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Artist’s rendering of proposed expansion of Factory Theatre as envisioned by Ken Gass
Artist’s rendering of proposed expansion of Factory Theatre as envisioned by Ken Gass

CULTURE

Now playing at smaller theatres: the handyman special Add to ...

Every battling couple covered in drywall dust can empathize with Toronto’s Factory Theatre: The company’s board broke up with long-time artistic director Ken Gass this summer because the two sides couldn’t agree how their renovation should proceed.

Gass went public, defending his ambitious scheme to redo the theatre’s 19th-century building, and the arts community has rallied around him, launching a boycott of the theatre. The board, which confirmed yesterday that it has agreed to mediation in the dispute, released an open letter in which it explains that it is committed to renovations that will improve access but that it could not immediately back the artistic director’s scheme because it would require raising nearly 40 times more private money that it does in a normal year.

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Disputes this bitter and this public are rare, but Factory’s situation is actually typical of medium-sized performing-arts groups across Canada. Big projects such as the new Maison symphonique on Montreal’s Place des Arts or the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, which opened in 2006, can attract corporate partners or negotiate directly with governments for infrastructure grants. Smaller groups, however, are often unable to get the public money that will trigger donations – and even when they do get grants, they lack the high-level contacts to effectively raise large sums from the private sector.

“Bricks and mortar – the ball has been dropped across the country, there’s no doubt,” said Bradley Moss, artistic director at Edmonton’s Theatre Network, a company that was forced by rising construction estimates, changes in its board membership and the recession to shelve plans for a major expansion of its building, a 1938 movie house.

“[The venues] are all tired and waiting to be renovated – or torn down.”

Founded in a surge of national cultural enthusiasm that began in the 1950s and 1960s and peaked in the 1970s, Canadian performance groups are often housed in heritage buildings that were repurposed for their use in the 1970s and 1980s. Apart from new roofs, wheelchair ramps and the occasional redo of a lobby or washroom, many of those buildings have not been significantly updated since. A 2009 Ontario survey of 100 medium and small arts groups who owned or leased their buildings found almost three-quarters lacked the space they needed, and more than half were housed in buildings at least 70 years old.

“We have a lovely heritage building but we are the plays we put onstage,” said Charles Childs, managing director of Montreal’s English-language Centaur Theatre. “We want to spend it all on the stage.”

The Centaur is in the midst of an environmental assessment for a proposed renovation to its turn-of-the-century home in the former stock-exchange building in Old Montreal, a scheme that would cost $7-million to $10-million. The plan involves building a fly tower; reconstructing the roof; and digging out the basement, which floods several times a year – improvements not covered by a $2-million reno in 1995.

In Toronto, the Tarragon Theatre would like to spend as much as $23-million to completely redo its backstage and performance spaces so that it can transfer shows between its larger and smaller stages, but artistic director Richard Rose said it will be a decade before there’s even a shovel in the ground. Tafelmusik has ruled out buying the 19th-century Bloor Street church in which it performs to establish a period-music centre, and has decided instead to raise $1.5-million to make acoustic improvements, erect a permanent stage and buy new seats in 2013.

At its historic home in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre needs as much as $6-million to improve wheelchair access, the lobby, the public washrooms and the artists’ dressing rooms, and to create a studio and rehearsal space that can still be used when a show is running in the main theatre.

“It’s sexier to build new than to maintain or renovate,” said Donna Spencer, artistic producer at the Firehall, where one consultant told her it would be cheaper to build a new building than do all the renos she needs. “I am a fan of repurposed buildings, but the ability to develop them for the arts is often limited by the expense.”

The national wish list ranges from crucial fixes on roofs and in basements to renovations to improve rehearsal halls, green rooms, lobbies and washrooms: At Factory, you have to climb 29 steps to see a show on the main stage. Both Gass’s $14-million scheme and the more modest $1.5-million renovation the board is now planning for next summer include an elevator.

Getting much of this work done is going to be hard, because the capital required is often out of reach of medium-sized groups overseen by boards of middle-class professionals rather than the bank vice-presidents or millionaire investors who lead the fundraising campaigns for ballet companies and symphony orchestras.

Although everyone has blue-sky plans and long wish lists, boards are reluctant to launch capital campaigns that may saddle the directors with overly ambitious fundraising targets, and artistic leaders say they have to respect their boards’ caution.

