Theatre Can Change the World: The Story of How a Canadian Play Helped to Enact a Landmark Law

Posted: January 27th, 2015 by Kat Lanteigne


Tainted 2013 Production Still: The Steele Family portrayed by (from L-R): Claire Calnan, Maria Vacratsis, Alex Furber, Owen Mason, Richard Greenblatt (photo credit: Henrieta Haniskova)

1993 – Abbotsford, British Columbia

In the late spring of 1993 the opportunity to go to theatre school presented itself to me through a scholarship competition. High school students were to be judged on the completed production of an original play they had written, produced and directed. I etched a title on the top of a clean sheet of paper, “If Men Had Periods”, and set off penning a dual monologue play about teen angst. It was an honest piece of writing, with a tinge of feminist manifesto interjected.

Deep in pre-production, everything was halted when school authorities deemed my work “inappropriate”. Initially, I was devastated but became empowered in the discovery that I could challenge their decision by asking the school board to overturn it. At a public school board meeting I presented a candid plea: If I didn’t win the scholarship that would be my own personal failure but I felt I had earned the right to submit my work and I argued that I was being unjustly censored.

The school trustees began to passionately debate my case and the meeting swelled into a furor of insults and political jabs between them. I was there with a single focus and the fact that I had provoked politicians to take a public position on the merits of free speech was lost on me

The meeting ended abruptly when one school trustee stormed out of the room claiming I had insulted him with my “demands” and my “offensive play”.

A local reporter who was covering the meeting put out a newswire – something along the lines of: “Teen sex-play banned in Abbotsford”. It struck a chord with the media and teams of news trucks besieged my house casting me in a spotlight. My honest attempt to stage “If Med Had Periods” in small-town British Columbia became a national news story over which I had no control. I was under constant public scrutiny and many people in my community felt compelled to take sides. I even received a death threat.

Despite my second appeal to the board, the ban was upheld and I lost my chance at a theatre scholarship. But something more important happened – I had been schooled on how to stand up against the echelons of power.

I realized that the fervent need to prevent my play from being staged was based on the fear that it might introduce both teens and their parents to more open and secular discussions. In a conservatively religious town this was of great concern to many powerful community leaders. And I suspected that they already knew what I was just now learning. If you can influence people, you can change their minds. If you can move people, you can change their hearts. Theatre has the inherent ability to do both. Reaching an audience by telling the unspoken truth in a free space was the real threat of my play. For me, this education was greater than what any scholarship would have provided.

Later that year, in the autumn of 1993 a very different and profound public battle was brewing. After years of lobbying the federal and provincial governments, the people who had been gravely impacted by the tainted blood crisis were finally granted a public federal inquiry. The inquiry, led by the Honourable Justice Horace Krever, set out to uncover why and how over 30,000 Canadians had become infected with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood.

At that time these two events were unrelated. I had no idea that the banning of my first play and the tainted blood crisis would collide twenty years later, in an unforeseen turn of events, when my new play, TAINTED, would become the fulcrum in the enacting of a landmark law.

2011/2012 – Toronto, Ontario

The tainted blood crisis is the worst public health disaster in Canadian history. The Red Cross knowingly distributed contaminated blood products across the country and the government did not take proper measures to protect the public. Their combined failures decimated a generation of hemophiliacs who were dependent on blood products to save them from life-threatening bleeds. Thousands of people have died and thousands more still live with the devastating fallout today.

The calamity of AIDS and its damage inflicted on families was personal to me. A close extended family member was deeply impacted by the blood scandal and my beloved uncle passed away from AIDS in 2001. Enveloped in the chaos of these events was a harrowing, complex and painful story and I needed to tell it.

I had set out years earlier to make a film biopic examining the tainted blood crisis but I couldn’t seize interest from producers, networks or investors. The project died and bankers-boxes of research were tucked away. In 2011, a chance meting with a tainted blood survivor reignited my interest in seeing the story make its way to an audience.

Only, this time I would write it as play.

Over the course of the next two years I read thousands of pages of testimony from the Krever Inquiry, pouring over news clippings and archival footage. I interviewed survivors, family members, doctors, scientists and lawyers from across Canada. The people I interviewed were astonishingly candid; they too were worried the story was in danger of being forgotten, leaving a door open for a similar tragedy to occur.

