Thursday, June 28, 2012

Who's in Charge Here? Ken Gass and Board of The Factory Theatre

I am not going to review anything in this week's blog post.  I am going to weigh in on the Factory Theatre debacle on this Canada Day weekend.

Last Wednesday night, the  Factory Theatre's board of directors decided to oust the theatre's long-serving and founding artistic director Ken Gass.  Mr. Gass created the Factory Theatre in 1970 to produce Canadian plays.

The link below will take you to the Factory Theatre's webpage.  A link to the board's rationalization for this decision is on the left hand side of the page, appropriately:

A petition signed by close to 2500 members of the theatre community is currently in circulation asking the board to reinstate Ken Gass or to resign.  Many prominent members of the arts community  have signed including George F. Walker who pulled his play from the Factory's upcoming season in protest.

I signed and here's my reason why.

I loved some things I saw at The Factory this season ( HIS GREATNESS was outstanding) was less keen on others (The REZ SISTERS ) but that could fairly be said of most of the theatre companies in town that mount a season.  Some stuff works better than other stuff. Not liking a production is no reason to fire the Artistic Director of a theatre that runs in the black and fulfills its mandate as the Factory has done under Mr. Gass's stewardship.

Apparently the board has dismissed Mr. Gass over a debate about the direction and cost of needed renovations of the Factory Theatre building.

The theatre needs work and I speak as someone who has performed there and produced there during the Fringe in 2007 and again in 2009.

As a board member, and I have been a board member as well as a director of development and a general manager of of more than one arts organizations, it is the board's job to help the staff manage the organization, to help raise money for the organization, to ensure the company's long-range goals and objectives are being achieved in the best way possible and to advise the artistic staff in areas where they, the board members, have special skills and expertise.  This is why many arts boards try to have one accountant and a lawyer:  to help with legal and accounting matters.

As a board member, one can have legitimate concerns about the organization incurring debt and about board liability for debt.  Most larger incorporated arts organizations protect the board from certain liabilities with insurance.

If you would like to be better informed about rules and regulations governing non-profit boards, this link is very useful:

Interestingly, according to the information provided above, one of the instances in which a board or its members can be sued and held liable in a non-profit is wrongful dismissal.

It is my understanding, that in no small part thanks to Mr. Gass, who returned to the Factory in 1996 when it was in serious hot water and rescued the place from collapse with $5000 of his own money, The Factory now owns the building it is housed in, a building and a piece of property worth millions of dollars.

This is no small achievement.  Further, The Factory is in the enviable position of having this valuable land and building to leverage when it needs to go for the financing of things like renovations. With the current low mortgage rates and the value of real estate in that neighbourhood, this is a great position to be in.

The board of the theatre would need to be pathetically risk-averse to not support needed major renovations at this time, given the Factory's situation with respect to the value of its real estate assets.

The Factory could mortgage its building to renovate and then fundraise money to pay off that debt.  The renovations would enhance the value of the property and enhanced facilities would generate more revenue in rentals and from a proposed restaurant.  How often have I wished I could get actual food in a theatre before a show when I've rushed there from work.

In firing Mr. Gass without cause, the board has quite possibly opened the theatre up to being sued for wrongful dismissal. If Mr. Gass is not in breach of his employment contract with the theatre, assuming he had one,  he may well be in a position to sue the board, although given his unswerving devotion to the place, he's unlikely to do so.  Boards are sometimes legally indemnified against liability but this is not always the case.  It likely they counted on Mr. Gass' finer feelings protecting them from the suit they deserve.

Mr. Gass offered to have a mediator come in and negotiate.  The board refused.  This is like an abusive, controlling spouse who refuses to go to twelve-step or see a therapist.  In the face of their shabby treatment, trying to pretend they weren't firing him by fobbing him off with some token "emeritus" appointment, Mr. Gass quite reasonably took the high road and the door.

Tort issues aside, the Factory board's conduct last week has damaged their credibility in the arts community beyond repair.  They have lost the community's respect and trust. 

The board is guilty of mismanagement and abuse of power and they must be held to account.

As Richard Ouzounian pointed out in his article in The Toronto Star earlier this week, government funders, not the board provide the aggregate of the Factory Theatre's funding.  Since no one else can or will, the funders need to force the board to comport themselves in a responsible fashion.