“At Factory, I understand where Ken is coming from … I am attached to my plans,” said Moss, about the abandoned expansion of Edmonton’s Theatre Network. “My board has moved on. Who am I to tell them they should or shouldn’t do it? ... I almost quit because of it; I almost got fired because of it. But it’s not what I am supposed to be doing: I am supposed to be running a venue.”

Several administrators point to the plight of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company as a cautionary tale: That company was left with a $1.6-million debt when steel prices rose rapidly during construction of the new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre in 2007. “It just strangled us,” said board vice-chair Brian Toller, adding that the company, which couldn’t easily fundraise during the recession, has recently paid off half the debt and expects to retire it next year.

Paradoxically, the situation is particularly acute in Toronto, where large institutions enjoyed the so-called cultural renaissance initiated by the Ontario government in the 2000s but medium-sized groups are worse off than in some cities because neither the city nor the province has funds allocated for arts groups’ capital needs.

In Montreal, both the city and the province have ensured a constant stream of smaller renovations, including a complete rebuild of the Théâtre de Quat’Sous in 2008-09.

Previously, Vancouver’s city government has had a lot of success negotiating with developers to fold arts facilities into new developments in exchange for added density, a scheme that has helped build new facilities such as the Vancouver International Film Centre and the Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery, but doesn’t get existing facilities renovated.

There are success stories in Toronto, too: The Theatre Centre, a venue for small and experimental performances, is just beginning a $5-million renovation on the Carnegie Library on Queen Street West. In 2006, Soulpepper Theatre built a $14-million home in old buildings in the Distillery District.

Arts managers say that project is revealing for a couple of reasons. They attribute its success to Soulpepper’s classical mandate, which makes it a less risky proposition than a company devoted to new and unproven work; to the company’s long-time corporate connections; and to an unexpected $3-million gift from philanthropist David Young. Most important of all, the Young Centre is shared by George Brown College and its theatre program, a partnership that gave Soulpepper access to government money it would not have found for a solo project.

That kind of perfect storm is rare, but arts managers say that all groups need to seek out partnerships with like-minded organizations or, better yet, look to community requirements.

“Sometimes the vision is not compelling enough to get off the ground,” said Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, the Toronto non-profit arts real-estate developer behind the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre that is part of the redevelopment of that city-owned housing project. “Established mid-sized groups have to rethink: There has to be a reason for governments and the private sector to step up. If it’s just about the needs of the artistic community, it’s not going to happen. It’s not easy … but people are finding innovative ways to make projects happen.”

Factory board and artistic director Gass start to talk

The Factory Theatre’s board of directors is talking to Ken Gass, the artistic director it fired in June, board chair Ron Struys confirmed Monday. “We recently met with Ken with the help of an outside facilitator and agreed to get the wheels in motion for mediation in order to find common ground,” Struys said, through a publicist. “We thank everyone who helped get us to this stage. As you can all appreciate, there is still a long road to travel and it is important that we do so in private.”

Struys did not specify the exact subject of the mediation: Gass had previously declined an emeritus position the board had offered, and the board has already begun a search for a replacement.

“What is not clear is the scope of the mediation and that is key. Are they willing to deal with the differences?” Gass said in an interview confirming the meeting. “We will see if we can find common ground.”

The board fired Gass in a dispute over renovations to the theatre’s headquarters at Bathurst and Adelaide streets, with the artistic director backing a more ambitious scheme to make the 19th-century building accessible.

After Gass went public about his dismissal, it was widely protested by the theatre community, which mounted a social-media campaign against the board and called on artists and audiences to boycott. Playwright George F. Walker pulled a play from the upcoming season and Judith Thompson threatened to do the same.

The Factory building, a late-19th-century house that was expanded and converted into a church hall in 1910 and taken over by the theatre in 1983, is in need of millions of dollars in renovations. Gass had backed a $14-million scheme for a major expansion that would have proceeded in stages; the board wanted to start immediately on a smaller, $1.5-million scheme that would have been completed in 2013.

Both sides said they were committed to renovations and both would have added a new lobby and an elevator. However, Gass said previously that the board’s plan included work that would just have to be ripped out to make way for his plan: He believed the board’s decision to pursue its route meant the larger scheme had effectively been abandoned.

Gass, who founded Factory Theatre in 1970, returned to rescue it from bankruptcy in 1996 and had served as artistic director until his dismissal.

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