The City of Windsor denied that it was censorship, did a whole song and dance about protecting children and earned my company…
For most young Canadians the idea of theatrical censorship, or really any censorship, is totally alien. It’s something we associate with past authoritarian regimes; with the Soviet Union, with South Africa under apartheid, with Spain under Franco. It’s such a foreign idea that when it happened to my own theatre company I didn’t recognize it for what it was until my audience and local media labelled it for me. Despite censorship’s long history in Canada I have always talked about the current freedom of expression here and rejoiced in it but there is a creeping caution that exists in Canada and in other western democracies that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Censorship in Canada comes in many forms… official censorship (banning), censorship by ambiguous “policy” (Customs stopping written or visual works at the border), police action (shows being closed or “watched” by the police), church action (productions or artists being blasted from the pulpit), community-instigated boycott, uninformed debate or ambiguous public funding criteria.” From the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia.
By doing just a little research I’ve come across a number of plays that have been censored in the last couple of years. For example, earlier in 2012 Proud by Michael Healey, a play about the Prime Ministers Office after the election, was turned down by Tarragon Theatre. As an obvious satire, the play meets the test for fair political comment but Healey spoke publicly about his suspicion that Tarragon’s board of directors felt the icy breath of funding cuts blowing their way.
SummerWorks Festival had it’s federal funding cut by thousands of dollars after it produced a play about the Toronto 18 called Homegrown, which the PMO said “glorified terrorism” in 2010.
All of this leads to my experience. After training and working in Toronto, New York and England I decided to come home to regroup; figure out what I wanted to do next and where. When I moved back to Windsor, ON and realized there was no paid work for me here as an actor, no way for me to make a living, I started my own theatre and production company. The Edge Productions does a mix of contemporary and classical, musical and straight play but everything we do has to be socially relevant and looked at with fresh eyes. We want everything we do to have a voice and a purpose. The major projects for our 2012-2013 season are The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon and The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
This is the story of how our poster for The Vagina Monologues was taken down by a city worker who deemed it “inappropriate for children” and how I accidentally became the face of anti-censorship in Windsor.
The Capitol Theatre in Windsor has a rich history as a centre for the arts. When it was at risk of being lost the City of Windsor bought it and gave it to the Windsor Symphony Society to run. In theory the city is not supposed to have anything to do with the actual management of the space. The Capitol Theatre is a beautiful and well known space, a space that the community loves, and thus a great rental space. It’s easy to advertise and easy to get people through the doors – that’s part of it’s appeal for a young company like mine.
Part of your rental agreement when you book the space is that you can have your poster in one of the ‘Upcoming Attractions’ windows at the front of the theatre. It’s on a main street in downtown Windsor. People see it when they are driving by and hordes of people walking see it every day. When we booked the space we were told how excited they were to have our company working in the theatre. Talk of our production of The Vagina Monologues was met with enthusiasm. “We can’t wait to get your poster up and see the show!”
One day after our poster had gone up and two days before our opening night I was informed by cast members that our poster was no longer in the front attractions window. No one had seen it. My assistant stage manager, and board member of The Edge, went looking for the poster. It was neatly rolled up, in an unused office, hidden behind a typewriter – out of view to be forgotten. My first reaction wasn’t anger, as you might expect, but relief. My poster hadn’t been destroyed or thrown out. When I got home I emailed Jeth Mills who is the manager of The Capitol. I asked him when and why my poster got taken down. I thought maybe there had been a complaint about the imagery. He told me he didn’t know anything about it and would get back to me. The next day around noon I got an email back telling me that a city worker had decided the poster was inappropriate and took it down. Jeth told me that they had agreed to put it up in an abandoned store front down the block that was also owned by the city.
I didn’t and still don’t understand what the problem with the poster was. There is a sex store 2 blocks away with whips and lingerie in the window, a strip club a block away advertising “Cheetah’s Hotties”, an image of a girl wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a bikini blowing glittery kisses on the city’s own ad screen downtown – all of these are more graphic and more offensive. While growing up I always knew that Windsor was known as Sin City. It’s the home of strip joints and massage parlours, and flocks of 19 – 22 year olds getting completely wasted downtown on the weekends. But Chief administrative officer Helga Reidel said the removal of the poster was “appropriate” and that the city was “trying to be vigilant.” Children were coming to the theatre to watch a Christmas play which was running the same weekends as ours.
What I took from all of the people talking at me during this process is that the word Vagina is inappropriate, bad and dirty. It’s a body part. Fifty-two per cent of the world population have one but still, it’s inappropriate.
All of this is pretty ironic, since The Vagina Monologues is about the female experience – sex, birth, abuse, rape, menstruation, love. Part of the proceeds from our show were being donated to the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre and The Vagina Monologues is performed all over the world for V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women.
When the audience started rolling in during our first weekend all I heard was “where is your poster?” I got phone calls asking me if we were still playing at The Capitol because they hadn’t see the poster. People were outraged when they heard what had happened. I was talking to one of the reporters at the Windsor Star and she told me they had received multiple phone calls about the censoring of my company’s poster. I spent the next week answering phone calls, being interviewed for blogs, newspapers, radio and t.v stations – the story went international. It exploded in everyone’s face. It wasn’t until this happened that it actually clicked in my brain. That’s when I realized – it doesn’t matter whether they intended it as censorship or not. By preemptively taking down the poster, because they felt it was a “sensitive issue” and that it was “inappropriate for children”, without having any complaint or cause – they censored the poster.
They should have just admitted that a city worker had made a unilateral decision, that it was wrong and put the poster back up immediately. Instead The City of Windsor denied the unilateral decision, denied that it was censorship, did a whole song and dance about protecting children and earned my company, along with their bad decisions, the front page of the Windsor Star, a political cartoon and column, 5 blogs, 2 radio interviews, a t.v interview, 8 newspaper articles internationally and a boat load of derision.
The time the poster got taken down to the time when it got put back up was about a week and a half and I don’t think I used the word censorship until the very end of it. In retrospect it’s a little shocking to me that I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Eventually the poster was remounted and The Vagina Monologues got rave reviews and had a wonderful run. Our productiongot more publicity than a whole wall of posters could have given us.
We can’t know what happens in the back rooms of bureaucrats, theatre companies or the PMO but the real hazard is in what we fear might be going on. We need to be careful not to succumb to a culture of fear. It doesn’t matter if they intended the removal of the Vagina Monologues poster as an act of censorship, it doesn’t matter if Canadian Heritage cut SummerWorks funding to show them they didn’t approve or if Tarragon got the feeling the same axe was coming for them. The fact is we view it that way. We believe it’s possible to lose government support or the use of a city owned space and that leads to self-censorship; which is dangerous in more than one way.