By Anita Malhotra
Canadian playwright and actor Michael Healey has made his mark writing award-winning plays about the Canadian experience, beginning with The Drawer Boy, which earned a Governor General’s Literary Award for drama in 1999. Subsequent works included Plan B (2002), winner of a Dora award for Best New Play, Rune Arlidge (2004), Generous (2007) and Courageous (2009), the last two of which also won Doras. His most recent work, Proud, is a satirical comedy about Canadian politics that last year ignited a passionate debate about the role of the current federal government in the arts.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Michael Healey on September 18, 2013, shortly before he took to the stage to play the role of the Prime Minister (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Prime Minister Stephen Harper) in a production of Proud directed by Miles Potter at Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.
AM: How did you get started in theatre?
MH: I went to the Ryerson Theatre School in the mid-eighties, graduated as an actor, and I worked for about 10 years exclusively as an actor. And then in 1996 I produced my first self-written play at the Toronto Fringe Festival – mainly because I wasn’t getting the kind of parts that I wanted, so I wrote one for myself. And then 1999 was The Drawer Boy and then there have been six or seven plays, and a few adaptations since then, mixed in with a career as an actor.
AM: What are some of the highlights of your acting career?
MH: I was in a CBC series television series called This is Wonderland for a couple of seasons. George Walker, the famous Canadian playwright, wrote this series about lawyers in downtown Toronto, and it was just such a blast. When Jason Sherman was writing for the theatre, I was his go-to actor for a little while, and those plays would be highlights. Playing the federal Finance Minister in my play, Plan B, in Calgary a few years ago was an enormous amount of fun. So I managed to build a sustainable career having these two jobs: writing and acting.
AM: What was the impetus behind your latest trilogy of plays?
MH: In 2004, I donated part of my liver to a fellow playwright and out of that came the idea for the first in the trilogy, Generous, which is about the impulse toward generosity. I realized that there was enormous potential for comedy in the idea of people behaving altruistically and it turning out badly, or behaving altruistically for faulty reasons. Not that that was the case in my personal life – I just thought that there’d be some comedy available there.
And it’s not very long when you start thinking about the concept of generosity before you start thinking about it on a societal scale – helping strangers. Public service is generosity on a societal scale. It’s not a very big step from those ideas to the idea of politics, and there’s an enormous amount of comedy available when you explore politics because what’s said and what people intend are often two very different things, there are secrets galore, there are enormous power differences among people. All of these things contribute to comedy and make for a fun night in the theatre.
AM: Why did you title your latest play Proud?
MH: I wanted to look at the impulses towards patriotism that we have in a kind of very broad way. The play is about what it is that we actually value as citizens about the country, particularly as pertains to our federal politics. And if you believe as I do that the environment in which our federal politics is occurring has changed radically in the last few years, then I just want to raise questions about whether or not that change is one that we’re happy with.
AM: Why did you choose the style of comedy for Proud?
MH: It seems like the easiest way to talk about a difficult subject. The play goes from discussing sex, on one level, to talking about Leo Strauss’ concept of the client and the administrator and the self-perpetuating bureaucracy. It goes from discussing not only our politics and some of the minutiae involved in how decisions get made, but also macroeconomics and what we want from each other as a society. So these are all big, not especially friendly, ideas and to pack them into a comedy is the best way to make them accessible.
AM: How did you go about developing the character of the Prime Minister?
MH: Starting with all the research – everything I could find to read on Stephen Harper. William Johnson’s biography was never far from my side as well as all of the assessments from the various political writers on his time in office to this point. At a certain point I had to take the facts and discard the ones that weren’t useful in the hope of making a character that I could create inside a functioning play. This was never intended to be a documentary or a straight-up biography. It’s a heavily fictionalized depiction, but the aspects of his personality that I’ve seized on are the ones that create the engines in the play that ask the questions that I want to ask about our politics.
AM: The character of the Prime Minister is at first portrayed in a critical way but then the audience gradually becomes more empathetic towards him.
