Taking Liberties – 30 Years Later
George F. Walker once said in an interview that Canadian plays suffer from the “Dixie Cup Syndrome”. They are used once and then tossed away. Happily for Canadian theatregoers, most of Walker’s own oeuvre has escaped that fate, and they include some of my favourite plays of all time – Criminals in Love, Zastrozzi and the Suburban Motel.
For the rest of us playwriting mortals, that is not rarely the case. Over my thirty odd years of seeing plays, I have again and again been delighted or thrilled or moved by a new work. I’ve filed it away in my mental rolodex (alas, it’s that vintage) in the hope that I would one day see the play again. In theory, a lovely thought. But, in practice, so many fine plays by so many fine playwrights vanish, just days after they have opened. Like June bugs.
It’s a shitty state of affairs. On a very pragmatic level, it means that it’s nearly impossible for Canadian playwrights to earn a living. One play every two years does not put bread on table or in wallet. Worse, when a work is only seen within walking distance of Queen Street, it does not allow a playwright to develop a national following. And worse yet, no second production means no learning the fine art of rewriting. Why revise a play when it’s an artistic Dixie cup.
I’m not going to bark on about this, but I do in large measure blame our dysfunctional funding of the arts. Second productions are not regarded as grantworthy. A theatre that remounts plays is seen as stale. And so our plays wither instead of living. And yet another hungry writer shuffles off to another career.
That is whining, of course, and I can do that with the best of my peers. But, truth is, I have been very lucky to have written a few plays that have escaped the ‘done and die’ life cycle. Taking Liberties is one of them. I wrote this play 30 years ago and, since then, it has had several productions across Canada and the US. Five incarnations have been reight here in Toronto – a CBC-recorded version at the Alumnae Theatre as part of its New Ideas Festival; a full stage premiere at Factory Theatre; a Summerworks production; a Fringe production; and a Bravo TV filming starring Sarah Polley.
And now this production, in 2020. I couldn’t be happier.
I’ve been asked to explain why I wrote this play - and what I think of it three decades later. The first is easy to answer; the second more complex.
I have been involved with Human Rights and Civil Liberties organizations for most of my life. I first learned about Amnesty International from a progressive classmate in high school, and began my long-time involvement with AI in 1976. I have also been a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, inspired by Dr. Alan Borovoy, its famed longtime counsel. Dr. Borovoy’s careful, logical arguments have helped deepen my concerns about our civil liberties and made sense of my three years of legal training.
Thirty years is a long time, for plays and people. But my politics have not changed much over the year. However, with age comes an enhanced ability to see both sides of issues. As a writer I am increasingly curious about people I consider on the “wrong” side of an issue as those on the “right”. I have come to believe that the great failing of Art in this country is that there is very little empathetic examination of opposing viewpoints.
In that sense, I think Taking Liberties stands up well. The struggles of the people in it are still ongoing and sometimes unpopular. Censorship, tick. The press (or social media) naming names and destroying lives. Tick. Professors being hounded from their jobs because their beliefs lie outside the academic mainstream. Lawyers facing social ostracism because they feel called to defend the repugnant. And still, still, still (!) closeted men for a variety of reasons living outside the bounds of safety. Thirty years on, some of the antagonists may have changed and the language of assault has become diabolically confusing – but it’s all still happening.
I am thrilled to be helping to organize the series of talkbacks and seminars surrounding this play. I want to hear other views on these issues. In particular, I’m anxious to hear people discuss the impact of what’s arguably the most profound gamechanger of the past three decades – the internet. Does the internet change everything?
Ten years ago I tinkered with the play’s ending, thinking I should “update” it. I realize now that was a mistake. With this production, I’ve taken Anne Harvie back to her original voice. The other characters remain largely the same as they did when they first appeared. I know I made a case earlier for playwrights having the chance to rewrite their works. Truth is, sometimes it’s necessary to unwrite the rewrite.
If the principles that grounded this play thirty years ago can’t still be heard – can’t still be understood – can’t at least be respected – then we are all in a great deal of trouble.
Taking Liberties premiered in January, 1992 as a staged reading, recorded for CBC at Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre. Stephen Ouimette directed, and Heather Brown produced. The cast consisted of Tanja Jacobs, Albert Schultz, Stephanie Morgenstern, Chris Wiggins and Edward Roy.
The stage premiere was at the 1992 Vancouver Fringe Festival, and was directed by a familiar-sounding name, Jan Carley. She’s my sister, at that time the Associate AD of Vancouver’s Arts Clubs. The cast was Gillian Barber, Joe-Norman Shaw, Celine Richmond, Bernard Cuffling and Andrew Wheeler.
The Toronto premiere followed at Factory Theatre in its Studio Café space. Stephen Ouimette again directed the November 1992 production, with a cast consisting of Dixie Seatle, Michael Caruana, Stephanie Morgenstern, Gary Reineke and Tom McCamus.
That’s quite an alumni.
I am greatly indebted to them all. My preferred means of working is to create alone, then refine collaboratively. I can honestly say that the artists listed above, and other subsequent, all contributed in some way to the development of this script.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the real people who inspired the characters: The young woman in Peterborough who stood up in front of a packed meeting at the Board of Education and was so passionate in her defence of The Diviners. The author of that book, Margaret Laurence, surely one of the most moral writers this country has ever produced. The lawyer – based on my hero Dr. Borovoy - who felt compelled to provide a hatemonger with legal defence. The newspaperman who allowed his own fears to cloud his sense of compassion, because he believed he was protecting his community. And the tormented husband who killed himself in order to escape his public shaming.
I am also deeply grateful to the cast and crew of this production, as well as our hosts at Campbell House.
David French once said to me that he felt, if he couldn’t see his plays, he wasn’t alive. I didn’t quite understand that when he said it. I hadn’t yet learned about the Dixie Cup syndrome. Thirty years on – I get that. I really get it.
Thank you for letting me share this play again.
- Dave Carley
And for some blasts from the past...