At a time when theatre companies are struggling and audiences are dwindling, how can the art feel supported when its container can barely hold itself together?
Clichés don’t always accurately reflect reality, but it’s certainly true that the Toronto International Film Festival’s home is where the heart is. Since it landed at the northwest corner of King and John in 2010, the TIFF Bell Lightbox has been the epicentre of the annual 11-day onslaught of high-profile screenings and star-studded red carpets. But for the other 354 days of the year, the Lightbox is (relatively) free of lineups, paparazzi, and black SUVs, serving instead as a refuge for Toronto film fans who crave cinematic magic.
With a year-long program of film-related art exhibits, mini-festivals, guest speakers, and workshops inside a gleaming facility in the downtown core, the Lightbox seems to have accomplished the elusive goal of virtually every arts organization: to unite Torontonians of diverse cultures, ages, and tastes through an art form. It’s no surprise that this edifice inspired Ken Gass, the former artistic director of Factory Theatre, to dream up “an ideal environment for contemporary Canadian theatre.” His ambitious plan involved a $14-million renovation of Factory Theatre’s historical building at Adelaide and Bathurst to create larger theatres, a rehearsal hall, workshop, café, and a glass lobby.
He described his vision for the institution in “Why I was fired from Factory Theatre,” an open letter posted at savethefactory.ca, in which Gass explained how his dogged fight against a board of directors daunted by the proposed fundraising requirements ultimately ended his tenure at the company he founded in 1970. Gass’s abrupt dismissal caused a stir among actors, directors, playwrights, and designers across the country, over 4,000 of whom have signed an online petition pledging to boycott the theatre until Gass is reinstated and the board resigns. As a result, there’s a rather obvious void in Toronto’s 2012/2013 theatre season, which, like TIFF Festival (albeit with far less fanfare), kicks off this week.
The boycott of an artistic pillar like Factory is a drastic measure, but for Judith Thompson, George F. Walker, and Michel Marc Bouchard, all of whom have pulled their plays from the theatre’s lineup, it’s a necessary gesture of respect for the man who founded the company, ran it for over 25 years, and once pulled it back from the brink of bankruptcy with funds from his own pocket. Like most of their peers, these artists take issue with the treatment of Gass himself. But few have commented on what else we lost when Gass got the boot: his vision for a community hub.
Technically, a theatre is a box made of cement, wood, brick, and electrical wiring. Of course, symbolically, it’s much greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a permanent structure that legitimizes the work of a group of creators as being valuable to society. That’s what the theatres born out of the Canadian cultural push of the 1970s, like Factory and Passe Muraille, meant to artists at the time, when theatre was just emerging as a legitimate industry. Over 40 years later, the industry has changed, but the buildings have not. The Gass/Factory conflict has simply brought new attention to the reality that Canadian theatres are in disrepair.
An annual report from TIFF cites smaller than expected crowds at the Lightbox in 2011, its first full year of operations. Clearly, such lofty visions need time to get off the ground. It’s easy to fall victim to the edifice complex, believing shiny things will suddenly turn every Torontonian into an art lover. These are undoubtedly the same reservations that Factory board members expressed when Gass was championing his vision—they would have had to raise 40 times the average yearly amount of funds with no guaranteed immediate returns.
Gass was unusual among artistic directors, most of whom are (understandably) more willing to spend their limited funds on the art, not the building. Meanwhile, there’s also a tendency to romanticize the idea of watching the country’s greatest dramatists perform inside theatres with creaking aisles and plastic seats. But a decaying structure can have a destructive impact on the community’s general well-being. At a time when companies are struggling and audiences are dwindling, how can the art feel supported when its container can barely hold itself together? A problem that theatre-makers face is that many see Canadian theatre as unapproachable and isolating. A home, by definition, should be the polar opposite. And with Ken Gass no longer at the Factory, the search is now on for a new heart.