Archive for the ‘Theatre Junction’ Tag

Dissolve the Society 2   13 comments

Malfunction at the Junction

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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.

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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.

 

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.

 

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