Late last week, news broke that Ken Gass, who founded Factory Theatre and returned to save it decades later, had been summarily fired by its current board of directors. We spoke to the director and producer about the conflict that led to his dismissal, and the firestorm it's ignited.
While Ken Gass is still understandably shocked at having had to clear out his desk and being barred from the premises of Factory Theatre, which he helped build and nurture over a quarter century, he’s reasonably sure of the reasons for his dismissal.
In October 2011, a capital renovations grant that Gass had written on Factory’s behalf—”a difficult one, because we didn’t quite qualify for its criteria”—was approved. That and several smaller grants put over $425,000 in a coffer for renovations. “For me, in September, I thought it was great news,” says Gass. “We could use that, leverage a line of credit, apply to the federal government for additional money—basically, take the first step toward our long-range plan, a $12 million renovation for the whole building.” (The large heritage property at Bathurst and Adelaide has long required significant upgrades.)
But it became apparent that the board had different ideas about how the money should be spent, and the scope of renovations they felt were appropriate. “The board felt it needed to take control of all capital development,” says Gass, which worried him, as he didn’t think they’d looked closely at the renovation and architectural plans that had been drawn up in 2002–03, and revamped by Gass and others in 2008–09.
“It became clear that there was an impasse between myself and members of the board,” says Gass, regarding the scope of renovations. “They refused to budge an inch, or go to arbitration. They ignored that suggestion for months, then agreed to it, then backed away, saying there wasn’t enough ‘common ground’ for arbitration.” (While we reached out to Factory Theatre last week, no board representative was available to speak to us as of press time.)
This is all conjecture on Gass’s part, of course; technically, he was fired without cause. The board made no mention of any issues with the theatre’s financial or artistic status quo when they dismissed him. “I have to be held accountable, of course,” says Gass. “The budgets must more or less balance, the programming must prove its relevance to the community, you have to get audiences in, etc. And there are unfortunate circumstances where someone’s run a theatre too long, and it needs renewal. But I don’t think that’s the situation here; the board made none of those arguments—because they knew they weren’t supportable.”
Many members of the theatre community agree. Over the weekend more than 2,000 people signed a petition (started by Gass’s son, film director Ed Gass-Donnelly) calling for the board’s resignation. Noted playwrights like George F. Walker and Andrew Moodie have publicly stated they will not work with Factory’s current board. Companies who had booked the theatre for rentals have begun pulling out, and, Gass told us, “I’ve had calls from major donors, who’ve said this is a big issue for them, too.”
The reason for the outcry, beyond the startling circumstances regarding his dismissal, is that, for many people, Gass is Factory Theatre. He founded the company in 1970 and ran it for a decade before moving on to other work in the theatre industry. He returned in 1996 when Factory stood on the brink of insolvency, injecting $5,000 of his own money and another 15 years of work, both artistic and logistic. “It’s never been just a job. The physical work of restoring the theatre—working with volunteer committees, painting, roofing…. I’m a farm boy at heart, so I love physical labour, it grounds me. I have so much respect for everyone who works at the theatre—it’s a collective enterprise, and there isn’t a job at the theatre I haven’t done.”
Gass won’t comment negatively on any individual members of the board, but there’s definitely more to the story than anyone’s saying publicly. “They’re volunteers, bright people who believe in theatre. But there is a strange thing that happens in a group dynamic where certain people decide they hold power, and think they always know best.”
People following the drama on social media have also noted that Factory’s current board president, real estate agent Ron Struys, was the board director when the Toronto Community Housing Board resigned en masse over a power struggle with the mayor last year, after a damning auditor general report detailing “inappropriate spending and wasteful procurement practices.” Gass also found himself informing one board member, Shawn Kerwin, about his dismissal—she hadn’t been notified of the meeting in advance.
A press release issued by Factory Theatre last Thursday (hours after the story broke on the Toronto Star) stated that they extended the offer of an artistic director emeritus position to Gass, which he turned down immediately. “It would have been a minute fraction of my current salary,” Gass says, “and I would have been expected to do fundraising”—something for which the current board has not distinguished itself (as evidenced by the absence of a fundraising gala, as is Factory’s usual tradition). As Gass points out, “At the Tarragon Theatre, it’s made clear that board members are expected to bring in the season’s sponsors, for instance.”
With Toronto’s theatre industry gathering at tonight’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards, chatter about the ongoing situation between Factory Theatre and Gass is likely to be on everyone’s lips. While Gass admits he’s been gratified at the outpouring of support from members of the theatre community, he’s not making any concrete plans just yet. “I don’t want to be waiting in the wings for change. If circumstances change—well, I wouldn’t walk away lightly from a quarter century of work. I would like to be involved in the future of the theatre. And despite this outcome, it feels good to have this out in the open, because it’s been a back-room drama until now.” In what may well prove to be a significant understatement, he adds: “They’ve obviously misjudged this community. I think they will have challenges moving forward.”
This article originally misspelled Andrew Moodie’s last name; the spelling has now been corrected.