Dissolve the Society 2   13 comments

Malfunction at the Junction


Last week, I wrote Dissolve the Society as a personal reaction to a number of situations in the Calgary performing arts world. As you will know if you read it (and if you didn’t, scroll down and there it will surely be), I was angered and appalled and dismayed by the goings on at some of our major performing arts organizations: the ending of the Children’s Festival, the yanking of Michaela Jeffery’s play at ATP, and the ongoing saga of the train wreck that is known as Theatre Junction.

A few things happened as a result of my post. The first, known only to me initially, is that it was read by thousands of people, probably about ten times the number of people who usually read one of my posts on here. Clearly there is a lot of interest and concern in the community and beyond. And rightfully so.

Of the reaction I received through comments, emails, personal encounters, texts and a discussion that arose on my Facebook wall, very little was said about ATP. One of my younger friends who sits on the board of another theatre told me it’s because no one really cares anymore about ATP. This for a number of reasons, I suppose. I was sad to hear that – it was a very special place for me for many years.

One woman who had not heard about the cancellation of the Children’s Festival contacted me, incredulous and distraught. She couldn’t believe that it was true. I assured her it was true, that I’d read the press release. She said she cried when she read about it. And good for her. We should all be crying.

Almost all of the reaction to my piece concerned Theatre Junction. I was frankly amazed at the anger and vitriol aimed at this company, its artistic director Mark Lawes and in particular the board of directors, who seem to have signed on so they could wear their new outfits to the openings as opposed to engaging in any meaningful governance of the place. Typical board concerns such as transparency and accountability are nowhere to be found at the Grand Theatre.

I heard story upon story describing a real nightmare of a situation that has been allowed to continue year after year. How under the watchful eyes of those sage directors a work place so toxic that it actually sounds acidic was allowed not only to exist but to become the order of the day. Repeated attempts by staff to meet with the board to air their grievances about the shit and abuse they had to endure day in day out were ignored or dismissed. An investigation of sorts was launched at the cost of many thousands of dollars, conveniently paid to the spouse of one of the board members. The findings were never shared, let alone acted upon. Nothing changed.

I heard that some of the people who work or worked there cried at the thought of going to work, cried while at work because it was so Dickenseanly shitty, and cried when they got back home again, having endured another day of “shame and blame” and altercations with Mr. Lawes which the staff refer to as “drive-by shootings.”

We in the arts like to think we are kinder and gentler than people in business (the real world, if you will) but it’s not true. In some cases we can be worse, much worse.

In a truly ambitious program of enlightened self-interest, through a number of imaginative initiatives including skimming off a percentage of donations before they ever hit the Theatre Junction books – with the board’s approval and blessing – Mr. Lawes would seem to have accumulated a small fortune by most of our standards, all the while presenting some of the most tepid and self-indulgent theatre this city or country has ever seen, pawning it off as high art. Oh yes. There is a lot of anger in the community aimed directly at that man, and deservedly so.

People who have worked there are so fed up (and demoralized and confused and miserable and bullied) that they are coming forth and telling their stories. I have only heard a few of them, but let me let you, friends, this is a fucked up mess.

One such person who commented on my blog is Tonya Lailey. I asked her if she would share her comments in a more public manner like this and she replied, “Go for it. I say nothing that is not true and ask some simple questions. I am happy to have my name attached . . . this is not even the half of it.”

These are Tonya’s comments on last week’s post:

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 (22 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.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchdogs? Who will guard the guards? Whom do you turn to when the people who are in a position to do something do nothing? The people I spoke to at Theatre Junction turned to me and I felt an obligation to share this sad saga with all of you. If, as a community, we demand that something happen, maybe the board of directors will finally start acting responsibly and things will change. Otherwise, that block of 1st Street that once seemed so full of promise will continue to be a lonely wind-swept stretch of road.

In my opinion, under a full moon at a lonely crossroads at midnight, someone should drive a wooden stake through the heart of the rotten venture. Get rid of the whole lot of them. Then bring in an elder and smudge the place and start over.

Maybe then we’ll start seeing some meaningful theatre in downtown Calgary again.

Thanks for reading.

13 responses to “Dissolve the Society 2

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  1. The only good thing from this story is discovering your blog. I enjoyed your insight in the Herald when your column was there. I look forward to reading more on this story and more positive topics.

  2. Eugene! Thank you. Why are we all so goddamn scared of speaking the truth? Openness, truth, honesty, without fear. That’s what I live for. I admire you and this piece greatly. G

  3. I haven’t seen a play at the Grand in years. But I do see concerts there. Would boycotting other events held at the venue impact the theatre co.? Do they own the building and receive the revenues from other non-theatre events? If so I’d love to start a boycott ha!

  4. Again, great work friend. Thank you.

  5. Wow Eugene, stunning expose. I have a friend who worked there. I won’t name her, as I haven’t spoken with her about this. She is a wonderful, positive, artistic force. She told me a little about the toxic mess there, a few years back. Of course, she left, because it was an insane place to work. It is time for it to stop. It is too bad, because the space has so much potential to be a great place for theatre.

  6. Good for you, Eugene, Tonya, and sources. Could this be taken to the wider media? A CBC exposee perhaps?

    • They tried the CBC before but the writer fucked it up. So what is the wider media anymore? 50 words in Metro?

      • Dunno! You’re better informed in this regard than I! I was thinking TV/News, but you’re right, you’ve got a pretty good audience. Will you continue to blog about any outcomes that stem from this?? I’m sure many would be interested in seeing accountability held where due. Thank-you again!!

    • Dunno! You’re better informed in this regard than I! I was thinking TV/News, but you’re right, you’ve got a pretty good audience. Will you continue to blog about any outcomes that stem from this?? I’m sure many would be interested in seeing accountability held where due. Thank-you again!!

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