The play that’s peeling back the curtain on campaign war rooms

This Toronto theatre production focuses on the election that happened four years ago — but it offers lessons for the politics of today
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 21, 2019
two young women holding "vote here" signs
The Election, a play by Natasha Greenblatt and Yolanda Bonnell, will run at the Theatre Passe Muraille, in Toronto, until October 27. (facebook.com/commonboots)

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While nearly every politics watcher in this country will be focused tonight on one of the hardest elections to call in many a generation, there’ll be a handful of people deeply absorbed in the election of four years ago.

The Election, now playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille, in downtown Toronto, peels back the curtain on what playwrights Natasha Greenblatt and Yolanda Bonnell imagine went on behind the scenes of the 2015 election. That contest has gone down in history as the only one (so far) in which a party has vaulted from third place to winning government. In 41 other elections —including tonight’s — the winner has always been the party with the most or second-most seats in the previous House of Commons.

The Election gives us plenty of insight into the wild cast of characters that make up the backrooms of every political campaign — we meet a young, naive, downtown socialist who has an affair with the campaign manager; a white, older, social conservative who thinks gays and lesbians are going to hell; and everything in between.

On the night I saw the play last week, Ontario’s 25th premier, Kathleen Wynne, was also in the audience and participated in a panel discussion after the play. After the moderator confirmed by a show of hands that much of the audience had participated in campaigns at some point in the past, he asked how many people had “experienced a kind of PTSD” from watching the play.

Wynne immediately put her hand up, getting considerable laughs from the rest of the audience.

While Justin Trudeau’s improbable march to victory over a 70-plus-day campaign is the backstory of The Election, the main focus is the intense discussions — and even fights — that take place among the disparate backroom volunteers and campaign staff. For me, the most unforgettable exchange in the entire play comes when an aspirational young NDP supporter uses every argument in the book to urge a disillusioned young Indigenous woman to vote. The passionate back-and-forth between these two intelligent characters was riveting, and you could hear a pin drop in the audience.

“What in tonight’s play resonated with you?” the moderator asked Wynne.

“What resonated? What didn’t!” she responded. Wynne called the play “brilliant and powerful.” She likened the backrooms to “building a little community during the campaign period,” adding, “And we turned no one away. Every job was important.”

The Election also shines a light on the ugliness of social media, something that now makes almost all political party leaders targets.

“I don’t know how we deal with the lies on social media and the hyper partisanship,” Wynne confessed. “We had more common ground in the past. We’re losing the consensus. We’re going to have to find a way to deal with this dark side.”

The former premier is still the MPP for Don Valley West and part of just a five-member Liberal caucus at Queen’s Park. Despite leading the Liberals to their worst-ever defeat, in June 2018 — and being on the receiving end of some of the most outrageous and vicious smut on social media — Wynne somehow still manages to convey an optimism about the future.

“We’re living in harsh partisan times,” she says. “But the more people that get involved will save us in the end. That’s what’s transformative.”

The Election runs until Sunday, October 27. It was directed by Jennifer Brewin, whose grandfather Andrew was a Toronto NDP MP from 1962 to 1979 and whose father, John, was an MP for Victoria, British Columbia, from 1988 to 1993.

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