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Silencing the arts We’re far from the dark days of open oppression, but have the arts entered a new era of nervous self-censorship? Clare Wiley reports

couldn’t even discuss within your own family. So it wouldn’t occur to you to talk about it on a bigger canvas.’ And this type of censorship appears to be causing trouble today. Far from the dark days of forbidding government officials in 80s Singapore, Western artists are now undergoing their own kind of censorship, brought on by themselves. Or, so argued the London Mayor’s culture advisor Munira Mirza, when she railed against modern self-censorship, accusing the arts of being nervous about causing offence. At an event organised by the Index on Censorship last month, Mirza said she thinks there’s now a ‘culture of people thinking twice about what they say about particular communities’. It’s an idea that Julia Farrington, heads of arts at the Index, feels

Above: The Trolley Car at Summerworks festival 2011 Right: Sarah Jane Pelzer in Pretty Little Instincts at Summerworks this year


n 1999 Rani Moorthy, founding artistic director of the UK’s Rasa Theatre, wrote and starred in Pooja. The cheery play told the comical story of Ranjana, a young Indian girl whose mistimed birth skewed her carefully calculated horoscope and exasperated her superstitious family. Twenty years ago Moorthy was living in Singapore after fleeing the bloody 1969 race riots in her homeland of Malaysia. Writing Pooja back then would have been unimaginable. Because what sounds like a light-hearted coming-of-age comedy is actually a satirical and carefully woven historical account of the Hindu faith and the highest caste attitudes towards women, drawing on Moorthy’s own cultural heritage of Tamil, Malaysian, Sri Lankan and Hindu influences. ‘It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to write about something like that then,’ says Moorthy, sounding almost surprised by her own declaration. ‘That’s how bad it was.’ She’s referring to the conservative attitudes in Singapore, which of course have loosened up today, but which in those days often led to teams of uniformed officials coming to preview plays, and then shutting them down. ‘The so-called sensitive issues were anything to do with race, sexuality, religion,’ recalls Moorthy. ‘Those were the no-nos.’ Such overt censorship was certainly a major barrier to producing what would have been seen as provocative work, but Moorthy admits there was another barrier:‘There was a default mechanism within you that stopped you,’ she says. ‘You knew that certain areas, like menstruation rituals or circumcision, you

Photos: Trolley Car © Lindsay Anne Black; Pretty Little © Andrew Lint

‘By being overly concerned we reinforce difference and allow people to hide behind barriers’


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passionately about. She inevitably draws my attention to Lee Hall’s opera Beached, the now infamous story of a day at the seaside in which the central character is gay. The Billy Elliot writer said he was asked by the producing company, Opera North, and the school participating, to change some of the lyrics following objections. He swiftly pronounced homophobia to be behind the request and appealed to the sensibilities of a sympathetic public. The case promptly exploded in the international press. Eventually, Hall made a slight change to the libretto (‘queer’ became ‘gay’), and the performance went ahead as planned. Furore over. But it does underline an interesting point: was what happened to Hall simply a natural result of a delicate collaborative process involving conflicting creative approaches and ideologies, or worse still – an attempt at censorship? ‘It is a censorship,’ insists Farrington.‘If the role is compromised then the work is at risk of being bland; an overriding attitude of playing it safe conflicts with artists’ ability to imagine.’ She feels that while the outpouring of support in response to Hall’s predicament as a writer was encouraging, it was really only indicative of a crisis situation. ‘Freedom of expression is struggling to hold its own as a matter of principle,’ explains Farrington. ‘A principle has to be actively asserted across the sector as a whole, if we’re going to have a culture that has the muscle and energy to challenge attempts to constrain it.’ Even in cultures where genuine freedom of expression is believed to exist, external constraints may still influence the work. According to Farrington, these range from the role of corporate sponsors to the potentially restrictive UK Equality Act, to the response of the police in volatile situations, such as that surrounding Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s controversial Behzti. The 2004 play depicted rape and murder in a Sikh temple and violent protests caused its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to be cut short.‘They’re coming from all directions, but overall they create an environment for the arts to capitulate on freedom of expression, which I think is at risk of being eroded,’ warns Farrington. One, perhaps more dangerous form of self-censorship, sees an outright clash of ideologies (usually social or political) cause artists to stifle themselves, whether knowingly or not. Thankfully, Toronto’s theatre and music festival SummerWorks resisted what many considered to be an endeavour to gag artists. The event


is known for its deliberately challenging socio-political theatre, and last year it staged Catherine Frid’s Homegrown. Challenging is certainly one way of describing the piece – it dramatised the writer’s friendship with a convicted terrorist. Clearly, it was far too progressive a topic for the country’s conservative government and a spokesman for prime minister Stephen Harper quickly whipped out his predictably damning response, claiming the work glorified terrorism. Michael Rubenfeld

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‘In the face of censorship, we should react by being bolder and riskier’

