UPDATE (1/2/24): “The Belfry Theatre presents contemporary work, with ideas that often generate dialogue,” read the statement issued on Jan. 2. “That is why, a year ago, we decided to bring the much-acclaimed play, The Runner, to Victoria. However, we believe that presenting The Runner at this particular time does not ensure the well-being of all segments of our community. Given the current conflict in the Middle East, this is not the time for a play which may further tensions among our community. This has not been an easy decision, and we are grateful to our community for sharing various perspectives which added to our understanding.”
- PODCAST: ‘A very dangerous precedent’: Two Jewish theatre artists respond to Victoria, B.C.’s Belfry Theatre cancelling a play set in Israel
The CJN’s original report from Dec. 28 follows, along with a Jan. 3 statement from playwright Christopher Morris…
A theatre in Victoria, B.C., has been the scene of a protest and the target of vandalism, with anti-Israel stickers pasted on its walls and graffiti reading “Free Palestine” scrawled on its entrance, in response to a play about an Orthodox Israeli rescue volunteer being scheduled for March 2024.
Now, following efforts to prevent the staging of The Runner, by Canadian playwright Christopher Morris, it is uncertain at this time whether the show will go ahead at the Belfry Theatre.
On Dec. 22, the Belfry invited members of the public to the theatre to discuss how to proceed. According to Jonathan Gustin, a Jewish resident of Victoria, an hours-long meeting ended in chaos.
Gustin, who described himself to fellow attendees as both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel, said he was screamed at repeatedly by demonstrators. “You are a white settler-colonialist. You are a racist. You’ve got blood on your hands,” he recalled being told.
He also supplied The CJN with two videos from the meeting at the Belfry.
At one point in the brief clips, a person advocating for the showing of The Runner is heard saying, “Does anybody want to talk, instead of just yelling at me? I’m happy to talk,” amidst protesting chants from outside, as a woman occupies the doorway.
A few seconds later, a man in a red keffiyeh interjects to warn, “You get away from my mother. You get away from my mother.”
The woman is then heard shouting, “He’s attacking me. He’s attacking my personal space.”
“Eventually, protesters illegally occupied the Belfry Theatre, screaming so loudly on a bullhorn that the entire event went down in flames and everybody was bullied into leaving the premises,” Gustin said.
The stickers pasted on the front of the theatre appeared after the Palestinian protesters walked out of the meeting, claiming that their concerns about the play were not being addressed.
Earlier in the month, the Belfry received a petition—currently with over 1,100 signatures—demanding that it remove The Runner from its lineup and alleging that the play “features the violent and racist rhetoric of Zionism from an exclusively Israeli perspective.”
The petition also called for a cultural boycott of Israel.
A counter-petition led by local members of the Jewish community ensued, urging the Belfry not to “capitulate” to the demands of the opposing petition.
“We call on the Belfry Theatre to host the production of The Runner as scheduled in March 2024, in accordance with its mission and principles,” reads their petition, currently signed by over 1,700 people. “Our hearts break for the suffering of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, and we dispute the over-simplified narrative in the cancellation petition that the Israelis are oppressors and the Palestinians are the oppressed.”
In a Dec. 19 statement, the theatre said it is “taking time to reflect on how best to move forward and will make an announcement in the new year.”
The Belfry added: “We thank those of you who have expressed your convictions, and we are listening. We value and respect these conversations in our community. We have been having many complex conversations about the production, its content, and its impact on the community.”
The CJN reached out to Morris for his reaction to events in Victoria. He deferred all inquiries about the play to the Belfry. Representatives of the Belfry could not be reached for further comment.
The play, a one-man show where the actor performs on a treadmill, is based on the real-story of a volunteer for ZAKA, a group of emergency response teams comprised of members of the Orthodox community, that searches for the dead and dying after incidents of violence.
Notes about the play on the Belfry’s website read, “as part of the tradition of chesed shel emes—meaning ‘true loving kindness’—a type of good deed for which no thanks are expected—they collect body parts for burial.”
In the play, the character of Jacob grapples with the political and moral fallout after saving a Palestinian woman’s life—and leaving a fatally wounded Israeli soldier behind.
In a 2020 interview to promote The Runner, Morris—the artistic director of Human Cargo, a theatre company he founded in 2007—said that he likes to explore the extremes of the human condition.
“I am curious to see what happens to people when they are pushed to their absolute max. We as human beings either excel and become profound or we crumble from it and become our worst,” he said.
“I knew there was no way I could ever write a play like this without going to Israel and talking to ZAKA members,” added Morris, who met with the head of the group when in Israel.
First performed in 2018, the play opened to a positive reception from critics. In a review of the initial production at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, J. Kelly Nestruck wrote in the Globe and Mail that The Runner “will make your heart rate soar and leave you breathless.”
The premiere was also covered in an article by David Silverberg for The CJN.
In 2019, the play won Dora Mavor Moore Awards, presented by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, for outstanding new play, outstanding direction and outstanding production.
Last month, it was performed at the Firehall Theatre in Gananoque, Ont.
The Runner also remains scheduled to appear in Vancouver at the PuSh Festival from Jan. 24-26.
Jan. 3 statement from playwright Christopher Morris:
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 premiered 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.