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culture

The Factory Theatre Boycott (And Why I’m Joining It)

If you've been having a hard time tracking the ongoing Factory Theatre crisis, here's a recap of recent developments—and why one of our own theatre critics has decided to join the boycott.

Photo by {a href=”https://secure.flickr.com/photos/35005631@N02/3529036563/”}Uncle Lynx{/a} from the {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/”}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The past few weeks have seen a number of significant developments in the ongoing drama at Factory Theatre, whose board of directors continues to ignore calls for a reconciliation with ousted artistic director and founder Ken Gass, or alternatively demands that they resign en masse over the public relations fiasco that’s resulted.

Since our interview with Gass last month, many open letters (some collected on the fledgling theatre blog Charlebois Post Toronto) have circulated online, the vast majority in support of Gass; we’ve only come across one in support of the board. As the petition calling for the board’s resignation passed 3,000 signatures, actor and director David Ferry wrote another open letter, asking why more young theatre artists weren’t speaking out against what he saw as an issue “of ownership of voice through the determination of how our institutions are run.”

Ferry’s letter sparked off waves of arguments, though the discussion devolved somewhat into a generalized debate about theatre practices in Canada. The debate did, however, serve to galvanize a number of established members of the theatre community into organizing a next step in the protest. In a full page ad printed in the July 26 edition of NOW Magazine, 66 prominent names in Canadian theatre were attached to a boycott notice of Factory Theatre.

“We urge the board to reinstate Mr. Gass immediately,” reads the notice, “and to enter into meaningful negotiation to resolve the crisis that led to his firing.” Among the high profile playwrights who have signed it: Michael Healey, who had a recent falling out of his own with Tarragon Theatre; Andrew Moodie, who’d already announced his personal boycott of Factory Theatre over the firing of Gass; and George F. Walker and Judith Thompson, both of whom had new work scheduled to premiere in Factory’s 2012–2013 five-play season.

Since the boycott was announced, the board of directors and Gass have released new statements, with both parties going into the minutia of their conflicting plans for renovations to the rambling heritage property at Bathurst and Adelaide—the apparent cause of their conflict. These he-said/they-said arguments, while they may provide some context as to what lead to Gass’ termination without cause, are what the board should be discussing with Gass over a table with a mediator present, rather than in the court of public opinion. (Gass says he repeatedly asked for outside mediation before his dismissal, an option he says the board rejected, suggesting instead that mediation be conducted by one of their own members.)

The board of directors did acknowledge the public outcry in their most recent statement—by accusing those participating in the boycott of “harassment of artists.” Written primarily by board chair Ron Struys, Gass is also accused of hypocrisy in the statement. It quotes from a comment he made on Torontoist: “I just want to make clear, I would NEVER ask artists to pull their work from the season, no matter who is running the theatre… artists simply need the work.”

“The boycott and harassment of artists needs to stop,” proclaims the board’s latest statement. But the board is largely responsible for the devolving state of affairs. The board is composed of volunteers, seemingly answerable to no one, and none of them are theatre artists themselves—a sticking point with many of the boycott signatories. (The sole theatre artist on the board, designer Shawn Kerwin, was not informed of the meetings and decision to terminate Gass, and subsequently resigned.) Many artists, as well as Factory staffers, do stand to suffer collateral damage from the boycott, losing employment and professional opportunities, but the organizers see it as the only avenue available to them to affect a board that has so far been unwilling to engage meaningfully with its critics and the theatre community at large.

An artist's rendering of the Factory Theatre renovations proposed by Ken Gass, based on designs by architect Phil Goldsmith.

While it would be a mistake to couch this as an artist versus non-artist conflict, many of those who have chosen to participate in the boycott are risking (and choosing) unemployment over this issue; they are, to put it bluntly, putting their money where their mouths are. The board members are all professionals in unrelated fields; while they have, by Gass’ own admission, dedicated years of volunteer work to Factory as an institution, they cannot make that same claim. And in contrast to the board’s vilifying of those who have joined the boycott, even the most outspoken boycott supporters (actor Tony Nappo, for instance) have taken pains to clarify that there should not be any blacklisting of theatre artists who choose not to join the boycott.

As to the board’s claims that Gass is being hypocritical, there is no established link between Gass and the boycott. (While the initial petition was started by Gass’ son, film director Ed Gass-Donnelly, he was not a founding signatory to the boycott.) Indeed, Gass also stated in his Torontoist comment: “There are many arenas of protest other than ones that will impact on the financial welfare of artists.” He has already made clear one of the arenas he was referring to, by beginning legal proceedings against the board for wrongful dismissal.

What’s becoming increasingly clear about this situation is that the continued presence of the current board of directors—a board unwilling to address the concerns of over 4,200 petitioners (at last count), or a vocal contingent of Factory artists past and present—will inflict serious damage on the Factory Theatre and its role in Toronto’s theatre community. Struys and his fellow members may have sincerely believed their actions in firing Gass were in Factory Theatre’s best interests, but it’s impossible to look at the fallout and see it in hindsight as anything but a grievous mistake, especially considering how badly the public outcry has been handled. If the board is sincere in their dedication to Factory as an institution, it’s up to them to recognize that some accommodation needs to be made with Gass; if they can’t do so, then they should step down for the good of the theatre, and let a new board tackle the crisis with a cleaner slate.

By the time this is published, this writer will have joined the boycott. As with the other signatories, he does so without judging peers who choose not to. Torontoist may choose to send reviewers to Factory Theatre’s 2012–2013 season (such as it is)—Steve Fisher just won’t be one of them. This boycott extends to Factory Theatre the company, but not Factory Theatre as a venue; the upcoming SummerWorks festival, for instance, will not be included in any boycott.

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