Mr. Gass should be reinstated and as he proposed, a mediator should be imposed on the organization by the funders.  The Chair of the Board and the members who decided to fire Mr. Gass without valid cause for dismissal should step down and be replaced by people who shares the artistic community's support of Mr. Gass and the audience's support of Mr. Gass and his vision for the future of the Factory. He's done a pretty good job so far which is more than I can say for the board.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Collective Consciousness: The Wrecking Ball and The Encampment

All art requires at least two people:  someone to make it and someone to see it.  My beloved ex John Huston used to say "without an audience, actors are just lonely people in a room, talking to themselves."

This week, my experiences as a spectator have been focused on two acts of creation that took many artists working collaboratively to bring to them to life.

The first was THE WRECKING BALL which, in this installment, took place in Toronto at the Theatre Centre.  It was a sweltering plus 35 outside and the theatre was packed to capacity.

Small wonder:  Brad Fraser, Jason Sherman, Djanet Sears and Cliff Cardinal among others wrote blistering political satire about incendiary issues so current it felt like eavesdropping on a backroom - or bedroom, in some cases, conversation. Censorship was a focus of much of the work, not surprising given recent events in the Toronto theatre community, particularly Michael Healey's recent departure from The Tarragon Theatre over his political satire PROUD.

The evening was a benefit for the Actors' Fund of Canada as well as the closing night of the Edward Bond Festival.  Bond himself was in attendance and read poetry he had written especially for the occasion.  It was a fitting tribute for a man whose career as a playwright never veered far from political controversy and a very exciting night of theatre.

This past weekend, I visited THE ENCAMPMENT at Fort York.  The collaboration was devised by Tom Sokolowski and Jenny-Anne McCowan, who put 200 tents and more than 200 artists together to share stories from 200 people who lived through or died during the War of 1812.

The show is open from 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm until today, June 24th.  I spent two evenings there this weekend with my friend Alex.  As the sun set, the sky turned pink, then red, the quarter moon rose and slid behind the clouds and darkness descended, we went from seeing the exhibit in daylight to experiencing it by the light of Coleman lamps under a night sky. As we stood on the ramparts of the old fort beneath the stars, we could feel the heat of the sun held in the stones as we looked out over the field of white, glowing tents.

"Dear Captain, I will marry you as long as there is enough of your body remaining to house your soul."
A wedding dress hangs in a spider's web with this love letter at the door of Anne Prevost's tent.

Two hundred years ago, Canada was a colony, not a country.  Americans, British subjects and Mohawk Indians owned African slaves and slavery was legal, an awful fact brought vividly to life in several of the exhibits. An account of three men 'subduing" a woman who had tried to escape her awful fate, dragging her into a boat and taking her to be auctioned was horrifying for its straightforward accounting.

There were public duels.  There was bravery and gallantry in battle and tragic loss. There was also treason which garnered brutal retribution from the State.  An alcoholic husband murdered his wife and five of their children in the family bed, I learned in a tent hung with blood stained sheets.  He was hanged.  There was fair commerce and fraud, social climbing and gossip.  There was love and there was loss and there were letters, dozens and dozens of letters:  between sons and mothers, between sweethearts and spouses and outraged editorials in newspapers.  No text or emails here:  letters were written on paper by hand and delivered by hand, often taking months to arrive at their destinations.

In one tent: Surrender:  a low white table with that word writ large in red and seven jars each labeled for something surrendered in a lost battle: pride, hope, respect, love.  You knelt before it like an altar and bowed your head to read, in supplication, on a tiny card suspended above it of the loss of a battle by a General who signed the treaty forfeiting the land he loved at his own kitchen table.  We were invited to write on a blank card and surrender a personal loss to one of the jars. My friend and I were both overcome with emotion.

Alexander Wood, a judge in Upper Canada, I learned, inspected men's genitals for scratches in search of a rapist and was accused of being a "Molly"a 19th century pejorative for a homosexual man, for his efforts to get a woman justice. Wood was gay and Toronto's thriving gay community will celebrate Pride next weekend on his former tract of land.

The installation was a part of the Luminato Festival as well as a commemoration in honour of the bicentenary of the War of 1812.  It was an experience of history inventively imagined, deeply felt and writ large.  Tonight is the final night sadly.  If you have a chance, by all means go.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hands of Time and the Positions of the Heart

I have been in Ottawa for a few days at Canada Dance, The National Gallery and The Ottawa Fringe.

