy of SummerWorks

It would be an understatement to say that Michael Rubenfeld, artistic producer of SummerWorks, was surprised to learn last week that the Federal Government of Canada was pulling its funding from Toronto’s 21-year-old indie theater and arts festival.

It was even more of a shock for him to learn about this only five weeks before opening the largest juried theater festival in the country on August 4. “The Department of Canadian Heritage had funded us for the past five years, had increased its support each year, and had invited us to apply this year for a multi-year grant,” Rubenfeld said.

Many Jewish Canadian theater programs and artists have been involved in the festival over the years, and many got their starts at it. Rubenfeld mentioned artists such as Richard Greenblatt, Hannah Moscovitch, and Diane Flacks (who is slated to participate this year). The 32-year-old Rubenfeld participated in the festival as an artist five times.

Rubenfeld said he didn’t know what to make of Ottawa’s refusal to fund SummerWorks’ $48,000 annual request, representing 20 percent of the festival’s budget.

Others, however, immediately knew — or at least thought they knew — what to make of the government’s decision. The Globe and Mail speculated on June 27 that it could have something to do with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Office having taken issue last year with the festival’s staging of a play related to the Toronto 18 terrorist plot. A PMO spokesman was quoted at the time as saying, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism.” He was speaking of lawyer and playwright Catherine Frid’s “Homegrown,” which she based on interviews she conducted with the imprisoned Shareef Abdelhaleem, who was convicted of participating in an Islamic terrorist group that had planned to attack numerous Canadian targets.

Last summer, both Rubenfeld and Frid defended the play, contending that Frid was pro-Canadian and that the play was focused on the human element of the story and was in no way a “sympathetic portrayal” of Abdelhaleem.

The show will go on, however. In order to cover the unanticipated gap in the budget, the festival is raising ticket prices from $10 to $15 and has launched an online donation campaign. “The response has been overwhelming,” Rubenfeld said. More than 400 people contributed in the first day and a half of the campaign, and several of the winners at the Dora Awards, which took place on June 27, donated some of their prize money.

“I’m hopeful that we will make up the difference,” Rubenfeld said. With no existing appeal process for this year, he is focusing on strengthening SummerWorks’ relationship with Canadian Heritage and reapplying for next year.


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