MH: I know who comes to the theatre – it’s people who overwhelmingly did not, would not consider voting for, the Conservatives. And so part of the job of this is to sell that guy to people who’ve already made up their minds about not liking him – to get those people with deeply entrenched feelings about the Prime Minister to reconsider those feelings.
AM: As an actor, how did you go about preparing to act the role of the Prime Minister?
MH: I didn’t bother at all with attempting any kind of mimicry because it’s not a portrait of the man I’m attempting. I’m being very selective about aspects of his personal details and personality. I’m really using those to create an altogether different character, so I didn’t worry about that at all. I worried about learning my lines because the writer kept changing the lines while I was trying to learn them, so that became very frustrating.
AM: The writer being you.
MH: That’s right.
AM: Were you surprised when you had a problem getting Proud mounted in Toronto a few years ago?
MH: Yes. I had a longstanding relationship with the Tarragon Theatre, and they produced the first two plays in the trilogy very successfully, and we had talked about the possibility of producing all three plays when the third one was ready. And then I presented that play to the artistic director and he said that there was a board member who had some concern about the content, about it being potentially libelous, and that the theatre would be exposed to the potential of a lawsuit. It’s not a farfetched idea, but I was surprised.
AM: You’ve spoken about a chill in terms of expression in Canada. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
MH: One of the things that differentiates this government from others in the past is that they consider owning the message to be part of the job of politics. So any message that’s out there that runs counter to the one that they want is attacked aggressively. It’s no fun being a scientist in this country and looking for federal funding, I would imagine. And there are a couple of examples of them interfering directly with cultural pursuits. It’s a ridiculous use of the government’s resources, in my opinion.
AM: How did you go about bringing your play to the public when the Tarragon turned it down?
MH: I went to my wife and I said, “Would you mind if I ran up the line of credit?” And she was incredibly supportive and off we went. And when it got out that the show wasn’t going to go on at the Tarragon and that I was going to self-produce, several people – first in Montreal and then in various cities – did readings of the play that were fundraisers for the Toronto production. At a moment when I was losing my artistic home, and was feeling quite depressed about that, to have this happen to me was incredibly moving and very meaningful. So we combined with that fundraising, and we did well at the box office.
AM: Where was that production?
MH: The Berkeley Street Theatre, almost exactly a year ago.
AM: Do you have any productions of Proud coming up in other cities?
MH: There’s one scheduled in February in Victoria and I’ve just been talking to someone in Edmonton who’s going to mount one next season.
AM: What has the reaction been to the play and to the readings over the last couple of years?
MH: Whether they agree with my thesis or not about the Prime Minister, everybody seems happy to have a conversation about our politics. There’s a great tradition in England of the kind of “state of the country” play, and much less so here. The thing I’m discovering is that there is a market and an enormous appetite in our country for a discussion about contemporary ideas – about our world right now.
AM: Has your work become more political over the years?
MH: For sure. Since the event of donating my liver, my gaze has kind of turned from an inward gaze about what’s interesting about me, and how do I explore my own neuroses, and what are the things I’m worried about. My gaze has kind of turned outwards and now I’m interested in the world I exist in much more. In a very great way the questions of the most recent plays are all about, “How are we going to live together? How are we going to work this out? What are the most exciting ways that we can find to be a community, to be a city, to be a country?”
AM: What, in your view, would be a perfect Canadian government?
MH: I think a government that isn’t worried about scoring points would be a perfect government. A government that’s willing to admit its mistakes, a government that is willing to listen to evidence and change its view if the evidence convinces them that they need to change their view, a government that projects a kind of centredness to the world – a kind of calm conscience to the world. A government that’s fiscally responsible, a government that takes my tax dollars very, very seriously, and a government that is less interested in marketing than it is in policy.
Michael Healey’s play Proud runs until September 29, 2013 at Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company. For more information about the production, please visit www.gctc.ca/plays/proud or www.facebook.com/ProudbyMichaelHealey.