The residents of Whitney Pier, a blue-collar neighborhood of Sydney, N.S., have a reputation for hard work, hard drinking and recreational brawling. Whenever Sydney’s small clutch of theatre buffs managed to lure touring companies to the area, the people from Whitney Pier stayed away in droves. That might have discouraged the organizers of Standin’ the Gaff, an international festival of political theatre. But the host, the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance, was a group with a mission. For 10 days ending last weekend, regulars at the Whitney Pier Legion Hall took refuge in the basement lounge, while the upstairs banquet hall featured plays celebrating the power of working people.
Three hundred participants—theatre lovers, educators and social activists— from more than a dozen nations were there to make their case that theatre should spring from grassroots and challenge the powerful. By day, they addressed their subject in panels and workshops; by night, the festival’s 40 performances—at Whitney Pier and other settings in Sydney—ranged from the ranting Marxism of an Edinburghbased troupe called 7:48, to the goodhumored one-man revue, Doctor Bossin’s Home Remedy for Nuclear War, by Vancouver singer Bob Bossin.
As political as it was dramatic, the theatre program was colored in shades of pink. Contributions of $10,000 from the United Steelworkers of America and $5,000 from the Canadian Auto Workers supported a left-of-centre perspective, and the selection of Sydney over Halifax as the festival’s site was based largely on the steel-and-mining city’s long history of organized labor. In fact, the festival’s name recalled the bitter steelworkers’ strike of 1925—specifically, a company boss’s boast that the strikers were on the point of surrender, that “they cannot stand the gaff.” Festival organizer Ruth Schneider declared that her objective was “to get the body politic to realize they have power.”
Indeed, many foreign delegates made it clear that theatre is a potent weapon against the suppression of free speech. Brazilian director Augusto Boal spoke of sending actors to the streets to stage events that would draw passers-by into political debates. Said Boal: “You take theatre to the people to escape the censor. It’s combat.” Nigerian director Oga Abah noted how his government, usually acutely sensitive to criticism, reacted only mildly when a community theatre group drew attention to their village’s inadequate water supplies.
Canadian delegates included Vancouver’s David Diamond, who is coproducing a play with Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council of northern B.C. to defend the tribe’s land claims. From Toronto came the all-female Working Peoples’ Picture Show. Wearing pink tops and toreador pants, they performed before a stylized snakes-and-ladders game board—equipped only with snakes. A satirical revue of how women are exploited in the workplace, it was originally commissioned by an Ontario union.
Still, Whitney Pier proved hard ground for such cultural transplants as Dominican poet Ras Mo, whose satirical verse is dense in Caribbean rhythms, or East Indian mime director Aloke Roy, whose works tackle such topics as rising prices in New Delhi ghettos. Despite its nod to local labor history, Standin’ the Gaff drew its audiences largely from Sydney’s middle class. Growled one Legion stalwart after a performance
of a play about Cana-
dian feminist Agnes Macphail: “There’s
not four of them here know who Agnes Macphail is.”
Other Canadian festivals of popular theatre may elicit less cynical reactions. This week Montreal hosts the Theatre Festival of the Americas, and later this year Toronto plans its own popular theatre festival. But wherever actors stage their causes, political theatre is bound to provoke strong responses. And that, says Boal, is the point: “We try to make the spectators active. The ultimate objective is to change reality.”
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