Dissolve the Society   13 comments

downtown

It has been a devastating summer for Calgary’s theatre world. The smoke in the air is likely from the fires in BC, but it may well be emanating from the embers of two theatre ventures that have gone up in flames, with a third smoldering and about to consume itself in a maelstrom, if it hasn’t already.

Saddest of these in my mind is the loss of the Calgary International Children’s Festival. Poof! It’s gone, just like that. Not with a bang but a whimper. Actually, not even a whimper. Just this: “The Board of Directors has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2019 Festival and begin work to dissolve the Society.” Cold, corporate legalese that in this context sounds like something Roald Dahl might have written. Dissolve the society, indeed.

No more the excited squeals and cries of happy children slogging through the ubiquitous late season snow storm (which never bothered the children at all), no more the pitter patter of joyous applause, no more the smiling painted faces – well, you get the idea. Dissolve the Society.

The problem with losing something like this is that once it’s gone, it may never come back. But it’s ok, I guess. It’ll be all right. There are countless games and apps for children to distract them from now till the end of time. Who needs live performances, anyway?

Meanwhile, over at The Grand Theatre, if things weren’t weird before, they just got a whole lot weirder. OK. I’ll say it if no one else will. Since Theatre Junction began its new incarnation of what had once been a theatre company – and since their artistic director est tombé et se cogna la tête en Paris – the company has been a rather mysterious and bewildering disappointment.

Is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes, I wonder, but for all the whispering about the place on darkened street corners (or whatever) very little has been said publicly about this company. What it seemed to me was a really, really, REALLY beautiful space with some very uneven and esoteric (to put it nicely) work “happening” on the stage – shades of the mystical Mr. Grotowski et al.(Do you ever feel that you’ve seen it all before? I certainly do.)

I innocently asked this question on Facebook the other day: Has Mark Lawes ever been found to talk about the state of affairs at Theatre Junction? There were many comments, some of them quite witty, from “I hear he is in a witness protection program” to “I hear he is Darcy Evans” to reports of gag orders on the Board (“The Board of Governors has made the difficult decision . . . “) to reports that the organization tried to declare bankruptcy but their asset (ie, The Grand Theatre) is worth too much money.

It goes on and on and on. Call me old-fashioned, call me naïve, but I think that at least by now, Mr. Lawes ought to have addressed this situation publicly. Maybe he still will. Or maybe il est en train de manger un petit gateau a Paris. All we can do is scratch our heads in wonder at what a perfect shit show the whole thing has been from the git go.

And then there is that other fine company down the street and up the avenue, that bastion of new work in all of Canada, and my old company, Alberta Theatre Projects. They took a bad situation, and a really bad decision, and made it worse by lying about it. Now I’m afraid they have a real mess on their hands, made worse by the fact that it is a mess of their own making.

If I could pinpoint one resounding impression I had of ATP from my ten years there as their playwright in residence, it would be the profound respect paid to the playwright. During the years of their playRites Festival, which birthed over 100 Canadian plays (including six of my own), the playwright was treated like a king or queen – verging on how playwrights are treated almost anywhere else in the world outside of English Canada. We were thought to be important. Special, even. We don’t always feel that way in this culture. How many times have I been asked, with great suspicion verging on derision, “You’re a playwriter? What even is that? You write screenplays like for TV or something? But what do you really do? Like for a living?”

Twenty-five years since I first darkened their doorway, it would seem that the status of the playwright over there has diminished somewhat. I don’t often comment about what’s going on at the Projects – they were good to me and gave me a golden opportunity to launch my career. But in this case there’s a personal connection and I am not taking this situation lightly.

One of my duties as playwright in residence at ATP was to teach the high school writing program on Saturday mornings. This was one of my favourite and most rewarding teaching situations ever, and some of my former students have become prominent members of the Calgary theatre community – and beyond.

I allowed Michaela Jeffery to enter my program a year early, while she was still in junior high. It was a no-brainer, as I was (and am) a friend of her father, Dave Jeffery. Theatre royalty in Calgary. Dave was a legendary drama teacher at Western Canada High School who for years inspired a new generation of theatre artists. I figured Dave’s daughter would know more about theatre, and have seen more shows, at thirteen than I ever would. I wasn’t wrong about that. The theatre is in her blood.

I have followed Michaela’s career ever since those days, and felt an almost parental sense of pride when she was first admitted to, and then graduated from, the prestigious playwriting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

I worked with her the last two summers at Dave and Karen Jeffrey’s Sunset Theatre in Wells, BC. (I feel pretty much part of the family after those two summers.) What a great honour to dramaturge the play of a former student!

To see that Michaela’s play WROL (Without Rule of Law) was going to be produced at ATP – well, I was elated. As was she! I felt that this was the perfect culmination of a journey that started so long ago, some twenty years or so.

But then we learned it was not to be. Rather, offered in its place, the latest “laugh-out-loud comedy” by Toronto (or Stratford, perhaps) playwright Mark Crawford.

