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Toto Too reshuffles after board resignations, announces new season

Theatre troupe has new logo, new look and a new message: we are back on track

After finishing its third full season, Toto Too faced resignations from two board members and the company’s artistic director— a split everyone agrees amounts to diverging visions for the future of Toto Too.

Board members Nancy Clue and Denis Schryburt, and board member/artistic director Lawrence Aronovitch have stepped down. Meanwhile, the group’s logo and name have changed and the new board has already scheduled three plays for the new season.

Toto Too’s board has always been relatively small, usually just four or five members. Their board is down to three: Mark Webster, Marc Barrette and David Ferguson, who is returning after a year-long hiatus from the board.

The last board meeting was held on March 27, when members met to give a post-mortem on the last play and to plan for the next season. Although Aronovitch, Clue and Webster all proposed plays for the next season, nothing was decided. The board left with the understanding that they would meet again to continue with the selection.

They never did  — instead the board fractured. On April 7 Webster sent out a press release announcing the news seasons plays: Kilt, Martin Yesterday and Happy.

Since Toto Too’s inaugural play in 2007, the company has built up a core audience, attracted annual advertisers and has highlighted Canadian playwrighting. It also took a major step in 2008 by selecting Lawrence Aronovitch to be the company’s artistic director.

Under Aronovitch’s guidance, Toto Too produced four pieces, instead of the usual three, including Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play directed by Janne Cleveland that highlighted transgender issues and, for the first time in the theatre’s short history, had more women on stage than men.

“I had a number of people come to me during and after Jimmy Dean — audience members — to say that they were delighted to see that there was an expansion of the mandate,” says Cleveland.

Aronovitch was approached by Cleveland to produce Jimmy Dean.

“That was what I was really asked to focus on,” says Aronovitch. “The more classic Toto fare, if you will, tended to focus on a certain part of the community.”

Two of the four plays in the last season — Happy Birthday, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, If Love Demands Foundation, This is Me Burning It and Jimmy Dean — branched out from their traditional format.

The Laramie Project was a workshop production, with performers reading from scripts in a one-night-only show. If Love Demands Foundation was a cabaret-style performance mounted in a bar rather than their usual space at ArtsCourt. As well, two of the four plays were written by US authors.

Ferguson and Webster say the last season strayed too far from Toto Too’s original mandate.

“We have been producing plays that seem to appeal to the [general] theatre community — but the theatre community — well, that’s not our mandate,” says Webster.

Ferguson reiterates the same sentiment, stating that Toto Too’s priority is the queer community.

While Jimmy Dean did feature a trans person, the bulk of the characters were straight women.

 “It’s very easy in the theatre community in Ottawa to become part of the theatre community and forget about your roots — which is a gay community — that’s why we exist. We exist for the gays and lesbians and transgender people of the region,” says Ferguson.

It was not only the shift in the original vision that worried Webster and Ferguson  — it was that the process of selecting plays in the last season.

Last year, the company announced its productions one at a time (except for Laramie and If Love Demands Foundation, which were both mounted in October). Webster says that part of Toto Too’s winning formula will be to select a whole season and present it to the community in advance, in order to rally support. In his opinion Toto Too was successful in the first season, tried in the second but failed in the third.

“Our issue has been, how do we get the group back on board and focused on producing a three-play series?” says Webster.

According to Webster, picking plays became a problem. The reading committee  — board members and volunteers — were supposed to submit recommendations to the board, but they had difficulties in finding three plays that fulfilled the mandate, and the process became bogged down.

However, Aronovitch feels differently.

“The reading committee only really existed in 2007,” says Aronovitch. “In this past year, we decided to name an individual to be an artistic director. It seemed to make sense to invest that individual with the responsibility of, at least gathering the information about plays, because that is what artistic directors do.”

As for the board members who stepped down, they say they are proud of the work they’ve done and wish the company success in 2010 and beyond.

“I have always been proud of the fact of calling Toto Too a true community theatre company,” says Schryburt.

Like Schryburt, Aronovitch feels that during the last season the board guided Toto Too in a responsible manner that was sustainable financially and artistically and satisfied a broad audience.

Although Toto Too has been reconfigured, all board members say their time with Toto Too has been positive. The departing members want the company to succeed while the present board members are hopeful that within a few years people will return to Toto Too.

But for Aronovitch, Schryburt and Cleveland the notion of working with Toto Too depends on what their vision is and who the plays are targeted to.

“When it came to planning the next year, some people at Toto Too did not seem as interested in continuing down that road, and are going to do other things instead. And the rest of us decided, well, we’ll move on,” says Aronovitch.