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.
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:
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.