“I can only name two or three plays ever written about Canadian politics” says Andrew Wheeler, star of the Firehall Arts Centre’s upcoming remount of Proud. “But I think there’s a place for Canadian politics in theatre. I think there’s always a place for stories of power and abuse of power. Its what theatre was created from. There will always be a place for it”.
It is rare for contemporary theatre to cause as much of a fuss as Proud. Focused on the struggle of a character simply called “The Prime Minister”, the play pits a Stephen Harper look-a-like against a spunky newcomer to the political arena, played by Jessie Award winner Emmelia Gordon. Playwright Michael Healey wrote the play during his writer-in-residence stint at Tarragon theatre in Toronto. However, upon reading the play, they refused to produce it, fearing a libel suit from the Prime Minister’s office. The move made headlines and solidarity readings were staged by independent theatre companies all across the country. So what is it that makes this play worthy of all this drama? Its perhaps not what you’d think.
“I saw this play in Victoria and found myself nodding along to a lot of the things that the Stephen Harper-esque character says in the script,” says Wheeler. “I find my politics are generally at odds with Stephen Harper’s, but in this play he’s such an empathetic character. For someone who is in some places universally loathed, that’s an interesting thing to see.”
This extrapolation of the Prime Minister’s off-camera personality is the heart of the play, offering the actors and audience a look at a different side of a familiar face.
“I think that the Stephen Harper that we see in the media is a prepackaged, controlled soundbite of what the media wants us to see.” says Wheeler. “What I love about this character is that he lays all his cards on the table. I don’t know whether Stephen Harper is like that in person as the Stephen Harper we see is only ever in the public forum. If he’s anything like this character maybe I like him a bit more. That doesn’t mean I agree with his politics, but I think that as a human being I’ve warmed to him.”
Political plays typically do not do well in Canadian theatre, explaining why there are so few to begin with, but Proud has been popular since it opened and continues to draw audiences from all segments of society. So what is it about this play that sets it apart from other modes of political commentary?
“I think there’s an element of truth to it” says Wheeler. “He’s an autocrat in this play and I think Stephen Harper is obsessed with control in certain situations. But this is a leaping off point for larger questions like how do we as a society determine who our leaders are? What do we want from our leaders?”
For Wheeler those questions are at the center of Proud, especially at a time when Harper just may very well be poised to win a third successive majority government.
“He’s obviously found a way to tap into some sort of popularity and majority rule and that intrigues me,” says Wheeler. “I think people come see the show because they want to get a sense of who Stephen Harper is and how he does what he does. How does he propel forward the ideas that he’s passionate about? This play is a potential answer to that.”
Proud plays The Firehall Arts Centre (1280 East Cordova Street, Vancouver) April 7-25. Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.