Buddies in Bad Times, often billed as the largest queer theatre company in the world, could use a friend or two right now. Real friends, not Facebook friends.
The Toronto theatre is in meltdown mode following a year and a half of dealing with the twin crises of the pandemic and a racial reckoning.
Buddies, which has been lacking an artistic director since Evalyn Parry stepped down in September, 2020, recently lost the entirety of its board of directors in two waves of resignations.
Following what the company’s website describes as the “collective resignation of the board’s three BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] directors” on Jan. 12, the remainder of the board stepped down on Jan. 20.
Then, on Thursday, Buddies and its long-time general manager Shawn Daudlin “parted ways,” according to a statement sent to The Globe and Mail on Friday.
What caused genuine shock on social media this week, however, was the fact that the theatre company simultaneously ended its relationship with long-time bar manager Patricia Wilson, a widely loved queer icon and poet who has been referred to a “guardian angel” by the CBC.
“So just letting people know that myself and Shawn Daudlin have both mutually agreed with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre to be terminated,” wrote Ms. Wilson in a Facebook post.
Requests for further explanation sent to Mr. Daudlin, Ms. Wilson and Buddies in Bad Times did not result in any clarification regarding these departures; the reasons for the board resignations, likewise, remain opaque.
Here’s what we do know about what’s going on. Like many other arts organizations, Buddies was asked by members of its community to tackle systemic racism within its walls around the time of the murder of George Floyd in the United States in 2020.
Since a year ago, the theatre has maintained a web page titled “organizational review and transformation” itemizing the various actions its board and staff have taken to that end – such as agreeing to a third-party review to “learn about, respond to, and play a role in healing harms that have been done over the years to racialized and other vulnerable folks within the community.”
On the surface, Buddies would seem to this theatre critic – who would, admittedly, be described as white, cisgender and straight – as in need of less of a reckoning than, say, various theatre companies with a long history of presenting European classics by mostly white ensembles.
Buddies is a spot where shows created by transgender, Black and Indigenous artists are regularly supported and staged. It is also, not unrelatedly, known for its avant-garde excellence: For instance, 2017′s Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, co-created by Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Ms. Parry, went on to be presented at the Luminato Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival Cervantino in Mexico.
There was no doubt room for improvement, to “build back better” as the pandemic mantra goes – but what is disappointing is that, a year and a half on, the company is only back at square one, and now also facing serious questions about basic governance.
It’s unclear to me, for instance, who is making major decisions right now, such as the one to part ways with Mr. Daudlin and Ms. Wilson. Is it the interim artistic leader and staff? Or a rump board that is supposedly only there in an administrative role?
Whatever changes are made in the current leaderless state will lack legitimacy. Jini Stolk, a leader in organizational sustainability, boards and governance in the arts, tells me that Buddies appears to be a charitable organization in need of a crisis intervention. The question is who could intervene.
“The [Canada Revenue Agency] would certainly have reason to be concerned but they don’t usually act quickly or independently of community expressed concerns or legal action,” Ms. Stolk wrote in an e-mail.
“The arts funding councils at all three levels should be very concerned about an organizational and leadership crisis threatening a unique and important arts organization which has received generous public support over many years based on their artistic achievements.”
What would be better is if some of those hundreds of erstwhile Buddies supporters who commented in sadness or anger on Ms. Wilson’s Facebook post stepped up and organized – the way a relative few have in order to legitimately highlight harms at the theatre company – to get involved and help chart a positive path forward. “Making space” has, alas, led to a vacuum that is in danger of swallowing the good done by this important institution.
Not to mention that larger lessons will be learned: If a well-funded, politically progressive arts organization such as Buddies cannot reckon with itself without wrecking itself, what hope is there that any theatre company will achieve their newly stated aims to decolonize or become anti-racist?
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