The trip included perfect summer weather and a stay with my friends Barb Popel and Brian Carroll and their cat Zorro, who kindly shared his library sofa bed with me. I had morning coffee while fat pollen coated bees sated their industriousness in beds of lavender and bee balm.

After dinner and wine with my lovely friends ( planked coq au vin!)  I headed off to the National Arts Centre to watch Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers perform 97 POSITIONS OF THE HEART, a lyrical and poetic theatre/dance hybrid based on the life and work of writer and free spirit Elizabeth Smart.

Smart lavished her love and devotion on British poet George Barker and bore four children by him out of wedlock at a time when that was seen as disgraceful. Smart could not be disgraced. She gave the feckless and philandering Barker a dog's loyalty and lived a dog's life in return. She made extraordinary art out of this self-imposed turmoil and eventually came to realize you don't need a bad boyfriend to have decent material for a good poem.

Both dance and text were sensitively and passionately performed by the company who conveyed the emotional intensity and the lyricism of both Jaik Josephson's writing and artistic director Brent Lott's choreography.  Dean Cowieson's lovely lighting and simple but effective design supported the work without getting in the way. Rachel Brown who founded the company and died this past week would have been proud of Lott and the fine dancers who carried on the company's tradition of ground-breaking work in fine style despite her sad loss.

The next day, I went to the National Gallery of Canada. I have made a summer pilgrimage there most years since the new building opened with a Degas retrospective more than 2 decades ago.

This summer, the blockbuster show is VAN GOGH UP CLOSE, a look at his landscape and flower paintings and the influences of Japanese printmaking and the then-new medium of photography on his work. I had last seen Van Gogh in Paris at the Musee D'Orsay.  The Ottawa show is well-curated and the paintings were beautiful.  I enjoyed the Japanese prints and marvelled at the early nature photography. On the downside, for $25 there wasn't a ton of work on display and the exit through the gift shop was just disturbing when I thought for even a minute about Van Gogh's life and walked past nasty 3D postcards (Why 3D? why?) and $48 starry night t-shirts. I escaped the wave of nausea that always hits me when I see great art reduced to vulgar hucksterism and retreated to THE CLOCK.

I first heard about this work of art from a filmmaker friend who was in Venice during the Biennale this fall.  He gushed over it and he is not a gushy guy.

British modern artist Christian Marclay won the Golden Lion, awarded to the best artist  at the Venice Biennale for this piece and it is mesmerizing: extraordinarily, magically, incredibly wonderful.

Marclay and his team have created a 24 hour clock, run in real time, comprised of clips from hundreds of films and a few television programs. The soundtrack is not only that of the film clips but a carefully orchestrated use of other sound to pull you through the visual edits.  I saw half an hour in two 15 minute segments and I had to tear myself away.  Every human emotion passed before my eyes while the clock ticked on. Moments I had forgotten about in old movies I adore (Audrey Hepburn at the train station in SABRINA, Humphrey Bogart getting the letter in the rain from CASABLANCA, Michael Douglas as a psychiatrist) washed over me.  It make me think: about how time crawls and races in life, about those frozen moments where a few seconds can feel like an eternity, about how you get lost in a film in a way you get lost in few other experiences.

THE CLOCK is coming to Toronto to the Power Plant this fall.  I will be there to see as much of it as possible.  It was astonishingly fantastic.

I then headed over to the Ottawa Fringe Beer Tent, had my first beer tent dinner of the season, chatted with old friends and had moments where I was pulled back in time:  thinking about other years I had been in this place with these people and the many adventures, joys and sorrows we had shared. Even though I am taking this season off to research a new show, the Fringe still feels like my artistic home.  My fellow Fringers:  artists, administrators, technicians, staff, volunteers, billets, critics and dedicated audience members have become my family on the road.  It is a room in which I feel accepted, happy and safe. To work there had been a privilege and being part of that community always makes me feel richly blessed.