Above left: Jimmy Akingbola as Elvis and Pooja Kumar as Polly in Behzti Below left: Kirsty Kennedy and Luke Garwood in Combat at Summerworks 2011 Above right: The controversial Homegrown at last year’s Summerworks Far right: Malaria Lullabye at Summerworks 2011

tells me that his knee-jerk criticism was heavily influenced by reports in the Toronto Sun; the staff drew incorrect conclusions before actually seeing the play. ‘We weren’t really sure why the comment was made because we weren’t in any way glorifying terrorists,’ Rubenfeld says. ‘I think I feel more compassion for the prime minister because unfortunately he was led down the wrong path and was given false information… then commenting on it became problematic because I don’t think he knew what he was talking about.’ But things took a more troubling turn this year, when SummerWorks had its funding cut, just weeks before the festival took place earlier this month. The Canadian Department of Heritage made no mention of Homegrown in its abrupt letter to the SummerWorks team, and it didn’t give any concrete reason behind the decision. Rubenfeld refuses to speculate on whether the cut was related to the controversial work. What he will say, however, is that it has everything to do with values. ‘Ultimately the decision was made by somebody with a conservative ideology,’ he states. ‘All we know is that we had a six-year history of increased funding, and then without any warning, it was cut. I think it has to do with the festival no longer being valued.’ And this can be the crucial factor that transforms what could be just a small change to a libretto into a nasty case of full-blown censorship. ‘Anytime you use someone else’s money, you want the work to fit their agenda,’ Rubenfeld cautions. ‘That’s not always, but in many cases that happens. It’s problematic because ultimately politicians are making value judgements on what is good art. You should have experts in the field making decisions. Why would we do it any other way?’ So what’s the way forward? How do we put an end to censorship, of all kinds, and foster an environment in which artists are truly free to express themselves and challenge their audiences? ‘We want to reinforce the argument for open dialogue,’ answers Farrington. ‘People are frightened of not being able to manage what comes out of debate. But by being overly concerned we reinforce difference and allow people to hide behind barriers. I think freedom of expression can fit into social cohesion and arts and culture have a vital role to play.’ For Moorthy, the situation is less black and white. She explains that she does continue to feel wary of offending people, but finds ways to avoid causing outright offence without loosing her integrity as an artist. ‘I think when you deal with an issue that’s taboo even in a democracy, like paedophilia, you want to make sure the moral ground is very clear,’ Moorthy says. ‘The audience is invited to look at it in a hopefully dispassionate

way, but also encouraged to try and find ways to empathise with the characters and understand the issue better.’ ‘I’m very clear about my intentions,’ she continues. ‘I always question why I’m writing it, and why I’m choosing to write it in this way. As long as a writer is clear about their intentions, I think it somehow permeates into the entire enterprise, and the audience will understand where it’s coming from.’ As well as this clarity and honesty in her relationship with audiences, Moorthy tries to ensure the topics she addresses are as accessible to as many people as possible.‘I know I don’t write for a particular community or background,’ she comments.‘Once you start thematically opening up the experience, using the specificity of your own idea, it doesn’t feel as if you’re attacking or offending any person; you’re addressing something quite universal in all human beings.’ In Shades of Brown Moorthy explores prejudices surrounding skin colour, using her own background as a starting point, but crucially widening the experience as the play moves on. ‘The audience may have come into the show thinking this was about skin colour only in a South East Asian context, and maybe were surprised and wrong-footed by their own responses to what it means to look at people based on the colour of their skin,’ she says. Censorship, either brought on by the artists themselves or by intruding outside forces, is oppressive and destructive to free artistic expression. Or is it? If we take Moorthy as an example, perhaps restrictions on creative freedom could actually have some positive outcomes, in that artists may become more creative in order to circumvent their constraints. ‘Censorship is a difficult thing for writers, it’s completely frustrating,’ Moorthy remarks. ‘At the same time, within that context there can be very good unique work that comes out of certain kinds of imposed censorship.’ Moorthy herself uses very inventive language,allegories and metaphors to address risky topics. ‘Dancing Within Walls is a metaphor for censorship,’ she says of her 2003 work. ‘The lead character took ancient Hindu dance and repackaged it with western sensibilities, she repackaged it to be accessible to her audience for her time.’ Clearly then Moorthy’s experience of an overtly oppressive past and a lingering tendency to self-censor have had some positive effects on her own development as a writer. ‘I have to keep asking myself why I’m writing this play and journeying into a work where you hope your audience will follow you,’ she smiles.‘If I find myself blocked, then that’s when I question what’s going on; that’s my safety mechanism that tells me to go and get more information, do more research, talk to more people about the issue I’m addressing.’ Opening the debate about artistic censorship in order to banish it, or developing creatively in order to work around constraints are two solutions to the problem of self-censorship. But there is a third. ‘In the face of censorship, we should react by being bolder and riskier,’ proposes Rubenfeld. ‘It’s an opportunity to make a really clear statement of the necessity of that kind of provocative and inquisitive programming. Almost all of our work challenges an audience that thinks beyond the status quo.’ I


Photos: Behzti © Robert Day; Combat © Lauener; Lullabye © Monica Dotter

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Silencing the arts  

We’re far from the dark days of open oppression, but have the arts entered a new era of nervous self-censorship? Clare Wiley reports for Int...

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