Wednesday, August 01, 2012

An Open Letter to Ken Gass

A lot of people who know me are aware that I spent much of my early career working with Ken Gass at the first theatre in Canada to dedicate itself completely to the production of Canadian plays – Toronto’s Factory Theatre.

Working there and with the extremely talented artists who also made it their home taught me most of what I have carried through the rest of my professional life and career. If it wasn’t for the Factory, I wouldn’t have the deep love of country I have. I wouldn’t have developed the skills and understanding to become a writer. I would be very much less than what I am.

Over the last month, the Factory Theatre has been in crisis. Its Board of Directors made a decision to terminate the employment of the theatre’s founder and artistic director, Ken Gass. And that has caused an uproar in the theatre community that has led to some very passionate and sometimes harsh things being said.

Ken Gass’ version of events is here. The board of directors has pled its case here.

Now many of the theatre community have begun to join a boycott of the theatre amid ongoing charges, counter-charges and lawyers letters flying all over the place, while media barely ever interested in the state of Canadian theatre has an op-ed field day.

At one level, the great dream of theatre being taken to the streets has been realized. On another, it’s merely heart-breaking.

Given my long history and experience with the Factory, many people have asked me to take a side and up to now I have not. I’ve got friends on both sides. I sympathize with much of both positions. I fear that no one comes out of this a winner.

But yesterday, I was reading Ken’s response to the board’s explanation of its position and the language and the attitude just made me realize it was time to practice what I always preach that there is nothing more damaging than silence.

For what it is worth, Ken Gass is one of my oldest and most valued friends and I sincerely hope that friendship continues.

An open letter to Ken regarding the Factory boycott:

Ken,

I think it’s fair to say that without the existence of the Factory theatre and your personal help and guidance, I wouldn’t have had the successful and creatively rewarding career that I enjoy. That’s a debt shared by most artists who have been exposed to the vision and dedication you’ve brought to Canadian theatre. And it’s one none of us can ever fully repay.

I was also fortunate to be an artist you asked to be on the Factory’s board of directors, where I proudly served for six seasons, including a term as board president. That experience broadened my understanding of the many things it takes to make a theatre successful. Thus while your recent conflict with the Factory’s board of directors saddened me, it has been far from a surprise.

I may be a few thousand miles from the Factory these days. But following this dispute has made me feel like I’m right back where I’ve been many, many times before. Sometimes I think the only thing that holds the Factory together is the threat that it is imminently or tragically about to come apart.

But what does surprise me this time and perhaps even saddens me more, is the way you have mischaracterized, insulted and ultimately been completely dismissive of the people you personally invited, at times begged, to bring their skill sets to benefit the Factory.

I don’t know everyone who now sits at your boardroom table. But Ron, Janet and Michael were all there for portions of the time that I was and your depiction of them and what they have provided the theatre has been shameful.

Every single one of those board members has been there more than once to support you personally, professionally and by digging into their own pockets when the help you needed was financial. I’ve seen all of them jump into action where and whenever you needed them. I’ve seen them all fight for you and fiercely defend both you and your vision for the theatre against all comers.

A few years ago, I watched Janet single-handedly prevent another board from tossing you out on your ass. I was in the meetings where Ron figured out ways to keep all of us in a building we came close to losing. And we both know how late into the night we’d get calls or emails from Michael to let us know he’d found some method to get us out of whatever legal fix we were in.

We were all in this thing of yours together.

Many times, I, or one of your board members or one of the Managing directors (who somehow also never seem to stick around you for long) was there to fight the theatre’s battles because, for reasons good or lacking, you were not. And all of us gladly took that responsibility and did the job as well as we could.

But now you belittle them, often apparently because they’re just “not artists” and thus somehow unable to understand what it truly takes to run a theatre, the way we “artists” do.

What’s more, you and many of your supporters have drawn a very clear “us and them” line between the theatre community and “them” who don’t share our particular wisdom or gift. Maybe that’s a sentiment that explains why the Factory has always struggled to hold an audience. Perhaps all those “non-artists” we ask to pay to bask in our talents have never really felt they were all that welcome in our midst.

Indeed, the entire history of the theatre has been one of stumbling from crisis to crisis and never being able to build on our successes. You make much of the current board’s inability to find money. Buddy, there’s never been a Factory board that could find all the money we needed, let alone realize that beautiful theatre that’s been at the blueprint stage for a decade.

When I was there we regularly lost grants because we couldn’t match them. We clawed and scrambled to qualify for the Creative Trust and achieve virtually every improvement made to the place. There were a dozen instances when promises of solidarity and support from the well-heeled, securely in power or always there for us in the past turned out to be nothing more than promises. Why do you depict this board as the undependable ones who have let you down?

Christ, the board I presided over ran a pretty hefty deficit! Perhaps an example of what can happen even when you put an “artist” in charge.

Much is made of how often you personally painted washrooms and mopped the theatre floor as proof of your commitment. And it’s all true. But I recall one frigid night prior to some gala when we were both outside chiselling ice off the sidewalk so nobody would slip and scatter their pearls. You might’ve been cheerfully augmenting your reputation. But I was the cold to the bone guy thinking, “If we could just find some fucking money, we could hire somebody to do this.”

Somebody clearly hasn’t been helping realize the Factory’s dream, Ken. But it’s not those people circled around your boardroom table. Whatever their career paths, corporate connections or Left brain dominance, they have all given selflessly at times to what the Factory represents and we both know there isn’t an evil plotter of a palace coup in the bunch.

As for your present allies, much has been made of the 4000 names you so quickly gathered demanding the heads of those who took your side and fought your battles for years on end. I put that at a few thousand more champions of the arts than we ever convinced to even minimally support the theatre by buying a season ticket to the shows. So, you’ll forgive me if I take their commitment as seriously as anybody familiar with social media gives weight to any online petition.

Instead of seeking a boycott of the theatre, why not ask all of those people to go out and buy a season pass to the Factory to show how much they support you and the dream you built. If money really is the only thing your board understands, wouldn’t that better prove the commitment of Toronto’s theatre community to your particular artistic vision?

Hell, if they’re so ardently behind you, ask them each to go out and raise $3000. That’ll give you the $12 million you need to build the theatre you’ve always felt Canadian playwrights and theatre artists deserved. But don’t be surprised if they too fall by the wayside or short of your expectations.

More than that, I’m sure you yourself would agree that any artist asking any other artist to boycott any artistic work has failed the prime purpose of their calling. And anyone dividing the world between those who are artists and those who are not has clearly forgotten the collaborative and shared experience that theatre is and is supposed to be.

The problem isn’t your board, Ken, it’s that your dream has always been bigger than this country as well as its artists. And many of those who have claimed to be on the side of the angels have never had the courage of your convictions.

For an example of that, look no further than Richard Ouzounian, the theatre critic who’s become your voice of late. There’s a guy whose career in the theatre represented everything you tried to change. His reviews have regularly put a match to the work of the Factory, and I doubt he’d stoop to piss on the place if it ever did catch fire.

This is somebody who insisted Garth Drabinsky didn’t deserve to go to jail right up to the day he was so justifiably locked away. Why are you putting your trust in a man with those values instead of people with the commitment and qualities you sought and we both know you found in Ron Struys, Janet Dey and Michael Wolfish?

A psychiatrist once told me that more marriages are destroyed by renovations than infidelity and if you ask me, that’s what’s happening here. I don’t know if there’s a way for you guys to patch things up. But it breaks my heart to read the belligerent bile you’re putting out there. Do you really want your resume to include cyber-bully along with visionary artistic director, quintessential director and brilliant playwright?

I know what has happened has hurt you deeply, obviously more deeply than I can imagine. But don’t allow that wound, mortal as it may be, to endanger everything you’ve built.

You’re not the only one who was inspired by what the Factory could mean. I’m sure you’d be the first to acknowledge it was a place realized and sustained by talented playwrights, directors, performers, crews, dramaturges, management staff –- and countless thousands without a creative bone in their bodies but a burning desire to see their own country on stage.

None of us deserve the ways we’re ultimately ushered from our work and our dreams, even when its done with the utmost respect and kindness. None of us. But that time comes to us all. If it’s your turn to move on, I’ll mourn that. But please don’t take the Factory with you. Those of us who helped build it did so for more than you or ourselves.

You once wrote a great play called “The Boy Bishop” in which I had the true honor of playing the title character.

That play ends with that character being told that the vision he had for his country had been lost and that his great work had been done in a vacuum. The work you’ve given us all wasn’t done in a vacuum, Ken. But if you urge people to boycott the Factory and diminish the contribution of those who made so much of the work of that place possible, it will be.

The enemy is not within.

Jim Henshaw

28 comments:

DAVID BOLT said...

Jim -- I too have been following these events, and agree with your conclusions.
My connection to the the Factory goes back to the early 70s, so my own first instinct was to rush to Ken's defense.
After all, I have done so before. When Ken was accused of racist casting, I was part of a group that organized a petition in his defense. But I soon found out that racism is a pretty toxic accusation and a lot of people did not want to go near it. I will not name names, but some of the people who would not sign the racism petition were quite happy to jump on this new bandwagon. It has become a very safe protest to sign on to.
I applaud your courage in publishing your opinions here. You have taken an extremely unpopular minority position, and I don't doubt that you will experience a backlash.

Ted said...

Jim, thanks for your insight and courage, and for considering the wellbeing of many others, rather than just yourself.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim, it's Andrew Moodie again. Sorry to do this, I won't post everything I posted in response facebook, but I will post this. And again, I have a lot of respect for you, and I understand your position, but I just wanted to say this.

I have know many artistic directors. Some of them close friends. Some of them have left their position as artistic director. And it sucks. It always sucks. But they were allowed to plan a season, and leave. The new Artistic Director stewards the old directors last season, and then the next season belongs to them. That's just the way it's done. For everyone.

I've known artistic directors who have been freaking assholes. Brutal, petty, an untalented. They have had the chance to plan a season, finish the season and leave. Let us entertain for a moment that Ken and the Factory should part ways. It's not what I believe, but let's just entertain the thought; unless he has murdered a child, unless he is a direct threat to the staff, unless he was planning on blowing up the CN tower, you don't order him to empty his desk and toss him out on the street. That's corporate bullshit. It's petty and shaming. I know he was given an offer to be a figure head. That's bullshit. I think that you'll find that many people in the theatre community, who know how things work, were really offended by that. More than anything else. The boycott didn't start because Ken asked for it. It started because his punishment seemed incredibly disproportionate to his alleged offence, and didn't take into consideration his position in the community, and his contribution to Canadian Theatre. It's like kicking him in the teeth and pissing on his bloody face. It's shaming. And I don't care what he's done to you or any member of the board. He really didn't deserve that.

Anonymous said...

Well said, I don't think it's a minority position though. From conversations I've had around the preverbial water cooler I think it's a very common position, just one people are afraid to voice for fear of blackballing.

Sean Dixon - said...

it seems to me this 'fear of blackballing' is pretty mutual.

Also, David says it appears to be a 'very safe protest' but, as a playwright whose work in Toronto has only ever been produced at the Factory, I can tell you first hand that it's not a safe protest at all. At least it doesn't feel that way from the inside.

But Andrew Moodie speaks the truth: Ken did not put me up to my protest. One may feel it's a reasonable rhetorical position to say that he did, but it's just not true.

Sugith Varughese said...

Jim, thanks for posting this.

However, if the board had behaved in this instance with the kind of integrity you've described they have in the past, they should have resigned rather than execute a power play to get rid of Ken.

mattie white said...

Thank you for writing this, Jim.

Arwen said...

I agree with the fact that the way in which he was fired was W-R-O-N-G. Very wrong. It should NOT have gone down the way it did, no matter what Ken did or did not do.
YES, he should *absolutely* have been given a last season to plan, as Andrew points out.
I also agree that the board should probably resign -- and the bafflegab they initially presented as some kind of explanation was unacceptable and insulting.
Ken has been done wrong, to be sure.
However, I am not clear on what purpose the boycott serves. I wonder if, by boycotting the Factory as a community, we are not cutting off our noses to spite our faces. What of the directors/ actors/ stage managers/ crew members who were slated to be on the boards there this year? What do they do now to put food on the table and pay the rent? Are we not just dividing ourselves as a community, and pitting ourselves against one another?

No, it's not a safe protest. Not at all.
But is it a wise one? I honestly have no idea.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand Sugith's idea that a board with integrity should resign. Can the artistic director never be wrong?

tony nardi said...

Jim, you raise good points and balance the over-the-top bad rap the board got for its purportedly categorical (unfair) dismissal of Ken Gass.

I still maintain the board mishandled Ken’s dismissal. It should never have fired him over a difference of opinion on renovations plans.

I find the board’s open letter difficult to understand and swallow.

I also have a problem with Ken’s letter. He doesn’t need to explain himself publicly the way he did, to such degree and detail – especially when none of it has anything to do with “theatre”.

The important statement he does make, however, which does relate to theatre is his definition of what constitutes artistic vision.

Ken Gass should be judged (hired or fired) strictly for the work he does at the theatre as artistic director. Period. If the work (consistently) fails the community of artists and the larger community then there is a problem. And a change may be necessary. And there should be a fair process initiating and overseeing that change.

But the board has not raised an issue with Ken’s artistic vision. None.

“Our differences are not about the artistic direction of the Theatre, as both Ken and we have acknowledged.”

In fact the board acknowledge Ken’s long contribution to the Factory, and that he was the reason many joined the board.

Presumably it’s why the board wanted to keep Ken at Factory as an “emeritus whatever” (the theatre equivalent of a political patronage appointment) at $15,000 salary and still saw him as part of the theatre’s future.

...continued...

tony nardi said...

So the problem centers on the renovations that trigger so many divorces.

And of course when we hear “renovations” we naturally assume they have nothing to do with a theatre’s artistic vision. Wrong.

Only morons who don’t know human history would think that. History proves that artistic vision (by intent or default) is always reflected in buildings: opera houses, theatres, amphitheatres, concert halls, senates, house of commons, etc. This is why the over 2000-year old Senate Hall in Rome still has the best acoustics of any building in the world and why in 2002, only 20 years after it opened, Roy Thomson Hall undertook architectural renovations to address problems with its acoustics. (Have they been solved?)

Architect Guy (Gaetano) Rao was responsible for designing two Toronto subway stations and won prizes and praise for both, notwithstanding that the City and committee in charge gave him nothing but aggravation and resistance from day one and demanded changes along the way. (He was the architect they chose, but apparently they had a responsibility to the entire city and larger community, though they never articulated what that responsibility was. Sound familiar?)

“For wholesome living we need to keep our head in the sky and our feet in the mud.”

I don’t know if this is Rao’s quote but he has it on one of his websites. It might as well be his. He’s an artist. As is Ken.

When Ken says “The Goldsmith design was linked to the artistic vision for the company,” it’s clear that he sees the building and what is performed in it as part of the same artistic vision. That’s normal. For an artist.

The renovations are totally about artistic vision; they are not separate from how a theatre views itself, its brand of theatre and the community with whom it intends to share the space. The details and differences over the renovations are totally about a difference of opinion on the theatre’s artistic vision. No question.

If a board has for years supported the artistic vision of an artistic director (Ken), why would it say “Our differences are not about the artistic direction of the Theatre” when the very artistic director they purportedly supported for years (Ken) has stated in clear language and fundamentally believes that renovations design is linked to the artistic vision of the company”?

Both can’t be right.

The Board can’t say they have no problem with Ken’s artistic vision when it’s clear they do. If they don’t see that they do have a problem with Ken’s artistic vision it’s because they see the building (renovations) as something beyond the process of theatre and separate from artistic vision. It belongs to the generic category that has nothing to do with art, theatre and audience. Wrong again.

Most theatres built in Canada over the last 40 years must have had like-minded boards: they look more like ‘70s-concrete penitentiaries. I’m sure the artistic directors in each had little say in how those places were built or renovated.

Some of the best theatre has come out of run down buildings that at times felt unsafe to walk into. Some of the worst theatre comes out of ultra modern looking lobbies that are as far away from Peter Brook’s description of The Rough Theatre (in the Empty Space) as Versailles.

Ken’s artistic vision includes how the renovated theatre should reflect the artistic director’s concept of space, and how space affects the relationship between those working in it and the audience. A space should make sense primarily to those working in it and those paying to experience theatre, and not for those charged with defending, promoting and supporting in every way possible the artistic director’s vision.

When a board maintains that it likes the AD’s artistic vision and it’s the reason most of its members came on board, you don’t expect the board to fire the artistic director over differences of opinion on renovations (artistic vision).

...continued...

tony nardi said...

I don’t detect sincerity, insight or vision in the board’s last statement:

“[A] board’s loyalty must be to the entire theatre and the broader community, and our job is to insure that Factory Theatre remains for many generations. We hope we can count on your support.”

By their own admission, board members did not come on board to serve the entire theatre and the broader community. They came on board because they liked the guy who was running the theatre (Ken), what he stood for and his artistic vision. Even if Ken begged them on his knees to come on board, they did on account of what they perceived to be the qualities and vision he brought to the theatre experience at Factory.

After the firing, they are apparently focused on remaining loyal to the entire theatre and the broader community.

What the fuck does that mean, specifically? This arrogant comment suggests that Ken’s loyalty was NOT to the theatre and the broader community. And yet the board has said nothing in its open letter to suggest that Ken was not loyal to the theatre and the broader community.

Firing him with a carrot and a stick reflects the moral dilemma and contradictory predicament they had placed themselves in.

The many theatre artists dedicating so much time and energy to emotional drivel on either side without even attempting to engage in rational discussion speaks well of a theatre community that is ultimately, fundamentally, culturally irrelevant. It’s why we seem to attract board members who when they come on board maintain “I’m not an artist; I’m just here to support the artistic director who is trying to serve the community”, and eventually believe they are Howard Roark, The Fountainhead's protagonist, that artistic directors are simply getting in their way, and have no business in their business of building and designing theatres.

After reading both open letters …something is still wrong…. at the board level.

T. Nardi

Anonymous said...

well said.
although i left the theatre long ago for a more corporate and less artistic life, if i may i would like to provide an opinion from outside the core. i value and respect this community and will continue to invest and support in it regardless of the outcome of this current issue.

clearly there is passion and emotion present that tells me that there is creative energy weeping to express itself. is this the manner in which the theatre community wants the rest of the country to view that passion?

i am not familiar with the players on either side of the discussion, but the view from the back row does not present either 'side', as it were, in a positive light.

Jim, your letter stands out as the voice of reason and perhaps a light to guide the way forward. thank you for sharing.

Sean Dixon - said...

Incidentally, those people crossing Adelaide Street in the drawing should really be careful. It looks like a sheet of ice!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this brave and informed response, Jim. I have been waiting for someone to re-dress the balance in this bitter dispute, and speak some hard truths.

DAVID BOLT said...

Re my use of the word "safe" to describe the boycott and petition. (See my comment at the top of the thread.)
A comment was made in response that the anti-Factory Board protest is not safe.
In the larger sense, of course, this situation is not safe at all. In fact it is downright dangerous.
What I meant in context was that there is no personal risk, but rather some benefit, in joining the anti-Factory Board protests. Anybody you are likely to work with or for has signed on... directors, artistic directors, writers, famous actors. You would be joining a large and influential club.
On the other hand, anyone who takes Jim's views will risk losing friends over it. In fact, I know someone who is afraid of losing employment if he goes public. Sean has said this works both ways, so maybe it has for him. But anyone wanting to work with all those big names on the boycott would likely think twice before supporting Jim here.

Anonymous said...

Two questions for Mr. Henshaw:

1. Did someone on the current board ask you to post this?

2. If you were the current Board President would you have fired Mr. Gass in this manner?

jimhenshaw said...

Anonymous,

Nobody asked or encouraged me to write this post.

If anybody inspired it, it was David Ferry, who has signed on to the boycott but who made an impassioned plea on Facebook a couple of weeks ago for people not to remain silent.

I knew he was absolutely correct. More damage gets done by silence in these situations than anything else.

And I gotta say the most troubling revelation from the response to the post are the many confidential emails I've gotten from young artists I don't know saying they've been afraid to make comments or even ask too many questions for fear of offending someone who might negatively impact their careers.

What kind of artistic community do we have when any artist feels they need to shut the fuck up?

...Or feel they can only join the conversation by remaining anonymous...?

Unfortunately, I can't answer your second question. I don't know details of what went on at the theatre much beyond what each side has made public.

Tony Nardi said...

It should be stressed that the TTC riders in Toronto (the audience if you will) voted Guy (Gaetano) Rao's two subway stations as their absolute favourites. I believe Rao told the City and committee: Imagine the work we can do if you simply allow us to do it, without the restrictions imposed by people who do not keep the TTC riders in mind, how architecture and the public spaces we build should be lived and experienced, but who simply add their two cents and objections to justify sitting on the committee."

tony nardi said...

The moment an actor or any artist for that matter calculates risk before speaking out on an issue he/she has lost all credibility on his/her purported beliefs and principles. Calculation is for sitting ducks.

I – for example - signed the petition NOT because I knew who was right or wrong on the issue of renovations. And I doubt I agree with the views of many of the people who signed the petition. I read a couple of them (oozing with emotional larva and self-inflicted victimization) and after experiencing severe nausea I stopped.

My signing it was for the reasons I stated, even publicly on RADIO CANADA TV (CBC TV French) and even to the board members. Incidentally, RADIO CANADA interviewed me for the very simple reason that no other actor would be willing to go on national television to offer a comment on the Ken Gass firing (and because I speak French).

In fact, other than Réne-Daniel Dubois and Raymond Cloutier in Québec, (and a handful of others in Québec) there are simply no actors and theatre artists in English Canada who through their artistic and political views will trouble the societal waters and attract wide attention. And not because Dubois and Clotuier were big names when they did so. The kind of backlash they encountered was often from those with real power in the media and in politics and not five-and-dime theatre employers and fellow artists, though those artists as well. Dubois and Cloutier – like many theatre artists in Québec - came into the world of theatre with a clear picture in their minds and hearts of what theatre and authentic culture meant to them and to their society. And they have been faithful to that vision ever since, willing to pay whatever price, because they know and have read history, and have made a deliberate choice not to pay lip service to it.

One of the reasons I like what Jim posted is that he didn’t calculate. He simply shared a personal (yet rational) view.

I agree with David Bolt’s first response, though I question the strength and legitimacy of the backlash that Jim will apparently experience for having posted his view. If our theatre is largely and fundamentally culturally inauthentic and irrelevant I fail to see how a threat coming from its majority of practitioners, regardless of how big they may be in their own head or in the head of others, can seriously affect one’s destiny, unless, of course, one perceives his/her destiny as being a cultural whore (of English and American imports).

Theatre artists in Québec made the “national” news because of stands they take and opinions they share. English Canada is not there yet. The Ken Gass incident has been an explosion within a marginal community: the theatre community. Only those in theatre are aware of it. That should tell us the quality of theatre we have and how it relates to the population at large.

And that’s what theatre artists should be concerned with. Becoming relevant. Worrying about voicing an opinion, regardless of its quality or slant, on the Ken Gass incident only reinforces the reality: that for the present theatre in Canada is largely irrelevant.

tony nardi said...

Begin forwarded message:
From: tony nardi
Date: July 12, 2012 4:44:12 PM EDT
To: rstruys@rogers.com, bsimonsen@deloitte.ca, lbevan@lynnbevan.com, janetdey@sympatico.ca, gkapelos@ryerson.ca, eparker@toronto.ca, msw@foglers.com, miroy@deloitte.ca
Subject: The Factory Theatre/ Ken Gass

Dear Factory Theatre Board members:
Let's put aside emotional arguments in favour or against the Board or Ken Gass and people's perception of the quality produced by the Factory Theatre over the last 40 years - or what defines quality.

Given the Factory Theatre's recent firing of Ken Gass the issue is how a board perceives its role and that of the artistic director.

In many ways, in Canada, the Board sees itself as the head of state (with veto power) and the artistic director as head of government (with substantial limits).

The Factory Theatre has been - and is - an exception in a long, English Canadian tradition of British and American facsimile (colonial) theatre. With a handful of other theatre companies in the late 1960s the Factory (thanks to Gass) has set a standard for original English Canadian theatre works.

I understand that what one did 40 years ago - or for 40 years - does not define or excuse what one does today. But I have not heard of where and how Ken Gass has violated The Factory's original mission statement.

Today, Canadian theatre, from the so-called crown jewels, Stratford and Shaw Festivals, to most regional theatres from coast to coast, is still drowning in cultural aping (to the tune of over 80% of all theatre production). Therefore, over 80% of our theatre can hardly be defined as "culturally relevant". For the most part Theatre has no cultural and social connection with the communities that sustain it or that it purportedly reflects.
The over 80% theatre companies are primarily engines for tourism, even when attracting people from their own communities. They sell the idea of culture but do not contribute to the creation of a relevant culture. They have become cultural convenience and department stores (the Walmart of theatre culture). The disconnect is huge and the link between theatre and community is largely superficial and cosmetic, relying on a weak thread: a general agreement on a vague notion of the importance of theatre culture. Theatre has in fact become the community’s social anaesthetic – mainly at the taxpayer’s expense.
Within this reality it follows that over 80% of theatre boards in the country do not have the responsibility to encourage, foster or promote authentic theatre culture and therefore can hardly be defined as having a difficult, challenging or relevant role.
Canadian theatre board culture stems (unfortunately) primarily from this inauthentic and culturally irrelevant tradition. Boards are generally cozy elites of the comatose, social-club type theatres they represent.

...continued....

tony nardi said...

Given this widespread reality it’s valid, even crucial, to ask “What about theatre companies that dedicate themselves to the creation and production of original Canadian plays (like Factory)? Who spearheads, guides and midwifes those creative initiatives?” and “What is a theatre board’s function within THAT reality?”
First: Individual theatre artists like Ken Gass are responsible for fostering and promoting authentic English Canadian theatre and not Boards. And Gass is in a minority.
Secondly: Boards of theatre companies creating and producing original works are also in the minority. Though they cannot be credited with having created authentic, original Canadian theatre they are nevertheless very crucial in ensuring a theatre company’s authentic expression. They have a far more challenging role than over 80% of theatre boards across the country. They regularly tap into a community (including its pocket book) that has been anaesthetized by a cultural trend that places a borrowed culture (British or American) above an authentic, organic Canadian one. They also (ideally) defend the artistic directors' choices. This is a best case scenario and not always the reality.
Boards should not define artistic content, a theatre's direction or vision, or how the funds are spent.
When our theatres, cinemas and television reflect and promote mainly foreign cultures and sensibilities, the enemy is never the artist fighting for authenticity and home-grown culture. The status quo is the enemy. A Board that fights or fires the artist who fights the status quo spells disaster.
The Factory Theatre board – like many boards - is made up of cultured and highly educated people. Unless I am mistaken, board members across the country have rarely singlehandedly financed a theatre company’s entire, yearly budget. I'm certain the Factory is no exception. We are not talking about The Medici type patrons of the arts. Board members are brokers, "middlemen" who wheel and deal often with other people’s money. Funding for our (authentic and inauthentic) theatre comes from government and private sources, and not from one individual (board member) pocket.
But even if the funding for a theatre company's yearly budget came from one individual Board member, should that change the Board's role?

It’s worth looking at what The Medici did in the 1500s. They funded singlehandedly, schooled and housed one of the greatest artists of all time (Michelangelo). And yet Michelangelo took issue with the status quo, with the very hand that fed him (The Medici) through his David, one of the greatest sculptures of all time. The young David (representing Michelangelo and Florentine society) stares at Goliath (representing the ‘dictatorial’ Medici family) in ready-for-combat stance. Michelangelo’s David belongs to a class of revolutionary art that essentially advocated and promoted a Florentine republic. Many died at the hands of the powerful Medici. Not Michelangelo.

...continued...

tony nardi said...

In 2012, the Factory Theatre Board should keep this in mind. It should not only ensure the theatre company’s financial and administrative well being, solidify and strengthen the theatre's connection with the community but also defend the artistic director's right to artistic expression and, equally important, it should defend Gass’ right to take issue with the board.

If the more than 3000 theatre artists had not signed a petition in support of Ken Gass it's obvious the Factory Board would have dealt with Gass as Versailles dealt with "undesirables". And we know how well that turned out.

If the Factory board wishes to replace Ken Gass as artistic director it has the responsibility and duty to supply reasons to the public and organizations (or people) that fund the theatre. The Board should not treat a publicly funded theatre as a private company or corporation. It has the responsibility and duty to follow due process and to show (through transparency) where Ken Gass has violated the artistic principles and mission statement on which the Factory Theatre was founded and received funding for 40 years. If it can’t do that, the board should disband (given its recent actions) and its new members should support Ken Gass (or any artistic director) and not make his job more difficult than it already is. Gass (like all artistic directors creating and producing original, authentic theatre) has enough enemies to contend with, starting with the Canadian tradition of inauthentic theatre culture and the many theatre artists that keep it "alive" on expensive stilts. And theatre artists like Gass, to some degree, are creating mini Davids, fighting the status quo and the collective anaesthesia... if not always in the execution definitely in intent. A board should defend that intent and not decapitate the head of the artist who (with a handful of others) spearheaded that mission and goal almost 40 years ago. If the Board can justify its recent actions against an artist like Ken Gass how would it deal with a new, younger, less known or experienced artistic director?

Sincerely,

Tony Nardi

Tony Nardi said...

Dear Factory Theatre Board members:
Let's put aside emotional arguments in favour or against the Board or Ken Gass and people's perception of the quality produced by the Factory Theatre over the last 40 years - or what defines quality.

Given the Factory Theatre's recent firing of Ken Gass the issue is how a board perceives its role and that of the artistic director.

In many ways, in Canada, the Board sees itself as the head of state (with veto power) and the artistic director as head of government (with substantial limits).

The Factory Theatre has been - and is - an exception in a long, English Canadian tradition of British and American facsimile (colonial) theatre. With a handful of other theatre companies in the late 1960s the Factory (thanks to Gass) has set a standard for original English Canadian theatre works.

I understand that what one did 40 years ago - or for 40 years - does not define or excuse what one does today. But I have not heard of where and how Ken Gass has violated The Factory's original mission statement.

Today, Canadian theatre, from the so-called crown jewels, Stratford and Shaw Festivals, to most regional theatres from coast to coast, is still drowning in cultural aping (to the tune of over 80% of all theatre production). Therefore, over 80% of our theatre can hardly be defined as "culturally relevant". For the most part Theatre has no cultural and social connection with the communities that sustain it or that it purportedly reflects.
The over 80% theatre companies are primarily engines for tourism, even when attracting people from their own communities. They sell the idea of culture but do not contribute to the creation of a relevant culture. They have become cultural convenience and department stores (the Walmart of theatre culture). The disconnect is huge and the link between theatre and community is largely superficial and cosmetic, relying on a weak thread: a general agreement on a vague notion of the importance of theatre culture. Theatre has in fact become the community’s social anaesthetic – mainly at the taxpayer’s expense.
Within this reality it follows that over 80% of theatre boards in the country do not have the responsibility to encourage, foster or promote authentic theatre culture and therefore can hardly be defined as having a difficult, challenging or relevant role.
Canadian theatre board culture stems (unfortunately) primarily from this inauthentic and culturally irrelevant tradition. Boards are generally cozy elites of the comatose, social-club type theatres they represent.

...continued....

tony nardi said...

The 4000 signatures, though at times filled with emotionally driven reactions, if anything, actually sent a message to the board. In a greater metropolitan area of over 5 million 4,000 is nothing but its something. Mussolini marched on Rome with only 1000 more people. I can’t imagine the board anticipated that kind of reaction regardless of the reasons. I agree with Jim that theatre artists are more prone to jump on bandwagons and dedicate a lot of more energy and money to that than in supporting directly a theatre with their pocketbook - with season tickets. But Jim's point and correct observation does not apply here. It actually undermines the issue.

Finding fault with the board’s dismissal of Ken Gass does not automatically constitute an endorsement of what the Factory stands for (in reality) as a theatre company or its mission statement.

One can dislike what the Factory theatre produces and still find fault with how the Board handled the matter and dismissed Ken Gass.

One can still state that the Factory is living in the glories of the 1960s and ‘70s, serves only a sliver of Toronto’s larger community, essentially an Anglo-centric one, notwithstanding that it receives funds from taxpayers of all cultures and skin colours, and still criticize the Board for how it dismissed Ken Gass and justified its dismissal.

Sally Szuster is correct: the board made a major error here and must be accountable. Their own open letter is nothing but a string of tired platitudes exposing their ability and willingness to talk from both sides of the mouth. It’s disgraceful.

The 4000 signatures have forced theatre artists and boards across the country to reflect on the role of a theatre board and its responsibilities and to clarify the definition of “artistic vision”.

Artistic directors should learn from this and not get lost in the kind of confusing logic employed by the Factory board.

Real estate and artistic vision are separate matters. To pretend the former and the latter are one and the same is an error, exactly the error the Factory board committed. And it’s alibi? It’s trying to be loyal to the entire theatre and larger community.

Bullshit.

tony nardi said...

The biggest losers in all this are Canadian theatre artists and Theatre.

How?

The open letters by Gass and the Factory board reveal a disturbing and long-standing trend: the gradual erosion of an artistic director’s right to “artistic” imperatives, choices, and vision in an insidious climate that imposes on those holding the position the role of administrative manager or accountant.

Except for Ken Gass’ statement that “The Goldsmith design was linked to the artistic vision for the company,” little of what he stated in his substantial letter reflects artistic anything. That’s not necessarily his fault; it’s simply the reality and predicament most artistic directors – and artists - currently find themselves in. They have to appear and then act fiscally responsible.

Artistic vision, principles and ideals must always give way to arbitrarily defined (practical, monetary and political) interests and restrictions.

Our culture is essentially built on – and reflects - real estate and fiscal prerogatives and political privilege.

The Board’s open letter basically drives this point home and actually makes a deviously unabashed case for limiting an artistic director’s creative right to define and steer artistic vision.

Yet historically advances in the arts and sciences were always the result of patrons and artists defying arbitrarily imposed restrictions, financial or political.

Canadian theatre artists, boards and patrons are willing to pay lip service to that history. Nothing more. And one person, Ken Gass, or anyone else, cannot do it alone.

Paul Ledoux said...

Paul Ledoux weighing in:

I think before condemning the boycott one should consider what those signing on hope to achieve and why they feel it is a useful tool.

Speaking for myself (past playwright-in-residence, former Factory Board Member) I see the boycott as one of a number of strategies necessary to force the Factory Board out of their intractable position and into a meaningful engagement with the community on this issue.

As you may know when I approached the General Manager of the theatre to get a copy of the Factory by-laws I was stonewalled. This response was part and parcel to The Board’s strategy, which appears to be to circle the wagons and wait until the storm blows over. Personal letters from playwrights and arts organizations asking for the Board to enter into mediation have been ignored, attempts by private financial contributors to join the board and find a compromise have been rejected. Indeed there have only been three public comments by the Board – the first announced Ken’s dismissal after he went public, the second was in response to the petition and the third to the boycott.

The Board has to be aware that this issue is not going to blow over and in the end they must come to a compromise or turn over the reins of power to those willing to seek a solution to the problem. Of course as Jim pointed out The Board has undoubtedly worked hard in the past to support Ken’s vision and the ideals expressed in the theatre’s letters patent. (They wouldn’t give those either.)

Obviously something has gone terribly wrong in their relationship with Ken and that is tragic. Like Jim I was sorry to see Ken’s angry response to the Board’s open letter. Until this point I believe he has acted with grace in the face of a very hurtful experience and in his defense he obviously felt the Board was misrepresenting the sequence of events in an attempt to attack his credibility. One can understand his anger.

Certainly Ken’s version of events has been more compelling than the Board’s but the fact is that this issue needs to be resolved and creating more ill-will may not be the best way to reach a resolution. But one fact is certain; this issue will not be resolved by the Board collectively hiding their head in the sand. Their response to date has been inept. They need to engage with the community (and Ken) in an open and responsible dialogue.

My personal feeling is that the first step is professional mediation and if that fails perhaps the best way to move forward is to form a transitional committee of friends of the theatre who would be granted Membership in the Factory Corporation as per Article 13 of The Factory By-laws . (Yes I got them from other sources.) This new group of concerned Members would oversee the recruitment of a new Board able to review the situation and make a final decision on Ken’s leadership based on a fresh assessment of the dispute. Hopefully the community would accept the decision of a Board untainted by the conflict.

In the meantime I would urge anybody concerned over this matter to contact The Board of The Factory and apply for membership. If the Board rejects you perhaps you will join the boycott. If the Board accepts you perhaps you can become part of the beginning of solution to this divisive crisis.

Apply for Membership to:

The Board of Directors
The Factory Theatre
125 Bathurst Street Toronto, ON M5V 2R2

Or drop The Chairman of The Board a personal request

Ron Struys, Chair rstruys@rogers.com

Obsidian Theatre said...

Tony Nardi said "The moment an actor or any artist for that matter calculates risk before speaking out on an issue he/she has lost all credibility on his/her purported beliefs and principles. Calculation is for sitting ducks."

Really Tony? And who set you up to be the arbiter of anyone else's credibility or judge them for their beliefs and principles? And people wonder why some artists may be afraid to speak out.

I have talked to young artists as well who actually have a lot to lose here.
And what they see given the pride of place are people who make it clear, if not in fact at the very least in dog whistle, that one side is full of integrity and the other.....well who knows but let us leave it unsaid.
And since there is no stated organization and just a group of individuals then no one can be blamed for making calls that pressure, or making calls that try and convince organizations not to book or ...well you get the idea.

I believe that if people actually believe that tag of "As with the other signatories, he does so without judging peers who choose not to" then stop slagging off people who may not happen to agree with you and for ghod's sake stop being so freaking self righteous.