Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Act Out’s final curtain

Ottawa queer amateur theatre company dims the lights

Credit: Shawn Scallen

Act Out Theatre is turning off its house lights for good. After a four-year run of amateur productions, the company is closing because of what it terms an insurmountable $15,000 debt, inconsiderate creditors and Ottawa’s queer community’s failure to fill the seats.

“It’s a shame,” says Sean Moreman, Act Out’s president. “I hope that not just people who are involved in theatre, but anyone in the gay community, sees this failure as not just the failure of one organization but of the community at large, and a bigger lack of interest that seems to be infecting all of our events.”

Moreman joined Act Out as its president in December, 2004, but was under no illusions about the $4,000 debt the company was already carrying from its production of Poor Superman in 2001.

“I just wanted to scale it back – scaled it right back down to nothing!” Moreman says bitterly. “We weren’t able to put anything on just because of the situation. We weren’t able to do anything.”

Instead of reducing the debt after Poor Superman, the three-member board racked up another $11,000 of debt with the production of Cabaret in 2004. Although a critical success, Cabaret went over budget during its two-week run at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC).

“I find the gay community in Ottawa will attend events as long as they’re a) fabulous and b) cheap – and you can’t do fabulous cheaply,” says Moreman.

But David Oiye suggests that Act Out’s productions just weren’t that fabulous.

“The criticism that I’ve heard in Toronto about the production has been well, you know, go to see something like The Laramie Project, which has a large cast, and it’s really up and down in terms of performance quality,” says the artistic director of Toronto’s legendary Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Buddies is a not-for-profit professional theatre company dedicated to promoting gay, lesbian and queer theatrical expression since 1979.

In its struggle to stay alive, Act Out, which incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in February, 2003, negotiated with its creditors. Act Out asked creditors to wait until the theatre group reorganized and could pay off small portions of each outstanding debt. The creditors agreed, until recently.

“We were sent to collections by three creditors,” Moreman recalls. “We said ‘This isn’t fair! We asked everyone to wait!’ Just because one or two people have gone and started collection proceedings, they’ll get everything they’re owed.”

The straw broke Act Out’s back and will leave its other creditors in the lurch.

George Hartsgrove, a former head of Act Out’s board, is no longer involved in the company, but shares Moreman’s sentiments about its end.

“I’m very disappointed that it’s closing down,” he says. “I really think that there is – I don’t know – I would say that there was a need for it, but it seems that there isn’t. I think it’s a shame that there isn’t a venue for the [queer] community to have their own theatre to be able to present plays by gay playwrights or performed by gay and lesbian actors and actresses.”

But Oiye says Act Out’s loss may be Ottawa’s gain.

“Not to kick a group when they’re down,” he says, “but theatre is an ever-evolving landscape. The loss of Act Out might mean that there is now room for a professional queer theatre to arrive. I would say that most larger cities could certainly use something that provides a non-mainstream view. The GCTC certainly is more challenging, but with Lorne Pardy gone now, it’s questionable whether that new artistic director will have an interest in bringing those [queer] pieces in. You guys might be a gay wasteland in one year.”

But Moreman says such a group would have a struggle to gain support from theatregoers in general. He spreads the blame for Act Out’s failure beyond the gay community to the local theatre audience at large, which has to choose from the competition.

“If there was a feeling of supporting the queer community,” Moreman says, “people would hop on the 417 or take the bus. It’s not like they’re driving to Vancouver. If it was important enough to them, they would show up no matter where they lived in town.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see Act Out again,” adds Moreman. “Why would anyone start up a company that’s saddled with debt? I hope that someone will pick up a similar concept and start fresh but learn from the mistakes of Act Out – go back to basics, put on good productions and not go overboard.”

Act Out debuted in 2001 with artistic director Arthur Jamieson at its helm, producing Hair, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, The Laramie Project and the over-budget Poor Superman before the theatre went dark for the first time in fall of 2002. In December, 2002, a core group of people representing Act Out Theatre met Jamieson in an attempt to manage the debt and restructure the group.

Some members of the queer community invested several thousand dollars but this represented only part of the outstanding debt. Hartsgrove, who sat as president of the board at the time, was quoted in Capital Xtra as saying that Act Out intended to assume responsibility for its debts. It tried to boost its membership numbers. It also set up a Christopher Raynsford Memorial Committee and made a plaque in his memory. Raynsford, a former Act Out actor, was found dead in his apartment on Dec 4, 2002.

Act Out now joins the ranks of other failed queer community organizations, such as the Making Scenes Queer Film And Video Festival, which vanished in October, 2004 along with its executive director, Dan Grummisch, amid rumours of mismanagement and debt which sources claimed was as high as $18,000.