Unsafe at Berkeley Street Theatre

A world premiere event by a Canadian cultural icon.

UNSAFE

AN INVESTIGATION IN THE CENSORSHIP OF ART
AND THE ART OF CENSORSHIP IN CANADA

Written + Created by SOOK-YIN LEE
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
Performed by Sook-Yin Lee + Christo Graham

“Making theatre is unsafe. Theatre makers are at risk the moment they embark on a creative endeavor. In making Unsafe, I’ve learned that fear rises from deep inside your body. It’s at the root of every secret desire, every shame, every guilt, all you hate and what you think you will be killed for. It’s what drives your need to control, and it’s the foundation of censorship.” — Sook-Yin Lee

Multimedia artist and broadcaster Sook-Yin Lee’s Unsafe is a meta-theatrical documentary performance that investigates the censorship of art in Canada. What makes some art acceptable and some art not?

Adding to this documentary/meta-theatrical production are projected interviews with artists who have been silenced, limited, and censored: 2018 Polaris Music Award winning classical trained opera tenor Jeremy Dutcher; Governor General Award-winning poet, playwright and professor George Elliott Clarke; stand-up comedian Chris Robinson; Anglican priest and social justice activist Maggie Helwig; Globe and Mail columnist Kate Taylor; Canadian-Arab artist Laila Binbrek and others.

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We asked Lee to answer some questions about the piece, which was developed here in residence at Canadian Stage.

The title of your project is Unsafe. How would you describe the core subject matter of your piece and how it relates to “being unsafe”?

Unsafe is a documentary performance that combines my broadcasting and journalism skills with live storytelling in a theatre. It explores censorship and creativity in historical contexts and where it exists today in silencing, exclusion, and social media call-out culture in Canada. It delves into the tension between our desire for freedom and need to control. Unsafe is dangerous because it reveals the personal cost and consequences of opening up a difficult conversation. Is it possible to even begin without, in some way, censoring someone else? And will it help or further damage spaces for equity and understanding? Unsafe is an unfolding experiment. I pose many thorny questions and we’ll see what the responses are!

What, in your own opinion, makes this such a relevant and urgent topic today?

Movements throughout history have been about the struggle for greater liberty for everybody, and yet we’re constantly confronted by pressures to suppress, withhold, restrict and sanitize expression. Today, social media backlash and call-outs are common, which makes us even more inclined to hide how we really feel in order to be loved, appear more interesting, and less annoying.

The piece is concerned with public discourse and large communication platforms, but it’s also deeply personal. Working on Unsafe, have you discovered anything new in terms of what makes you feel unsafe?

In creating Unsafe, I encountered many obstacles due to sensitivity around the censorship conversation. It was frustrating and often scary when the project teetered on the verge of collapse. In those tense moments, I could have thrown in the towel, or succumbed to pressure, but I decided to commit to a new strategy for me, which was to accept each obstacle as graciously as I could and work with it. Even when I was confronted by obstacles I thought were impossible to overcome, I pushed myself to remain present and figure out a way to problem-solve. Interestingly, I think the obstacles and their work-around helped improve Unsafe!

You are mostly known as a radio/TV personality, activist-artist, filmmaker and journalist, but this is the first time you are appearing in your own “play” in the theatre. Can you speak a little bit about what made you choose this genre – a theatrical performance crossing over into a documentary/meta-theatrical form?

I have appeared in my own theatrical productions before but they were narrative dance works, which are poetic and expressionistic compared to the reality-based direction of Unsafe. Unsafe deals primarily in non-fiction and is grounded in the broadcast interview form, which I consider to be one of my artistic practices. Originally, I was hired by playwright and filmmaker Zack Russell via Canadian Stage and former Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn, to develop a work on art and censorship. Delving into the process, it became clear to me that the most direct, revealing, surprising, educational, entertaining, and dangerous response to this difficult proposal was to embrace an experimental documentary-performance approach.

Unsafe runs March 12-31 at Berkeley Street Theatre.

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