Mixed reactions after Victoria’s Belfry Theatre cancels controversial play

Mixed reactions after Victoria's Belfry Theatre cancels controversial play

A University of Victoria professor thinks the Belfry Theatre made the right decision to cancel its play The Runner.

“I don’t believe in cancelling artists and scholars. I believe in free speech. It’s happening all around us,” said Fine Arts professor Conrad Alexandrowicz.

“How is it different from what happened with South Africa? It really is not that different,” he told CHEK News.

Scheduled to run at the Belfry during its Spark Festival in March, the play, which centres on a Z.A.K.A volunteer’s decision to save a Palestinian woman and leave a fatally wounded Israeli soldier behind, ignited protests in December.

Two online petitions with opposing viewpoints are still gathering signatures. More than 2,000 people signed Jonathan Gustin’s petition, which is in support of the play.

“I felt dejected. I felt scared. It’s a slippery slope when people can protest art and get it cancelled,” said Gustin.

“I think protesting is important, I think cancelling art is dangerous. I think it’s undemocratic. I think it’s unCanadian to censure art. I’m surprised that the Belfry chose to go that direction.”

TUESDAY STORY: Belfry Theatre announces controversial play set in Israel will not be presented

Graffiti that littered the theatre’s exterior is gone, but opinions are still split on The Runner, including from Victoria resident Ruby Wallace.

“I think art can bring people together. But I think a really big part of it is as much as you can bring some together, you can really hurt people,” said Wallace.

“Because it has such a powerful impact that you are going to end up hurting people.”

The Runner has been touring Canada for five years and won numerous awards since its debut in 2018.

In an interview released by the Belfry, playwright Christopher Morris explains that his one-man play focuses on the experience of an Israeli volunteer with Z.A.K.A — an ultra-Orthodox rescue service in Israel.

“I’m curious to see what happens to people when they are pushed to their absolute max,” said Morris.

The theatre announced Tuesday that, given the current situation in the Middle East, it cancelled the play. It added that “…going ahead with The Runner does not ensure the well-being of all segments of our community.”

In a statement to CHEK News, Morris writes:

“As a playwright who values the role of theatre as a platform to explore ideas about the complexities of life, I was disappointed to learn that The Belfry removed The Runner from its programming. I also empathize with the challenging situation they were facing. I am saddened that people in Victoria – especially those with very divergent views and those traumatized by the atrocities in Israel and Gaza – will be denied the opportunity to come together in a theatre to explore their common humanity, share their grief and perhaps discover a flicker of solace and hope.

“Since it premiered in 2018, my play The Runner has been seen by audiences in six cities, and received numerous awards and unanimous critical acclaim. I am humbled that theatre companies have produced this play, which is a nuanced and thoughtful conversation about the preciousness of human life. Their endorsement tells me that they also see its effectiveness in creating a dialogue with their audience.

“I am deeply traumatized and saddened by humankind’s capacity to wage war. As a Canadian, I want our politicians to do all they can to make the violence in Gaza and Israel stop. I hope theatre companies and playwrights do all they can to give audiences the opportunity for dialogue and to build bridges between our silos. I believe The Runner is an excellent opportunity for those things to happen. And Vancouver audiences will get the chance to experience this production in a few weeks at the upcoming Push Festival.”

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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