When the Blue Room Theatre in Perth staged an acclaimed play about addiction several years ago, lurking in the opening night audience was a bureaucrat who demanded one scene be axed from future performances.
The man watching the first local production of British playwright Martin Crimp’s The Country was employed by the West Australian government’s health body Healthway, one of the theatre’s main sponsors.
“He came to us afterwards to tell us we had to remove one scene that featured smoking,” recalled Blue Room former executive director Jansis O’Hanlon.
“We weren’t allowed to have smoking or language about smoking, and we weren’t allowed to show any smoking paraphernalia ... The play was about addiction and there was also a scene with (heroin) needles, but they had no problem with us showing that.”
Ms O’Hanlon said the theatre withdrew from the sponsorship deal rather than compromise its artistic integrity. “It was a big gulp for us to say no,” she said, recalling that Healthway also had demanded to approve all scripts.
The extent of the sponsor's control over artistic expression revealed in this article reduces the credibility of Healthway's claim that they had not put any pressure on WA Opera to cancel Carmen and that it was "their choice" to do so. It was Healthway or the highway.
Healthway attempted this week to distance itself from censorship claims, but its 2013-14 annual report states: “Healthway will maintain a firm stance on not supporting arts organisations that portray smoking on stage during performances.”
Indeed, as Dick Puddlecote has shown, veteran anti-smoking zealot Mike Daube told WA Opera that they wouldn't get funding for performing Carmen. He later lied to the press when he said that they had been under no pressure to drop the play.
Premier Colin Barnett promised to examine Healthway’s sponsorship arrangements to exclude any censorship provisions. He said he was “highly embarrassed” by the ban, which Tony Abbott described as “political correctness gone crazy”.
“If that sponsorship arrangement through Healthway led to the cancellation of the opera, that is a serious mistake that smacks of basically art censorship,” Mr Barnett said.
There's a simple solution to this. Stop funding Healthway. Close it down. The taxpayer shouldn't be forced to fund entertainment, least of all entertainment that is largely the preserve of the rich. And the taxpayer certainly shouldn't be forced to the fund censorious puritans—what else can you call people who forbid not only smoking, but "language about smoking" and "smoking paraphernalia" from appearing in a theatrical production?
Good on the Blue Room Theatre for "taking the big gulp and saying no" to these state-sanctioned bullies despite the loss of subsidy. And good on WA health director Kim Hanes for telling Healthway to buck their ideas up. As the photos below show, too many people are prepared to rewrite history in an effort to appease fanatics (see here for more).