While there were dozens of explosive facts that were revealed during the Krever Inquiry, the personal testimonies of the people who were directly affected by tainted blood were the most arresting. It was imminently clear to me that they were at the core of this human tragedy and it was their stories that needed to be kept alive.

I wrote TAINTED through a relentless mist of tears. I dove deep into the excruciating personal grief of losing my uncle to AIDS and I poured what I uncovered into my fictional family, The Steeles.

As I wrote, I could see the faces and hear the voices of all those I had interviewed. They became my trustworthy ghosts throughout, they gave me strength and helped to dampen the residual anxiety I carried from the banning of my first play.

When I had finished a proper draft I hosted a public reading of TAINTED. There were more tears shed, this time by the audience. They were passionate about the play and how it should move ahead to a full production. I made a declaration to everyone present that evening; I would find a way to get TAINTED to the stage within a year.


2013 – Toronto, Ontario

My husband and I took a leap of faith and booked The Aki Studio for the autumn of 2013, the 20th anniversary of the Krever Inquiry. We had received none of the grant funding we had applied for. But we knew this play had to find a place on the stage.

On the road with OPSEU

On The Road With OPSEU: (left to right) AJ Laflamme, Rick Janson (OPSEU), Beryl Bain, Dillan Chiblow, Dmitry Chepovestsky, Maria Vacratsis, Neil Foster, Sean Allen (OPSEU), Alex Furber (photo credit: Kat Lanteigne)

We launched our own company, Moyo Theatre and began an ambitious fundraising campaign. In late February of 2013, there came a significant shift in TAINTED’s fate. A private pharmaceutical company was moving ahead with plans to open up private-for-profit blood donor clinics across Ontario in high-risk areas. The fear that history could repeat itself was standing before us: One of the distinguishing reasons why so many people received tainted blood in the 1980’s was the importation of contaminated plasma that was procured from high risk places such as skid rows and US prisons by private for profit companies.

Now, decades after the tainted blood crisis first made news it was a current topic again and those at the frontlines knew another public battle had to be waged in order to stop these private clinics from opening.

I had no political influence, no social status; all I had was my play.
I would come to realize that was all I needed.

Because I had spent the previous two years connecting with people who had lived through the crisis I was able to facilitate the circling of our wagons. I teamed up with a core group of tainted blood survivors and veteran advocates.
We began to lobby the Ontario government to implement legislation to ban the selling of blood. We wanted to ensure that the pharmaceutical company would be shut out and prevent any others from opening in the future.

It was a daunting task. I compelled my Federal MP, Matthew Kellway and Provincial MPP, France Gelinas, to support our cause. We held a press conference, launched a petition and included the pleas of the tainted blood survivors in an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise money for the production of TAINTED.

While the government seemed empathetic to our cause and health minister Deb Matthews started to include us in the conversation about the implications of the clinics; Canadian Blood Services (CBS) CEO, Dr. Graham Sher, took a surprising position. Instead of condemning the private collection clinics, he seemed to support them. This made our appeals for public support all the more challenging.

Time marched on, the date for my opening night loomed up ahead and any headway we made in the public debate over the opening of the clinics was difficult to sustain. In late June 2013 I was sitting in a café when I saw an ad for CBS’s public annual general meeting. Without hesitation I requested a spot to present and within days was on a train to Ottawa.

I found myself in front of another board made up of powerful people. I invited them to the theatre to come see the play and asked them to change their position. Dr. Sher and the board emphatically denied they were in support of private blood collection. I offered up a seat at a talkback session during the play’s run for them to echo this response to the public.

My invitation was accepted.

True to my word, TAINTED premiered before a live audience on September 26th, 2013. Under the delicate direction of Vikki Anderson and the openhearted commitment of a talented cast and crew it was the play that I had hoped it would be: Raw, truthful, and heart wrenching.

There were dozens of tainted blood survivors at the opening and the weight I felt at the possibility of failing them overwhelmed me. My fears were alleviated when the audience emptied into the lobby, red-eyed and embracing one another. I could exhale. I had their blessings.

