The PuSh Festival, the defining performing arts event of the year in Vancouver, first came under fire on social media in late June.
The surprise departure of associate artistic director Joyce Rosario, a force at the festival for seven years, and audience director Janelle Wong-Moon due to restructuring caused widespread concern and consternation in the local artistic community. The fact that two women of colour were bearing the brunt of COVID-19 cutbacks raised a red flag – and played into a larger societal conversation raging over systemic racism.
But the PuSh Festival board of directors’ seemingly panicked response to this criticism on social media and in letters has only further caused online outrage: On Friday, the board announced that Franco Boni was “no longer employed.” Boni, the festival’s white artistic and managing director, only arrived in his position from Toronto’s Theatre Centre a year ago and had yet to actually program an edition.
An expression I heard while talking to members of Vancouver performing arts community this week: It’s like they found a spider in the house and then they decided to burn the entire house down.
“Franco and Joyce are both people who have huge support in the national and international community,” explained Marcus Youssef, the Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright and senior artist at Neworld Theatre. “We are deeply concerned that a festival that has nurtured our careers, that has become an icon for Vancouver’s cultural scene, that has fostered global exchange and opened markets around the world for Vancouver artists is in serious jeopardy.”
Founded in 2003, the PuSh Festival is an international showcase that has helped develop a taste for boundary-stretching performance in Vancouver audiences – and launch theatre and dance companies such as Theatre Replacement, Company 605, the Electric Company Theatre and Neworld Theatre onto the world circuit.
It’s a crucial piece of artistic infrastructure in Canada – and so the turmoil there has raised eyebrows across the country.
The chorus of concern began with the news that Rosario – one of very few women of colour in a high-level programming position at an international festival – had been let go on June 22.
Concern only grew on July 3 when the board, in response, released a statement apologizing for “the distress, anger and disappointment we have caused” and promised to “dismantle the systemic inequities embedded in our culture and to decentre white voices across the organization.”
That’s because a sentence in that statement that promised to “move forward with a fundamental commitment to transparency and open communication” was immediately followed by this euphemistically phrased one: “To that end, we must share with you that Artistic and Executive Director Franco Boni is no longer employed by the PuSh Festival.”
PuSh board chair Jessica Bouchard and vice-chair Peter ter Weeme declined to answer questions from The Globe and Mail as to how Rosario’s position was cut, how Boni came to be “no longer employed” by the PuSh Festival or about the recent departure of two board members.
Boni, however, said in an interview that he had been “terminated without cause” – and that he did not, personally, know the reasons why. The decisions to cut the positions held by Rosario and Wong-Moon, he said, were made jointly with the board and its HR committee after months of discussion. He said PuSh had a “hefty and significant accumulated deficit” when he arrived – one that grew after the 2020 edition and became more pressing because of the pandemic.
“I can’t quite understand – it’s puzzling to me,” said Boni, who added that he felt the board was “supportive” of him up until they hired a crisis communications manager. “I would love some kind of closure because I certainly really appreciated my conversations with the board throughout the year and really valued their advice.”
Rosario, who had been interim artistic director between Boni and founder Norman Armour, said in a post on Facebook: “In its recent statement, the PuSh Festival committed to ‘transparency and open communication’ for the future. I’m pleased to read that, and yet I cannot fully share my thoughts due to the nature of the situation surrounding my departure.”
What’s happening at PuSh can only be understood amid the wider reckoning happening across North America since anti-Black racism protests exploded onto the streets after the killing of George Floyd by police.
The pandemic lull has left space for freelance performing artists to press institutions that employ them to live up to their stated principles of inclusion – whether in terms of hiring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) artists and staff, or in dealing with long-festering concerns about sexual or workplace harassment.
Fraught departures of leaders in the arts community have gone viral. On Thursday, the board of directors at the Carousel Theatre for Young People in Vancouver announced that it had “mutually departed ways with Carole Higgins as artistic and managing director” and had hired an external consultant to review the theatre company top to bottom. This followed an open letter that amassed hundreds of signatures and alleged that Carousel “is well known in the theatre community as being one of the most toxic and abusive workplaces in the arts.”
In Saskatoon, meanwhile, Persephone Theatre – the city’s regional theatre – has seen resignations from both the artistic director Del Surjik and associate producer and literary manager Johnna Wright in the wake of charges of hypocrisy levelled at the company after the posting of a Black Lives Matter message on social media. A subsequent open letter from a collective of local “anti-racist artists” to the board has alleged a “long-standing culture of racism and intimidation”.
Other letters have also been sent more quietly to boards – such as one delivered to the PuSh board on June 28.
Its 14 signatories included major Vancouver leaders Dani Fecko of Fascinator Management; James Long and Maiko Yamamoto, the Siminovitch Prize-winning pair that runs Theatre Replacement; and Youssef, as well as Naomi Campbell, head of the Luminato Festival Toronto; Sarah Garton Stanley of the National Arts Centre; Ravi Jain of Why Not Theatre; and Kris Nelson of the LIFT Festival in London.
“A recent series of decisions has been made that has not only harmed the reputations of PuSh staff members and the Festival at large, but has also seriously affected the future of Vancouver’s performing arts community,” it read, referring to the restructuring. “These decisions are also indicative of an institutional, unconscious and systemic racism that exists in arts and cultural institutions in our city and across the country.”
What the signatories asked for, however, was “to assist in the facilitation of the community’s existing and ongoing dialogue.” It did not, notably, ask for Boni to be removed from his position.
Indeed, many performing artists have since praised Boni publicly since his departure. “Franco Boni has always been there for BIPOC artists. ALWAYS,” Jovanni Sy, the former artistic director of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, B.C., tweeted.
Youssef suggested that what has happened at PuSh primarily raises questions about the board structure that governs not-for-profit artistic institutions – a corporate structure that has few tools at its disposal to handle complicated situations or conversations.
In a follow-up conversation right before this column went to print, Youssef added that the board had recently “signalled to a desire to engage with the community.” Too bad it took until PuSh came to shove for them to do so.
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