LONDON, ONTARIO - The four-season term of Michael Shamata as artistic director of the Grand Theatre (1995-99) seems to be remembered primarily for its clunkers. In the first season he foisted his own adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on us (a remarkably leaden ‘retelling’ as opposed to a ‘reshowing’) and then there was his second season’s preposterous production of Maureen Hunter’s Atlantis. Nobody who saw Atlantis remembers the story or even the acting; just the fact that the entire stage was covered in seven inches of water – some 4,000 gallons – that was kept at room temperature to prevent Tanja Jacobs and Benedict Campbell from breaking out in chilblains as they sloshed around for two soporific acts and made every patron feel like they’d spent an evening at the sauna.
By the end of Shamata’s directorship, the Grand was once again saddled with a hefty operating deficit of $1,300,000. However on the plus side, in his last two seasons he did introduce The High School Project, which has been maintained and expanded in ensuing years. This innovative program invites high school students from across the city, on stage and backstage, to work with professionals in mounting full productions – often musicals – that crackle and fizz with intoxicating energy. These shows link up our theatre with the community in a very dynamic way and did much to repair the bruised feelings that still lingered 25 years after the Grand Theatre went professional in 1971 and no longer featured amateurs from the community in their productions. And with all those relatives who are compelled to buy a ticket and see what their young people are up to, these shows do fabulous business.
For 20 years everything chugged along quite happily on the High School Project front until earlier this month when, in a move that seemed to outrage just about everybody, both the public and Catholic school boards announced they would each be withholding their annual $15,000 funding grants to the Grand because they didn’t approve of the spanking new play which is set to be produced this September, Prom Queen: The Musical. It seemed obvious why the London District Catholic School Board wasn’t eager to promote a show celebrating the real-life case of Marc Hall, a gay 17 year old student at Oshawa’s Monsignor John Pereyama Catholic Secondary School who won a court battle against the Durham Catholic School Board in 2002 to allow him to take his 21 year-old boyfriend, Jean-Paul Dumond to the high school prom. The fact that the couple officially broke up about a week after the prom didn’t noticeably dampen the jubilation and sense of vindication that their court victory unleashed.
Unlike most of the Western world, the Catholic Church has been a most conspicuous holdout in the rush to jettison our society’s ancient and biblically informed understanding of the innate nature of men and women and marriage – which they regard as a holy sacrament – for the sake of appearing progressive or agreeable. You can look it up. Right there on page 566 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church’s “synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals,” they tell us why they will not be clambering on board the great woolly “Love is Love” bandwagon and pretending that there is no distinction worth drawing between heterosexual and homosexual love. After asserting that a homosexual person “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,” the Catechism declares that homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
So we get why the Catholics gave Prom Queen a pass. Expecting Catholics to contribute to a show celebrating an act they consider to be wrong and highlighting the Church’s humiliation at the hands of the state, would be a little like asking the folks at Century 21 to sponsor a production of Glengarry Glen Ross. But nobody knew what to make of the objection of the Thames Valley District School Board. Our public board suffered no demonization or subjection when the Marc Hall case went down 16 years ago this May and its educational mandate is quite untroubled by any sort of prohibition on any sort of consensual sexual behaviour. Indeed, once the Thames Valley board retired their supine, smiley-face corporate motto of ‘Success for Every Student’ sometime in the ‘90s, I half expected them to replace it with, ‘Whatever’.
Even weirder, when both boards announced the one-time cancellation of their High School Project sponsorship, the handling of the riled-up media seemed to be left entirely to the openly gay chair of the public board, trustee Matt Reid, who cited profanity in the script as well as the negative portrayal of school boards, teachers and other adults. “There are many things in the script that go against the culture and values of the Thames Valley Board,” Reid said in an interview with CBC Radio that convinced just about no one that the real objection here was being addressed. And if one recalled some of the themes raised in earlier High School Project plays – gang warfare in West Side Story, prostitution and the small-minded tyranny of a grudge-bearing policeman in Les Miserables, teen pregnancy and all-round galloping inanity in Grease – it was difficult indeed to see why the public board would so predictably risk calling down the wrath of those who thrive on being offended by drawing their pointless line in the sand over this particular production.
In the week that followed the boards’ bewildering announcement, a popular crowdfunding campaign to make up the sudden shortfall almost doubled the $30,000 that both boards would have chipped in to the Grand, racking up more than $58,000. And it was only then, six days after dropping their original bomb – and after the crisis of lost revenue had been more than just averted and the Grand had discovered this encouraging groundswell of community support for the work that they do – that the administration of the public board came to what passes for their senses, apologized for their faux pas, reversed their decision and pledged to fork over the 15 G’s after all.
So all of this might appear to leave us once again with the Catholic Church and its schools back in their rightful place – isolated in their moral stand and drawing vituperation from all sides – as the most conspicuous resistor to the insanely non-judgemental temper of our times. That is as it should be. The Church is meant to stand apart, to be a sign of contradiction to the indifferent way in which the world drifts along. But there is a flaw, a compromise, which prevents it from performing this important function as boldly as it should and it is the very same compromise which hobbled the Church back in 2002 when Marc Hall took his case to court.
Hall’s lawyer successfully argued that his Oshawa school’s refusal to allow him to take the date of his choice to the prom violated the Ontario Education Act which does not allow any school in the province to discriminate. The Catholic School Board counter-claimed that any interference on the part of the court was a denial of their Charter-protected religious freedom. But that argument was rendered void when Hall’s lawyer pointed out that any organization that receives public funding must obey the same laws – including anti-discrimination laws – that pertain to any other public institution.
There were some prescient souls who argued back in 1985 (your scribe takes a moment to shine his knuckles on his chest) when Bill Davis exited the office of Ontario premier and brought a 42-year reign of Conservative government at Queens Park to an end by granting full funding to Catholic school boards, that the Church should resist this gift, for its own sake and everybody else’s. Not only was it manifestly unfair to subsidize the Catholics and leave all the other religious and private schools in the province to fend for themselves, sooner or later, by dint of the eternal principle that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, it was going to hamstring the Church’s ability to steer its own ship. And that is very much the situation we find ourselves in today with a steadily increasing number of serious Catholic parents yanking their kids out of both systems and choosing to homeschool instead.
Herman Goodden is a writer, journalist and playwright based in London, Ontario. His latest books are Speakable Acts, a collection of his six plays, and Three Artists which examines the lives and work of William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe.