Ken Gass & The Stolen Theatre

watercolour sketch of the phil goldsmith design for factory theatre –  (or, what ken gass fought for)

I have been uncharacteristically silent here on TWISI regarding the outrageous firing of Ken Gass, the Artistic Director of Factory Theatre, by the Board of Directors last month over disputes in renovation plans for the theatre. I have been reading all the newspaper articles and Facebook notes and comments from members of the artistic community with ardent interest unsure of which angle I wanted to jump behind. Perhaps I was just waiting to hear the full story from Gass himself, which I highly recommend that you all read right this instant, before I posited my official opinion. Nevertheless, my silence has been broken.

First of all, I am disturbed and outraged that a Board of Directors can be so arrogant and narrow minded as to assume that they, a bunch of lawyers, businesspeople and real estate agents, have a better understanding of what is best for Factory Theatre than the person who founded it in 1970 and has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to its success, as well as over 3,000 Canadian theatre artists who have signed a petition calling for the Board to resign and for Gass to be reinstated. As Gass mentions in his article, “Artistic and managing directors are accountable to the board, but, in reality, boards are held accountable to no one but themselves. In most arts organizations, the only voting ‘members’ are the directors themselves. Since there are no term limits at Factory, the current nine directors could re-elect themselves to power annually for the next decade or more.  Arts councils make assessments and award grants in three-year cycles and, barring complete collapse, are loathe to interfere in the internal workings of an organization. There is simply no provincial body that will challenge a board that strays from its mandate or behaves badly in the eyes of the community.” He also mentions that “In the Capital Committee’s board-approved mandate, passed October 17, 2011, their first responsibility was: Develop an overall strategic plan for the Factory Theatre building and land, respecting property value, and ensuring that any changes or renovations meet the needs of audiences, artists, staff, and the artistic direction of the theatre.  [my emphasis] This, however, is precisely what the Committee did not do.  In fostering their proposal for the new lobby, the Board threw away a master plan two years in the making—one even approved by the City’s Committee of Adjustments—and replaced it with vague comments that they would decide on future developments after the lobby project was completed.

So, essentially, the Board of Directors of a theatre, people who volunteer their time and often do not have ardent personal or financial investment in the building or its artistic work, can completely dismiss the mandate of that theatre, as long as they are all in agreement, and set out on their own rogue agenda, artistic consequences be damned, and there is not a single measure in place to hold them accountable to the public, who are the rightful owners of the theatre? Is this Not For Profit structure really the most beneficial one for a theatre to have? I think this is a conversation that we as a community should be having and we should be looking critically into the power structures of our theatre companies and continually asking ourselves, “is this the best model for my venture and does it reflect and support my artistic vision?” What are our alternatives? Where can we learn more about what options are available to us? I speak for myself when I say for those of us who are not business savvy these issues can be daunting and confusing, but it is in our best interest to be armed with as much knowledge and clarity on the issues as possible.

Conversely, it is also important for Artistic Directors to not run their theatres like dictatorships, but I disagree vehemently with The Factory Board’s view from their Press Release in which they said, “We acknowledge there is always a healthy tension between the creative community and the Boards that are responsible for the organizations.” How uproariously condescending! The “creative” community is not a two year old child who needs to be petted on the head and warned about how she is completely incapable of surviving on her own and must depend on Mummy and Daddy for guidance. I hate that these people are using the “healthy tension” argument here, once again drawing that tired old line in the sand between the “artists” (who have to be organized) and “everybody else” (who have to organize them). Who was it who pulled Factory Theatre out of the brink of closure in 1997 with $5,750 dollars of his own money and worked without a salary for ten months to ensure that the home of the Canadian playwright would continue to live on as an integral staple of Toronto’s theatre community and the Canadian theatre as a whole? That was not Ron Struys, the President of the Board, taking responsibility for the theatre’s financial turmoil; it was Ken Gass, the theatre director, who hadn’t been Artistic Director since 1980, who swooped in like a knight in shining armour and saved the day. We owe it to Ken to fight for him today.

On July 18th, 2012 Toronto-based actor David Ferry wrote an impassioned letter to “Artists Under 35” saying, “One of the things that alarms me is the relative absence of voices from the younger generation of theatre artists…ADs of project centric companies, authors, actors, dramaturgs, designers, producers…. I am not suggesting that the younger voices need to agree with Mr. Healey, Mr Walker, Mr. Moodie, Ms Stolk or Ms Gibson MacDonald and their various suggestions for action… but I am suggesting that perhaps more than any other group, you have a vital stake in what is happening and you need to express your opinions.” He was countered by Aislinn Rose at Praxis, who took the discussion in a different direction, saying that the young theatre artists are not “up in arms about the firing of one AD as you might like. It’s not because we’re apathetic, it’s because we’re busy fighting those bigger issues and making art.”

I disagree.