My first show of the year was Katherine Glover's DEAD WRONG.  I met the Minneapolis based Glover last year when she toured BURNING BROTHELS about a legal whore house in the state of Nevada.  In addition to performing, Glover is a professional journalist and her excellent research and story-telling skills were on display in her new show.  Based on several true stories, Glover focuses on a wrongful conviction case of rape. She takes no easy outs and offers no pat solutions.  It was a one-two punch of powerful and thought-provoking story-telling and absolutely worth seeing.

I then headed off to see a late-night cabaret.  POLLUX DANCE did a preview of HETROLLECTUAL ( love and other dumb ideas) that was wonderfully funny, well-performed and very accessible, magician Christopher Bange pulled out his audience engaging suitcase of tricks and LOST BEAR creator (and former G-MAN) Ray Besarah hosted the antics and did a great bit getting pointers from the audience on improving his fliering technique.

I then drove home with Barb and Brian who are both reviewing for FULLY FRINGED and stayed up burning the midnight oil to get their reviews done for the morning.

My Ottawa time ended with a lazy morning in the kitchen, discussing what we'd all seen the night before and then lunch and a walk around Dow's Lake before I went to catch my train.  My only regret was not adding one more night to my trip.

Earlier this week I lost a cousin: he died by a misadventure but he had struggled with mental illness for a very long time.  I thought about how time had been stolen from him by illness and then by accident. A week like this made me think hard about how much people lose when their time here is up.

In the end, time is really all we've got. My time this week was magical and God willing, it's not over yet.  Have a great rest of the week and if you're in Ottawa, check out the Fringe Festival and the National Gallery.  It's time well spent.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Public Protests and Prizes and the Festival Season

It's June in Toronto.  The roses and the honeysuckle are in bloom along with the peonies.  The garden at my domicile is an explosion of colour and fragrance in a week when we've had rainbows after a tempest, a Transit of Venus and a full moon. Wonder and beauty abound at every turn.

This week also brought a flurry of awards nominations.  The Dora Mavor Moore Award nominees for theatre presented in Toronto were announced this week, as well as the nominees for the Canadian Comedy Awards.

It was exciting to see a few friends get nominated for great work.  Pamela Sinha for CRASH, Amy Lee and Heather Marie Annis for MORRO and JASP: GO BAKE YOURSELF and Jim Mezon for his riveting performance as Mark Rothko in RED.  A lot of women were nominated for writing, acting and directing as well as performing and that was gratifying. I'm hoping the award nomination for THE PENELOPIAD means the company will get a remount next season.

There are always a few surprises (really? a jury thought THAT deserved a prize?) and great shows that don't clock onto the radar. I SEND YOU THIS CADMIUM RED did not receive a nomination for best production.  I certainly thought it was one of the best shows I saw onstage this season.

The festival seasons in both theatre and film are in full swing.  The Fringe circuit has begun its tour across the country.  Next week I'll be in Ottawa for the end of Canada Dance, the largest dance festival in the country and the start of the Ottawa Fringe. Here in Toronto, Luminato has begun, with an amazing line-up of theatre and and free, live, outdoor concerts.

On the film side, festival season has begun both here, and abroad with Cannes last month and in Toronto with Hot Docs and this week, the World Wide Festival of Short Films presented by the Canadian Film Centre.

Tonight I biked over to the newly renovated Bloor Cinema to see a screening called "War What's It Good For?" centred around themes of war and its effects. There was documentary, drama, animation and montages of  music and images mostly on the subject of war and its effects on the lives of ordinary people.

I was fascinated by the way the subjects in the films, whether soldiers, citizens, domestic animals or the land itself were mostly seen by the filmmakers as victims or observers rather than actors in their own dramas.

Only two directors saw their human characters as having conscious choice or free will.  Andrew Kelm's GOLDILOCKS NATION used the famous fairytale as a jumping off point to have psychologist June Lawson talk about an American culture of entitlement and a refusal to grow up as a justification for invading other people's houses (or countries for that matter) and taking their stuff. In PASSING THROUGH THE NIGHT (one of my favourites of the program)  the Slovakian filmmaker used a bus full of animals: actors in mask, with human clothes and fur heads and two very human hunters to look at complicity, victims and predators.

BELLUM showed two Danish soldiers waiting to go away to a war zone.  It depicts a night of nihilistic debauchery and an effort to drown terror of the impending atrocities with sex and drink by two young men with bleak prospects but with no acknowledgement that the characters had other choices available.

