Show goes on in Vancouver after Gaza tensions scrap play’s Victoria run

By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Vancouver’s PuSh Festival is sticking to theatrical tradition that the show must go on, and will stage “The Runner” this month despite the play being cancelled in Victoria over tensions linked to the war between Israel and Hamas, say festival officials.

Victoria’s Belfry Theatre dropped the Canadian play from its spring line up after receiving duelling petitions in recent weeks calling both for its cancellation and continued performance at the venue, which was spray-painted with graffiti that read “Free Palestine” last month following a tense community meeting.

The timing isn’t right to stage “The Runner” by Christopher Morris, a Canadian playwright and actor, the Belfry said in a statement earlier this week. 

But the one-person play, which explores the reactions to an Israeli rescue volunteer’s decision to save a Palestinian woman accused of violence against a soldier from Israel, will run Jan. 24 to 26 in Vancouver.

“The world is a complex place and it’s easier when it’s black and white. But it’s not black and white,” said Gabrielle Martin,  director of programming at the PuSh Festival, which deliberately uses a capital S in its name. 

“The message we see the play as having … is about transcending what kind of society we are in, (which) might tell us about how we view ourselves in relationship to others, and really argue for the fundamental equality of all humans,” she said. “This is something we see the play as trying to do.”

Simon Fraser University’s Woodward’s Cultural Programs is staging “The Runner” at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, a PuSh venue.

Woodward’s Cultural Programs director Michael Boucher said the play challenges the character’s sense of purpose and place in the world when he finds the dead Israeli soldier he was sent to recover, but chooses to rescue an injured Palestinian woman who may have killed the soldier.

“Sometimes you just have to raise above whatever your filter is to help and save someone else,” Boucher said. “That’s what I think the story is in this thing. That’s why I’m behind it. It’s regrettable that there was a cancellation.”

Morris said in a statement earlier this week he was disappointed the Belfry cancelled his play, but empathized with the theatre’s situation.

He acknowledged “The Runner,” which premiered in 2018 and won awards and critical acclaim, was still scheduled for the PuSh Festival.

Boucher said the PuSh Festival and the Downtown Eastside university venue have staged controversial productions in the past and faced criticism, but have not been forced to cancel a show.

“As we say, the show will go on with what we’re doing here and it will continue to go on,” he said.

Protests have been held across the country since the war broke out, staged in city squares or aimed at politicians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was confronted in a Vancouver restaurant in November by dozens of people calling for a ceasefire in the war, and later police had to be called in to another restaurant to help get Trudeau to a vehicle through hundreds of protesters. 

B.C.’s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, said in November that the Israel-Hamas war had caused a surge of discrimination and violence targeting Jewish and Muslim people. 

Martin said the festival has scheduled “Dear Laila” as part of the festival, running Jan. 20 to Feb. 3 at Granville Island’s Fish Bowl.

She said the production is an individual immersive experience by artist Basel Zaraa, where viewers are invited to experience a model of his childhood home in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Lebanon.

“We are showing a diversity of voices that we feel all support the development of empathy within our public and support ultimately the acceleration of social change,” said Martin, acknowledging the “anger” and “hurt” people are feeling about the war.

Martin did not directly discuss security, but said festival audiences, including those people attending “The Runner,” will be well-treated.

“We’re being very thoughtful about how we are planning the work and how we are planning for audience care,” she said.

Pro-Palestinian supporters walked out of a Dec. 22 community meeting in Victoria at the Belfry Theatre, saying their concerns about “The Runner” were not being heard.

Nico Slobinsky, vice-president of the Pacific region’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said he was saddened and disappointed with the Belfry’s decision to cancel the play. 

“Let me be clear: if the play was not based on the ethical dilemma of an Israeli religious man there likely would have been no pressure exerted on the Belfry Theatre to remove the play from the schedule,” he said.

Slobinsky said he applauded Vancouver’s PuSh Festival for standing up for freedom of artistic expression and making the “right decision.”

The Vancouver office of the Canada Palestine Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Boucher said “The Runner” is a story that asks audiences to discuss their way through the pains and challenges people face.

“If dialogue fails, I don’t know what we have,” he said. “We hope to continue to raise that torch and celebrate the beauty of being in a democracy where we can actually do this.”

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