PM's wife likes Gros Morne play

David Whalen
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Federal government's cultural-spending cuts hit theatre company

The cast of the play "Tempting Providence" had an unexpected high-profile Canadian in its audience two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife, Laureen, visited Gros Morne National Park while her husband was earmarking federal money for projects on the Avalon Peninsula, and took in playwright Robert Chafe's show about the life of Newfoundland nurse Myra Bennett.

Actor and playwright Andy Jones says government investment in the arts is a great way to spend public money to advertise the country's benefits and culture to foreigners. Telegram file photo

The cast of the play "Tempting Providence" had an unexpected high-profile Canadian in its audience two weeks ago.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife, Laureen, visited Gros Morne National Park while her husband was earmarking federal money for projects on the Avalon Peninsula, and took in playwright Robert Chafe's show about the life of Newfoundland nurse Myra Bennett.

Impressed by what she saw, Laureen Harper spoke with some of the cast members afterwards, complimenting them on their performance and remarking how it was little wonder the show has toured around the world since 2003.

Her visit happened to coincide with media attention surrounding the federal government's announcement that it would scrap roughly $45 million in arts funding in 2009 and 2010. Funding from one of the programs, the Department of Foreign Affairs' PromArt, helped the Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador production tour countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia.

Actor asks question

Gaylene Buckle, general manager of Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, was quick to play down the anecdote, noting that Laureen Harper was attending the show as a private citizen and not as the spouse of the prime minister.

However, Buckle did say a member of the cast made their feelings known about the cuts.

"There was no confrontation, it was just a general conversation in which one of the actors just essentially said, 'Does your husband know that this is important?' " Buckle said.

The cuts run the gamut, from the $11.4-million Canadian Memory Fund digitization program, to the $2.1-million Northern Distribution Program for the Aboriginal television network APTN, to the $1-million Book Publishing Industry Distribution Program.

The move isn't sitting well with the Newfoundland and Labrador arts community.

Comedian and actor Andy Jones gave 11 performances of one of his one-man shows in Australia in 2007. He said funding from PromArt paid roughly three-quarters of his expenses.

"From a business point of view, it doesn't make any sense," Jones said. "What more clever and classy style of advertising could you find for your country than sending these shows abroad? It's sad in a way that one of the great success stories in Canada seems to be slowly being strangled by this government."

Buckle noted that the funding from programs like PromArt helps leverage funding from other sources. She added the relatively small amount of money used to showcase Newfoundland and Labrador abroad helps intrigue people from other countries to visit.

"You see a piece of Newfoundland on a stage in England or Australia and for some reason it intrigues you enough that you want to come here. We have people who come here and say, 'We saw that play and just had to come here and see for ourselves'" Buckle said. "The benefits of those small amounts of money are just enormous. I don't know how we can continue to travel without it."

Jones agrees.

"It's better advertising for this country than you could ever buy, no matter how many government ministers you send to meetings," he said.

Defends cuts

For its part, the government has staunchly defended the cuts.

"Our government is committed to ensuring that Canadian taxpayer dollars are spent effectively and efficiently, while supporting arts and culture in a way that all Canadians can be proud of. That's exactly what we're doing," said Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn, Newfoundland and Labrador's representative in the federal cabinet.

On Friday, the government announced that most of the funding will be redirected to various Vancouver 2010 Olympic programs and a program encouraging bilingualism.

It remains to be seen if Laureen Harper's meeting with the cast of "Tempting Providence" will make any difference, but Buckle is hopeful.

"Maybe she'll give a nudge and an earful to her husband. Who knows what will happen behind closed doors? Behind every successful man there's a powerful woman," she said.

david_whalen@hotmail.com

Organizations: Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Australia, Gros Morne National Park United Kingdom Ireland Canada England

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