The old saw goes that the only people who regularly attend the theatre are gays, Jews and women of a certain age. To judge from the latest controversy enveloping Toronto’s Factory Theatre, even these die-hard ticket buyers might not be showing up next season.
The last show I had produced in Toronto was True Love Lies — at the Factory Theatre three years ago. The experience, despite my long and mutually respectful relationship with Ken Gass, its founding artistic director, was not a positive one. I made my dissatisfaction with the promotional and administrative end of things clear to Ken and his staff and decided I would not work there again.
So when I heard Ken had been fired by his board of directors a few months ago, I initially thought it was a very positive move — until they revealed that their reason for sacking Gass had nothing to do with the quality of his work but was based on a disagreement about the future of the Factory Theatre building. It seemed a lame excuse, and the dismissal seemed particularly callous.
The community wailed and cried. Petitions were signed. Plays were pulled. Public condemnations rang out, and, when none of the above created the desired effect, people called for a boycott of Factory Theatre.
That’s when I felt the protest had gone too far.
There are two words that should never be uttered together, and they are “boycott” and “theatre.” The largest part of the general populace has unconsciously done this already.
Despite the potency and influence of the medium, theatre audiences — except in the most commercial offerings — have continued to decline over the last 10 years. People who are quite willing to spend hundreds and thousands on electronic forms of entertainment are notoriously hard to lure into theatres with any regularity. Giving them any excuse not to come, even for what appears to be a good cause, is a very dangerous thing to do.
What does this boycott accomplish? Does it help the small but loyal audience that has supported Factory when it alters the season they signed up for? No. It just makes the theatre look unreliable. Does it punish the board? Since they’re generally unknown, unpaid and can leave anytime they want, I’d suggest it doesn’t. Does it help anyone currently working at Factory? No, it makes their jobs harder and increases the stress in an already volatile environment. Does it help those people who have already been hired for next season? Certainly not.
Does it help Ken Gass?
Personally, I don’t think so. Gass started the theatre and saved it from ruin years later. Those are not easy accomplishments. They require someone who knows how to fight his own battles. If the theatre is as much “his” as his supporters contend, then so is the board and the rulings they used to fire him. He’s already sought legal counsel, and the question will be settled in court, where it should be. Gass himself has spoken out against a boycott.
Some people have asked why this incident has been so galvanizing. People didn’t get so exercised about Richard Rose’s censoring of his own theatre company on behalf of Stephen Harper’s government when Rose chose not to produce Michael Healey’s Proud. What about the absolute lack of public interest when the Vancouver Playhouse closed? What about the two artistic directors of Stratford who vanished in the McAnuff takeover or the many other shitty, unfair things that happen in artistic institutions across the country?
What we’re seeing here is a groundswell of anger and fear that has been building for more than a decade. We who work in the theatre know we’re in trouble. The usual plays, the usual subscription seasons, the usual ways of doing things, are breaking down.
Theatres everywhere are cutting their seasons, laying off staff, programming cheaper shows, becoming more cautious and doing anything else they can, however dishonourable, to stay alive. There’s no denying that much of this fear comes from people desperate to keep jobs they might not be particularly good at. But it also comes from very talented people who rely solely on the theatre for their livelihood.
The sad truth is our audiences are dying, and we haven’t found a way to replace them. I don’t believe calling for a boycott of any theatre, at any time, for any reason, is going to help change that fact.
Postnote: When I first presented this essay on local theatre to my gay editor at the gay magazine I work for, he came back and asked me to find a way to make it clear this was germane to Xtra’s readership. I suspect that says as much about the current relevance of the theatre as anything I’ve written here.
Brad Fraser is a Toronto playwright, screenwriter and producer whose plays have been staged in Canada and around the world. Fraser’s Edge appears in every other issue of Xtra.