I think that the artists that Aislinn refers to her in her letter are the young artists who are engaged in the everyday politics of the Canadian theatre. They are the artists who are concerned about the future of Factory, and are likely the ones who have posted about the issue on Facebook, tweeted about it and gotten in discussions about it both in real life and via comments and @replies. I think that drawing a generational line between the issues that the “old farts” deem important and the issues that the young people are tackling is doing both of us a disservice. We are not the only ones who know about how repressive Equity can be, we’re not the only ones who get excited about The Wrecking Ball or upset with LuminaTO, we’re not Occupying Wall Street all by ourselves nor are we alone in our resistance of Rob Ford and Stephen Harper. We are made stronger when we are united and working together and that is what makes this theatre community great. We are lucky to have role models from across generational lines that have stood up and fought across the decades for our theatre, for their dreams, for human rights and social action and for their own integrity. You don’t have to revere anyone, but certainly we can learn from each other and help one another make the theatre in this city and this country better.

Yet, as much as I would love to believe that the artists that Aislinn refers to in her article are the majority, I think that David Ferry is right to ask why so many of the others still remain apathetic. There are a great many people in this industry whose focus never seems to shift beyond who will hire them for their next job and, while that is always an important aspect of working in the theatre, especially when one’s rent and food depend on it, the larger issues have dramatic effects on the livelihood of everyone and turning a blind eye to them is contributing to the problem. Here in Halifax I don’t know if the local theatre artists, especially those under 35, are aware that Ken has been fired from Factory. Actually, I am not entirely sure how many people know who Ken Gass is or understand the significance of Factory Theatre to Canadian theatre history. Factory Theatre is called “Home of the Canadian Playwright,” it is not called “Home of the Torontonian Playwright,” when David Ferry was addressing our generation, I don’t think he meant just those who work in downtown Toronto. Certainly I believe this should be a national issue, a national movement, and one that everyone in the Canadian theatre community should be aware of, invested in and an active part of the discussion. It’s not just about Ken Gass, this could happen to any Artistic Director at any theatre and this is our opportunity to find creative solutions to this problem.

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE THAT KEN GASS WAS FIRED?

George F. Walker has been a crusading defender of Ken Gass from the very beginning of this debacle and on July 9th he posted this on Facebook via his daughter Courtney: “It’s not easy to run the Factory. It has a very courageous but limiting mandate. Just Canadian plays. Mostly new. Six, eight, ten of them every year. No resurrecting a much loved British or American play for a little breather. Just the exhilarating slog of new playbirth. Now try to imagine putting together season after season (honouring that mandate) with mostly very good, often outstanding results. It takes a special person to do that. That person has to be adventurous, patient, supportive, humble, brave, resilient and a lot of other things. That person is not on this board. That person is not a slick/gormless opportunistic/fool or any other kind of lesser being who might apply for the job under these circumstances. So imagining that future, and the withering-on-the-vine death of the Factory soon to follow...”

I agree with his assessment of the situation. I believe that under the direction of this Board of Directors the Factory Theatre will collapse, especially since George F. Walker, Andrew Moodie and Judith Thompson have all pulled their plays from next year’s season and over 60 artists, essentially the biggest names in the Canadian theatre, have pledged to boycott the theatre both as artists and as patrons until Ken Gass returns as Artistic Director.

Factory Theatre is a massively important establishment for the Canadian theatre. Even if you’re not based in Toronto, if you have ever wanted to produce a George F. Walker play, or countless other works from the Canadian cannon from the last 40 years, there is a good chance that it was born at Factory. If you are a young playwright producing your work at Fringe Festivals and Summerworks or in the Backspace at Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre is one of the few houses whose mandate it is to continually be looking for fresh and dynamic Canadian plays to bring to a wider audience. If you live outside of Toronto, Factory Theatre is a place that will bring in eclectic work from companies across the country. Factory and Ken Gass are not at all exclusively Toronto-centric, but both are iconic and beloved institutions in that city.

Quite frankly, we cannot afford to lose Factory Theatre, especially not at a time when regional theatres are becoming more conservative or closing altogether, when the caliber of prolific output from the independent theatre communities across the country is higher than perhaps it has ever been. We are in dire need of as many theatre centers that specialize in Canadian theatre as possible to give greater life and breadth to the brilliant and inspiring work that is being created here—or else what is the point?

After what happened with the Vancouver Playhouse I think that we all would benefit from being more conscious of what is happening in the larger context of the Canadian theatre. We are all interconnected, a fact that was so apparent when the Playhouse closed as it affected a production coming from the Manitoba Theatre Centre and had consequences in the lives of a cast and crew from all across the country. We know that we are a small community of artists, we know that we travel from city to city like a band of gypsies and we know that we’re all ultimately like a lineup of dominoes, one false move and we all topple over, and yet our distance and our geography still divides us. We haven’t figured out a way to really and constantly rally together and to help one another with our specific practical problems such as this one at Factory Theatre.

The first step is for all of us to take a step backward out of the tunnel vision of our own self and what we perceive to be our little piece of the community and to begin to explore and become aware of the bigger picture that we all belong to. I agree with David Ferry, we should be talking to one another, not just our immediate colleagues, but using all the technology and social media available to us to connect to people from different cities and towns, to engage with those who are older and younger, those who are “established” and “emerging” and “submerging” and “exiled” and “fringe” and “indie” and “regional” and “maritime” and “west coast” and “prairie” and “Northern” and “Southern” and “Festival” and “island” and “ocean” and “Newfie.” I think we can really help each other. I think we can really learn from one another.

I think together we can fight for anything we believe in and win.

Today, let’s Save the Factory.    

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