Censorship and sensibility
Sook-Yin Lee's hybrid between documentary and performance looks to get people talking about forces that keep artists in Canada silent
By J. KELLY NESTRUCK
Saturday, March 9, 2019 Print Edition, Page R4
Can Sook-Yin Lee bring some sanity to the vigorous online debate over threats to artistic freedom (or lack thereof) by taking it offline and into the theatre?
Unsafe, a new live "hybrid documentary-performance" created by and starring the filmmaker, radio host and former MuchMusic VJ that opens at Canadian Stage this week, is billed as "an investigation into the censorship of art and the art of censorship in Canada."
Lee is not particularly interested in what she calls "capital-C censorship" of art by the government, which is rare these days, but rather all the "micro and macro" ways that "silence, exclusion and censorship" currently affect the creation of art in this country.
That includes how call-out culture has collided with cultural creators in recent years - and Lee is not shying away from the most controversial cases, even those that have involved artists associated with the theatre company that commissioned her show.
So, yes, Unsafe will tackle Quebec director Robert Lepage - a frequent Canadian Stage contributor who has had runs of shows curtailed and lost co-producing partners after controversies about race and representation in the past year.
And, in creating the piece, Lee also spoke to former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn about #CanStageSoWhite, the hashtag created in the wake of his unveiling of less-thanrepresentative programming for the theatre based in multicultural Toronto back in 2016.
"It was very interesting, super interesting," Lee says of that conversation - but, savvily self-censoring, she wants to save the details for audiences and not have complexity flattened into clickbait for an outrage-hungry Twitter by a journalist.
It's important to talk about what we don't want to talk about and why, according to Lee. "If we could just get to the whys of our experience and what we're reacting to that we are sensitive about, I think it's a very valuable thing - as opposed to what happens is there are these incendiary moments that trigger us and we wish to clamp down and stop the discussion," she says.
Though credited as both creator and writer, Unsafe was not, initially, Lee's idea. Several years ago, Jocelyn approached the director and filmmaker Zack Russell with the idea of creating a performance themed around the 25th anniversary of the arrest of Toronto painter Eli Langer in December, 1993, under Canada's then-new child pornography laws. The criminal charges against Langer were eventually dropped - and, after a hearing, his canvases escaped destruction by the Crown, a decision widely seen a win for freedom of expression in the country.
Russell began searching for a collaborator and soon landed on Lee, who, of course, had her own high-profile brush with censorship of the corporate variety in 2003.
Back then, she was nearly fired by the CBC as host of Definitely Not the Opera for planning to act in the sexually explicit film, Shortbus, until artists such as Atom Egoyan, Yoko Ono and Francis Ford Coppola rallied in support of her.
Sometime between when Unsafe was announced as part of the Canadian Stage season last year and now, however, Lee took over, Russell left the show (he's credited as "creative consultant" now), and Sarah Garton Stanley, the associate artistic director of the National Arts Centre's English Theatre, came in as director.
(Over the same time frame, Jocelyn left the company and Brendan Healy stepped into his shoes as artistic director.)
But, again, Lee doesn't want to divulge the exact story of how the project shifted - because it is told in the show itself. "I don't want to give away spoilers," says Lee, who also interviewed bestselling poet Rupi Kaur, 2018 Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher, stand-up comedian Chris Robinson and Globe and Mail columnist Kate Taylor for the show.
If Lee being tight-lipped about a show on censorship seems ironic, it's not: Unsafe isn't a simplistic call out of call-out culture or an attack on what some have called the weaponization of free speech, but considers some new and long-standing paradoxes surrounding expression, artistic or otherwise. "When is [censorship] generative, when is it destructive, when is it necessary?" she asks. "I don't have any hard and fast answers."
That in itself will be a refreshing change from how the topic is tackled, relentlessly, online - where you can get the feeling that there are two parallel universes overlapping as each new cultural controversy erupts.
In one, social justice warrior mobs lurk around every corner, a single politically correct comment can end a journalist's career or less-than-entirely-woke work of art can get an artist "cancelled," and people self-censor around hot-button issues such as cultural appropriation or transgender participation in sports out of fear.
In the other, what people say is seemingly more unrestrained by law or common decency than ever, the most politically incorrect President of the United States of all time lies with impunity, conspiracy theorists and outright hatemongers have entered mainstream discourse, and whole publications have sprung up seemingly only to publish opinion pieces about cultural appropriation and transgender participation in sports.
It's increasingly understood that social-media algorithms (with a little help from the Russians) have polarized people online and fed them different realities - but this huge divide in the very discussion around discussion can nevertheless make you feel like you're going mad. (It did to me; I recently quit, well halfquit, Twitter.)
While Lee hasn't given up on the Internet entirely, she does wonder whether it is "inducing a sort of collective sociopathic quality" and has reprioritized what she calls the "corporeal space or flesh space" in art and broadcast practices.
Sleepover, her CBC podcast in which she and three strangers spend 24 hours physically together in a hotel room talking over their problems, was what she calls, "a direct response to the alienation that I was feeling tethered to my cellphone, trying to communicate in reductive threads online."
This is also why Unsafe exists in the theatre - not usually Lee's goto medium. "I've been more and more interested in face-to-face meetings and talking and hopefully ... creating a safe space where we can talk about unsafe things," she says.
For director Stanley, the real divide explored in Unsafe isn't between one online world or the other, but "the battle between a sense of truth that is portrayed in a journalistic manner and a sense of truth that's derived from storytelling, fiction and narrative."
"There's a sense now that there is one truth that is more reliable than another and the reliable truth is felt to be found in a headline instead of in the potential nuance of a story," says Stanley, who adds, citing a teaching she learned from the Indigenous artist Margo Kane, that "it takes 360 degrees to fully see a tree."
Perhaps 360-degree virtual reality will save us from the flattening of discourse online, Stanley muses - but, in the meantime, we can still escape to the naturally three-dimensional art form of theatre and flesh-space explorations of today's culture like Unsafe.
Sook-Yin Lee, right, won't divulge how she and director Sarah Garton Stanley, left, became the creative forces behind Unsafe after its original creator, filmmaker Zack Russell, left the project. That would be a spoiler, after all, as the story is part of the show itself.
CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV/THE GLOBE AND MAIL