Fri. Aug 23rd, 2019

Complaints about Belke play reveal emotional upheaval

5 min read

Belke controversy raises ire in and outside of theatre community

Holy Trinity Anglican Church is the venue for Who Goes There? by David Belke. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

The Edmonton International Fringe Festival has found itself in a mess, and it’s more than just a media spectacle.

The festival’s decision to expel David Belke’s new drama, Who Goes There?, from this year’s Fringe is a fascinating microcosm of one of the most important conversations in the public domain. It goes to the heart of a number of compelling conundrums, including whether it’s possible to forgive a heinous act, and who gets to decide and how, and what are the stakes for individual offenders and the public at large.

But it also speaks to the definition of harm, and what cultural organizations like the Fringe can or should do to address the concerns of the public.

Who Goes There? was pulled from the Fringe roster Friday after complaints by the theatre community. Those complaints centred on Belke, who for many years penned popular and sunny plays for the Fringe until he was handed a six-month sentence in 2017 after pleading guilty to possessing child pornography.

Motivated by the Christian philosophy of rehabilitation, redemption, restoration, and forgiveness, Holy Trinity Anglican Church and its rector, Chris Pappas, took a chance on Belke by producing his new play at the church’s Fringe venue, which has hosted dozens of Fringe shows as part of its arts ministry. Knowing the move would be controversial, the church worked with Fringe artistic director Murray Utas to create a strict policy regarding Belke designed to provide safety and reassurance.

Belke is not on the play’s production team, and would only be on site, if at all, as a theatre-goer. Though there are no legal restrictions on his movement, the agreement pledged Belke would stay away from performances until after 3 p.m. (when the children’s shows were over) and would be escorted on site by church members, including retired judge Marguerite Trussler.

The signed agreement (embedded in this story) was publicly broken at a news conference. Reached by phone Monday, an embattled Adam Mitchell, executive director of the Fringe, would not name the complainants. But he said dozens of e-mails and phone calls have been received. He would not say how many complaints were for or against the Fringe decision, and reiterated the Fringe’s Safer Space policy.

“The Safer Space policy specifically references not condoning activities that may put people in harm’s way, or risk their physical, emotional or mental well-being,” said Mitchell.

The expulsion was not about the content of the play, but rather the fact that Belke wrote it.

“This is about someone who is closely connected to trauma in a very small community, whose participation and our choice to facilitate his participation caused more harm,” he said. “That is why we changed our position.”

David Belke is at the centre of a controversy over his play, Who Goes There? Supplied / Postmedia

One of the groups that complained to the festival is the local improv troupe, Sorry Not Sorry. The troupe of 15 to 20 people has been doing Fringe shows for eight years, said its president David Rae.

In a phone interview, Rae told me his organization was disturbed to see the Belke play in the Fringe program only two years after the conviction.

“I understand that we, as Sorry Not Sorry, are not gatekeepers, but we wanted to voice our concern that we were not ready for that to happen so soon,” said Rae, who also felt the Fringe should have given the theatre community a heads-up.

Sorry Not Sorry complained to show its support for survivors, including those who have survived sexual assault or abuse. Rae acknowledged the company doesn’t know when, or under what conditions, Belke should return to theatre work, noting that jail time may not be enough to exonerate him.

“Because a person who has committed a crime like this makes people uneasy, and makes people feel unsafe, and can trigger past pain … Emotional pain doesn’t have a timeline.”

Rae said Belke has a “social debt” to repay.

“At this point, he hasn’t earned our trust back to say ‘we share this space.’”

I expect Rae’s concerns echo those of other artists and members of the public. Belke’s presence at the Fringe, given the signed agreement, was never a physical threat to anybody. Rather, some people are offended and upset he’s been allowed to resume public life. This is the definition of “harm” that the Fringe administration is dealing with.

The Fringe festival is robust, confident and arguably the biggest cultural influence in the city and how it deals with controversy matters. I’m sorry the festival bounced the Belke play — having signed an agreement with Holy Trinity, they should have stuck with it.

But I think both the church and the Fringe could have done a better job of dealing with what they knew would be public pushback. While the festival need not be anybody’s mommy, somehow responsible for cushioning mental or emotional discomfort, it’s also true that as a culture, we are being asked to confront the issue of rehabilitation and forgiveness, again and again. We’ve got to figure this one out.

Belke has spent time in prison and, according to Pappas, undergone considerable counselling, has insight into his behaviour and feels remorse. But the public didn’t know this before the story broke, and neither did Fringe artists now objecting.

Was there a way to share that information? Belke is a talented writer. Could he have penned his reflections on the harm done to others by his behaviour? Would that have made a difference?

Holy Trinity’s unwavering support of Belke is admirable. They are mounting Who Goes There? without the Fringe banner; the public can judge with its feet starting Aug. 16. But given the cultural climate, this story will return another day. What will we do next time?

lfaulder@postmedia.com

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