2012 Villain: Factory Theatre's Board of Directors
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2012 Villain: Factory Theatre’s Board of Directors

Nominated for: losing their community's trust.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

The most divisive scandal in Toronto’s offstage drama this year was the sudden firing of Factory Theatre‘s founder, Ken Gass, by the theatre’s board of directors, over a disagreement regarding renovations to the stately but crumbling heritage property at Adelaide and Bathurst.

Gass’ calls for mediation were ignored by the board. Outcry over the incident included two playwrights withdrawing their productions; a petition signed by more than 4,000 people; and a boycott (which—disclosure—I have endorsed) organized by some of Canada’s most prominent theatre artists, including Gordon Pinsent, Martha Henry, and Atom Egoyan.

It wasn’t until a third playwright in Factory’s scheduled season pulled his play in disgust over the situation that the board agreed to mediated talks with Gass. But their announced appointment of two interim artistic directors two days prior to the first meeting made it obvious they didn’t intend to bargain in good faith.

Many in the theatre community speculated that the board members’ truculent behaviour was tied to their own backgrounds and the value of the property (president Ron Struys and several key members are real estate professionals). As heritage building advocate Margie Zeidler wrote about this situation: “Real estate people will tend to view the world in terms of realizing development value…rather than in terms of cultural or heritage legacy.” Should Factory’s woes worsen, the sale of the building and the theatre’s relocation may seem a more viable option to this board than preserving the heritage property—and the interests and views of the community could once again be ignored.

The Factory crisis highlights a serious issue that extends beyond just that company: at many cultural institutions, a group of unelected volunteers can turf the financially and artistically successful founder, and ignore a sustained outcry from the community, without any apparent avenue for redress. Readers of the Praxis Theatre blog had an intense debate on the disenfranchisement of artists from their institutions; so far, there’s no obvious solution.

The situation at Factory isn’t yet unsalvageable. Interim artistic directors Nina Lee Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams are both highly respected theatre creators with longstanding ties to Factory. And Gass has made it clear he now has no intention of returning to Factory. (He recently announced the relaunch of Canadian Rep Theatre, the company he put aside in the 1990s to return to Factory.)

But so long as the current board remains entrenched at Factory, a cloud will hang over the theatre. While the board members may have felt they were acting in Factory Theatre’s best interests in dispensing with Gass over his arguably overambitious renovation plans, their atrocious handling of the public fallout has made their continued presence at Factory toxic; to say they’ve lost the trust of the theatre community is an understatement. It’s high time for the board members who engineered Gass’ dismissal to step down and clear the way for a new group of volunteers, who may be able to repair the damage.

See the other nominees in the Culture and Sports category:

Margaret Wente

Plagiarism, and laziness of epic proportions.
  NHL Lockout

Taking hockey away from us.
  NFB Funding Cuts

Forcing the Mediatheque closure.

John Farrell

Checking out even before he left the team.
  CBC Funding Cuts

Weakening one of our national institutions.
  Sedwick Hill

For the untimely death of the Toronto Underground Cinema.

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