The Jewish Independent received the following statements regarding the play The Runner after the Belfry Theatre in Victoria canceled the scheduled March performances of the play, which is set to run as part of the PuSh Festival in Vancouver Jan. 24-26.
Since this article was published, PuSh has canceled the production. For the statement, click here.
Christopher Morris, artistic director of Human Cargo and playwright of The Runner:
As a playwright who values the role of theatre as a platform to explore ideas about the complexities of life, I was disappointed to learn that the Belfry removed The Runner from its programming. I also empathize with the challenging situation they were facing. I am saddened that people in Victoria – especially those with very divergent views and those traumatized by the atrocities in Israel and Gaza – will be denied the opportunity to come together in a theatre to explore their common humanity, share their grief and perhaps discover a flicker of solace and hope.
Since it premièred in 2018, my play The Runner has been seen by audiences in six cities, received numerous awards and unanimous critical acclaim. I am humbled that theatre companies have produced this play, which is a nuanced and thoughtful conversation about the preciousness of human life. Their endorsement tells me that they also see its effectiveness in creating a dialogue with their audience.
I am deeply traumatized and saddened by humankind’s capacity to wage war. As a Canadian, I want our politicians to do all they can to make the violence in Gaza and Israel stop. I hope theatre companies and playwrights do all they can to give audiences the opportunity for dialogue and to build bridges between our silos. I believe The Runner is an excellent opportunity for those things to happen. And Vancouver audiences will get the chance to experience this production in a few weeks, at the upcoming PuSh Festival.
Gabrielle Martin, director of programming, and Keltie Forsyth, director of operations, PuSh Festival:
The PuSh Festival recognizes the pain of those watching or connected to the conflict in Gaza and Israel and the feelings of hurt and helplessness, knowing our experiences here in Vancouver are nothing like those who are suffering direct violence or who have lost homes, friends and family members.
We understand the objections to our programming of The Runner as a part of that shared hurt. When we see death, particularly civilian death, on this scale, we feel the injustice and the inhumanity at work, and we want to do something about it. Here in Canada, far from the conflict, it’s easy to feel helpless, to feel like contacting politicians, rallying or protesting isn’t enough. At PuSh, what we do is present live art, and sometimes we share the feeling that what we do isn’t sufficient.
Art reflects the world and the times in which we live. At its best, it’s an essential cultural force that builds empathy and understanding. Our aim is that PuSh brings us together and inspires us to have complex conversations; to challenge ourselves and each other not only to think differently, but to feel differently. The festival experience is greater than the sum of its parts and defined in how each piece sits in conversation with the other. These pieces share a sense of cultural urgency and, together, welcome generative friction through plurality as a cultural strategy.
The Runner is situated within a program that explores our shared humanity in ways that transform the political into the personal, intimate and domestic. This play, by Canadian playwright Christopher Morris, is a story about triage that’s set in Israel. It is not funded by the Israeli government, and Christopher has no direct ties to any country in the region. The play unpacks one character’s dilemma between humanist impulse and socially imposed morals, as he advocates for seeing all human life as equal. In its commitment to examining the polarizing tensions and conflicting ideologies at work within its Israeli protagonist, it exposes painful racism behind the dehumanizing sentiments encountered by the character. Christopher shares: “I lack the experience, or expertise, to speak on or write a play about the extremely complicated conflict that’s happening right now in that part of the world. And what I’ve been offering since 2018 is a play, from my Canadian perspective, that explores the complexities, and limitations, of empathy and kindness.” Ultimately, he frames The Runner as “an offer for discussion.”
We believe this work offers one voice in a diversity of perspectives that diverge in specifics of identity and experience, but that all advocate for empathy and compassion. Dear Laila, playing parallel to The Runner, offers an autobiographical perspective on the forced displacement of Palestinians through one family’s experience of war and exile. Basel Zaraa, the artist behind the project, is a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. Dear Laila features a miniature model of his destroyed family home in Yarmouk camp, and three stories that represent the three generations who lived in the house. Intimate and interactive, the experience invites each audience member to connect with this story of “[a] family, like many families of our communities, who are stuck in a loop of losses.” Basel further frames it as “a way for me to face and express and understand the trauma that we live with.”
These two works form part of the wider 2024 festival ecology, and each plays an integral role to a balance that has been curated with care. In the face of violence and atrocity, presenting live art can feel small. We hope that, collectively, the performances and multimedia experiences of this year’s festival offer opportunities for self-reflection, better understanding others’ experiences, and dialogue – actions that, in our view, can sometimes offer building blocks for meaningful political change.
The Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island is disappointed by the decision of the Belfry Theatre to cancel its production of the acclaimed play The Runner.
It is regrettable that the Belfry Theatre felt the need to cancel an artistic production, for the first time in its 46 years of existence, because it featured an Israeli Jewish man.
It is regrettable and disheartening that, when the Belfry Theatre attempted to have an open dialogue, it was vandalized and threatened by a “pro-Palestinian” mob, which ultimately led to a very quick decision without any meaningful consultation. The Belfry’s stated reasons for this decision were: “we believe that presenting The Runner at this particular time does not ensure the well-being of all segments of our community … this is not the time for a play which may further tensions among our community.” This decision does not reflect the wishes of the community as expressed in competing petitions: 1,400 against showing the play vs. 2,400 wanting the play to proceed.
We fear this decision will lead to other cultural events being canceled, as other venues may also give in to mob mentality and bullying. This is not what we expect from our cultural institutions, nor our community. It is not too late for the Belfry Theatre to reconsider their actions, as we hope they will.
The decision does not bode well for artistic and cultural expression in Victoria and Vancouver Island. It matters to stand up for what is right.
To read the Jewish Independent’s interview with playwright Christopher Morris, click here. To read the Independent’s op-ed on the Belfry Theatre’s choice to cancel its March run of The Runner, click here.