During the run of TAINTED many pivotal things happened. There were many reunions of survivors and there were a lot of tears. Political discourse flowed freely. We were able to fly Dr. Don Francis from San Francisco to participate in talkback sessions. Don was a former scientist at the Center of Disease Control during the AIDS crisis and had testified at the Krever inquiry. He kindly agreed to support our advocacy and was dead set against the opening of paid donor clinics. Dr. Sher from CBS attended the play and during the talkback session afterwards proclaimed that he did not want the clinics in Ontario either. One of the most striking moments came at the end of a matinee when an audience member walked on stage, grabbed a piece of the set, clutched it to her chest and walked out of the theatre. She claimed the play as her own and she was going to take a piece of it with her.

It was all very exhilarating but I had more work to do.

Over the course of the run I was relentless in my pursuit to get politicians, community leaders and policy advisors to attend. The theatre was the place where my ghosts could convey the true costs of this historical tragedy – something that wasn’t achievable in government offices or boardrooms. I just had to get them to the theatre so they, too, could claim the play and take a piece of it home with them.

In early December, I received a call from a senior policy advisor from the health ministers’ office. She and some of her colleagues had attended TAINTED and wanted to reassure me the government was taking measures to stop the clinics from opening.

2014 – Toronto

In March of 2014, I was invited alongside tainted blood advocates to sit in the government gallery at Queen’s Park when Health Minister Deb Matthews introduced the legislation to ban the sale of blood in Ontario for the first time. Before Minister Matthews spoke she came over to greet us. When I extended my hand to introduce myself she smiled at me and said, “Ah, yes, so you are the playwright”. It was a privilege to be there that day. We had won the fight against the pharmaceutical company, pressed CBS to change their position publicly and persuaded politicians to implement Krever’s recommendations. My work was done and I felt it was time to move on.

But this was not to be – not yet.

On May 2, 2014, a provincial election was called and the blood bill died on the floor. I was back at it. We had to reignite our efforts to ensure the blood legislation was reintroduced when a new government was formed. I had earned my place as a trusted and knowledgeable advocate on the topic of tainted blood but the theatre was my real platform. Although I was preparing to do a reading of TAINTED in London, UK, TAINTED had not been picked up by any of the main theatres in Toronto. Without another venue to stage the play I was unsure what my next step could be. The answer came in the form of a stalwart supporter – The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

The opening of private blood clinics in Ontario would impact hundreds of OPSEU’s members. Simply put, their role facilitating and operating a safe public voluntary system was at risk. Earlier in the year OPSEU had invited us to do a reading of TAINTED at their annual conference but the timing hadn’t worked out. Now, the pharmaceutical lobbyists had descended on Queen’s Park to exploit the stalled legislative process and we needed to make sure our government would not be swayed. OPSEU asked if I would be interested in taking a rehearsed-reading of TAINTED on a seven-city tour when Queen’s Park was sitting again. I agreed and they sponsored the tour. In order to get as many MPP’s and MP’s to the show we scheduled special performances inside Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill – something that had never been done before.

On October 20th, we took TAINTED on the road. We had some of our original cast and some new actors joined. Vikki Anderson didn’t hesitate to direct the reading and no one cared that it would be a pared down version of the production. We all knew we were a part of something meaningful. Tainted blood survivors agreed to come on the tour to participate in talkbacks and help gain support for the legislation. Kate Taylor’s Globe and Mail article: Theatre rarely works as a political game changer, but this may be the exception, was published the afternoon we were presenting on Parliament Hill. Federal Heritage Critic, Pierre Nantel, was in attendance and told us that our presentation was the most powerful lobby he had experienced. It was a kind compliment, but the bill still hadn’t passed and we all clung to the hope that others were taking notice.

We were not let down.

The government kept their promise and moved the bill forward. When I testified during the committee process in a packed room at Queen’s Park, I chose to identify myself as a playwright instead of a tainted blood advocate. My voice in the room as an artist was equally as valuable as that of the pharmaceutical juggernauts who desperately wanted to kill the bill. They had the power of corporate interests; I had the power of story.

On December 10th, 2014 in a unanimous vote, The Voluntary Blood Donations Act passed and became law in Ontario.

It was a monumental moment for our team.

I don’t know where TAINTED will find its next home. I don’t know where my career as a playwright will take me. What I know for certain is that the theatre is the perfect place for unabashed dissent. It can become an unstoppable force if the right ghosts are at your side and when such energies collide, theatre can change the world.

This article first appeared in Playwrights Guild of Canada on January 20, 2015