I often hear the phrase "the theatre of war". We make heroes of soldiers who volunteer for service and indeed many are heroic. Of course wars everywhere are rife with hapless victims of conflicts not of their choosing.

For those who sign up to serve in the military, being an actor in a theatre of war is a conscious choice. Not one film last night spoke about conscientious objection or pacifism as a real choice in the face of violent conflict.

Our government chose to send troops in to support the American invasion of Iraq after 9/11.  Canada has consciously had voluntary troops in Afghanistan for over a decade. We don't have conscription at present.  All of those who serve have volunteered to do so.

I have seen student protests in the streets in both Montreal and Toronto this week, under heavy police escort.  I believe it is right to peacefully protest incursions on free speech in our democracy.   I also believe we as a society need to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and own when and where, of our own free will,  we have directed our feet on a course of action that fails to respect the rights of others.

Our continued oil dependence causes environmental degradation and yes, war, both here and abroad. Our insistence on living at an unsupportable standard, far beyond our means and encouraging global aspiration to a similar standard of living is taxing the planet and throwing the global economy into chaos. It is also bringing misery to sweatshop workers around the world making stuff most of us could well live without.  To pretend we have no choice in this is false.  We are actors in this as much as we are victims.

The last film of the 90 minute short program had a haunting image near the end:  the wolves were howling at the door as a child tried to protect his senile grandmother from the encroaching onslaught as they sat in front a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Eve waiting for guests who would not come. The house is in an abandoned American suburb. The former haven has become an abandoned dystopia.

I thought of all those images of street after street of abandoned homes in cities where work has dried up and real estate is under water in the U.S.  When mortgage interest has usually hovered around 10% who in their right mind buys a house if they can only afford to live in it if the debt interest remains at 2%?  Yes banks are partially to blame.  So is our culture of bottomless entitlement.

Please go distract yourself from the grim news about horrible crime, war and economic crisis that has dominated public discourse this week by enjoying the beautiful weather and a festival near you.  You're certain to see some great work and you'll be making a conscious decision to support your local arts community.  If you walk, ride your bike, car pool or take public transit you'll be burning less oil and helping the environment.

I'll bring you some musings on the start of my summer festival going next week.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Send in the Clowns

Gentle Readers,

I am sorry to have missed you last week.  Moving really cramps a girl's style.

This weekend, one of my favourite events on the theatre calendar takes place:  The Toronto Festival of Clowns

Last night I attended the opening cabaret:  The Red Nose District.  This year, the theme was Apocalypse.  Hosted by the ever-delightful Morro and Jasp, people were invited to bring canned goods so we could hole up for the end of the world in the Pia Bouman Studio Theatre.

Last night all of the clowns worked  " in nose" that is, wearing the traditional red nose we associate with circus clowns.  This style of clown work owes as much  to opera and commedia de'arte  as it does to circus.

Like opera singers, dogs and children, clowns wear their hearts on their sleeves.  A great clown performance is a moment of emotional transcendence.

There was a broad range of fine, engaging character work last night:  Mullet, the black nosed zombie clown with the punk/goth aesthetic and the poet's heart, Moo, who got the audience to help him decorate for the end of the world, Janet Cardinal who gave "desperate housewife" a whole new meaning, Rocket and Sheshells who engaged in a completely endearing  battle of the sexes over sofa supremacy, Pluk and a mad cheerleader with a Latino disco dance partner both did completely different turns taking food hoarding to new levels of hilarity and Botchie Bobbie invited the audience to help her take the masturbatory aspects of the drum solo to new heights. There were a few characters, Princess Penelope and Jasp who wanted to lose their virginity before the world came to an end. Jasp was more controlled about the whole thing, but Princess thought the world might end before she found true love.

In the end, God - an elderly lady who looked like a cross between Queen Elizabeth and the Statue of Liberty put the Rapture on hold with a Swingline can-opener (you had to be there) and singing, dancing, hugging, and the consumption of junk food ensued.  It was the most fun I've had in  a theatre in quite a while. I went home to my sunny yellow sheets and slept in my happy place.

There are several full-length clown shows this weekend as well as a number of cabarets.  Park your preconceived notions about bad birthday clowns and go see some excellent theatre.  The festival runs all weekend and the link above will get you to the schedule of performances.