Well, isn’t this a pretty kettle of fish?! I certainly place no blame for this with Mr. Crawford – in fact, he is in an unenviable position of having his play be the one many Calgarians will be itching to hate, if they bother to see it at all.

The optics of replacing the work of a local female playwright with that of a male playwright from Ontario are really so rotten you can likely smell them from the top of the CN Tower, or the Calgary Tower, wherever you happen to be. (Oh, right! We’re in Calgary. I almost forgot.) Clearly, the company blundered, and in these dangerous times we are living in, let us hope they can somehow turn things around from this low point for next season.

Meanwhile Michaela’s cast and friends of the production-that-did-not-happen (and there are many) will be rallying in support on Monday, September 17 at a to-be-determined location. A recent campaign raised several thousand dollars in support of what is truly a legitimate cause. Maybe there is hope, after all.

Yes, something is in the air all right and it doesn’t smell good. Let’s hope that the people involved, from board members to directors artistic to artists to government funders to our corporations who haven’t so much stopped making money as they’ve stopped sharing it – let’s hope they do the work and fight the good fight and that things will change and change soon.

Otherwise, you might as well go ahead and dissolve the society.

Thanks for reading.

 

13 responses to “Dissolve the Society

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  1. I am struggling with the state of affairs too. Not sure how to react or what to do to help.

  2. Thanks for this Eugene. I believe the theatre community has done itself a massive disservice by not speaking about these issues. The truth is ugly.

  3. Thank you, Eugene, for speaking publicly about the unfortunate state of some of Calgary’s public arts institutions.

    I worked in fund development at Theatre Junction Grand for four years. I resigned in July because working there had become absurd.

    You use the words “mysterious and bewildering” to describe your sense of the goings on from the outside. It was not much different from the inside.

    The board’s behaviour is, was and had been incomprehensible. For two years we, the administrative staff, challenged the board in person, by email, by phone, relentlessly, to address the following:

    Why so little has been done about the fact that dozens of people had left Theatre Junction’s employ deeply disturbed by their experience working under Mark Lawes (24 people during my four year tenure alone).
    Why the investigation into Mark Lawes’ behaviour, conducted by a spouse of a board member, did not result in a report that was shared, not even with the then executive director.
    Why Theatre Junction has had such a devastatingly small patron base and yet the artistic programming remained extremely limited.
    Why no one on the board seemed willing to make the connection between the toxic workplace experiences of past employees and the small patron base.
    Why so many resources were dedicated to Mark Lawes and his artistic associate and partner Raphaele Thiriet and so few directed to local artistic development.
    Why a new executive director Guy de Carteret (hired in 2016) who transformed the workplace culture to be positive, who encouraged independent thinking and creativity and who had a novel and outward-facing, community-driven vision, was fired in May.
    Why the board insisted that Guy de Carteret and Mark Lawes “get along” despite the fact that no prior executive officer had been able to “get along” with Mark Lawes.
    Why almost none of the people who committed major funds to the capital campaign to renovate the Grand has had an enduring presence in the organization.
    Why the main theatre’s namesake, Jackie Flanagan, is not a patron.
    Why Workshop restaurant’s lease is so favourable to Workshop that it costs Theatre Junction money to have them in the building, putting the non-profit in the position of subsidizing a business.

    This is but a peek into the “mystery and bewilderment” we had hoped to help to unravel, to air and to overcome.

    Arts organizations are most often brilliantly resourceful. I have seen us turn scraps into feasts again and again. The issue is not money. The issue is one of values and leadership.

    Sadly, when past staff had the opportunity to speak with the CBC this summer, the story became about money.

    The context needs to be understood and grievances aired if the Grand were ever to have the chance to become the culture house it has claimed to be since 2006. It could be wonderful.

  4. Thank you Eugene for writing this article. I was heartbroken to hear the news about Michaela’s play. Disturbed about Theatre Junction, and downright depressed about the Children’s Fest. So, how can I help? That is the next question. 💖

  5. Thanks for an excellent piece.

  6. I spend many a weekend night at the SRO lounge when the ATP was still on 9th Ave just by 8th street. That was mid 70’s and I know the amount of volunteer time went into helping it grow. With that said Calgary seems to have a long love/hate history with the arts. I also spend a lot of my youth hanging around the grand. They don’t need bankruptcy however if they declared themselves insolvent it would make it much easier for someone to step in. The Kids Fest, criminal in my mind…how can this City even think of bidding on something like the Olympics while they are dismantling events designed for locals, as I said “criminal”

    • Just an FYI. ATP was never on ninth avenue. That was Theatre Calgary. ATP was housed in Heritage Park at the old Canmore Opera House.

      • I worked there for ten years and I think I know where I was. ATP started out in the opera house and moved to what is now known as Arts Commons in the 1980s. Since that time they have performed in the Martha Cohen Theatre. One can access the theatre offices either from Olympic Plaza or by the stage door on 9th Ave.

  7. Thanks Eugene for your analysis here. I was so sorry to hear of ATP’s cancellation of Michaela’s play, saddened by the loss of the kid’s fest and perplexed by Theatre Grand. Good to know I am not alone with those emotions.

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