Oh boy. Another new theatre season, another controversy at Factory Theatre.
Having weathered a boycott by many artists after founding artistic director Ken Gass was fired by the board of directors two summers ago, the Toronto theatre company devoted to new Canadian plays is now alienating the city's theatre critics by attempting to sideline them from opening night.
The Art of Building a Bunker, a SummerWorks hit written by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia, will open the Factory 2014-2015 season on Oct. 16 after four preview performances – but, breaking with long-standing tradition, media are not invited to see the show that day.
Instead, critics are invited to a separate "media night" five days later – and this is a formula that the company intends to follow for the rest of the season.
In response to queries from The Globe and Mail and other media, Factory Theatre and its season partners released a statement on Friday justifying the delayed media night as an "experiment." "We wish to support and celebrate the work of our theatre creators by giving general audiences the first chance to respond to our shows and to be at the forefront of the conversation," it read.
I spoke with director Nina Lee Aquino, who shares the artistic director role at Factory Theatre with actor Nigel Shawn Williams, shortly after the release hit my inbox.
You've seen on social media that I'm outraged by this. Explain to me why Factory is trying to sideline professional critics this season.
I don't think we're trying to sideline critics this season. We simply decided that the opening should be a celebration of the beginning of a run of a production, and we're inviting reviewers to come three performances after.
There is a tradition in other cities like New York of inviting critics to a final preview – and, in Quebec, opening night and media night are sometimes separate. But the media are, at most, invited the day after opening. Why the delay of several performances?
We thought Tuesday [Oct. 21] was a good day, because that's a subscriber night … and [will give] a real good taste of what the general and loyal Factory patrons go to. Usually on opening night, it's our peers and other theatre companies coming to it.
But if theatre critics ask to come to the opening or the day after opening, would you accommodate them?
Absolutely. Tickets are available and they just need to call in. I think we made that clear to you, too: If you still want to go on opening and you will buy your ticket, that's most welcome.
Okay, I'm reading from your statement here about this experiment. "It might fail, but it might serve the production, the artists, the community and the conversation it inspires exactly the way we imagined." What is it, exactly, that you are imagining will happen?
I guess people from all walks of life will start talking about [the show] on social media, because that is the loudest vehicle where people will get word of mouth … an electronic version of word-of-mouth. We will encourage and give people opportunity to tweet about it, to Facebook it if they like it, if they want to respond to it.
People, except critics. Your company received some particularly scathing reviews last season. Did that play into this decision?
No, absolutely not. Again, this is an experiment … and if it fails, we move on to another model.
Do you feel that your work has been unfairly reviewed?
That's a tricky question, because I don't know how it's significant to this conversation … I don't think reviews can be fair or not fair. Reviews are reviews. I may disagree with it, but it doesn't mean that a review was not fair.
Did you ever consider simply not inviting critics?
No, there was never any intention to bar critics – that doesn't make sense. We are in the business of being judged as an artist. … That's why we still have a media night. We're not banning or excluding anybody.
My initial thought with this was that you are trying to sneak in extra preview performances without acknowledging them as such to your audience or offering them at a discount. For you, opening night – the one for "community, family and friends" – is not still a preview?
No. Absolutely not. This is also in line with the Canadian Theatre Agreement and Canadian Actors' Equity Association regulations: Previews are when there's rehearsal and debate time … and notes are still given on the design front and on the acting front. After opening, we're actually not legally allowed … to give notes and make alterations.
From my point of view, what I'm paid to do by The Globe and Mail is write about shows as early as possible after they open. There's a news element to it, a reporting element involved. Readers begin to look for reviews after opening night. I cannot agree to this arrangement, because you are asking me to do my job less well.
I don't see the logic of it. Because there have been some shows, not necessarily Factory, that you go on opening night but sometimes the review doesn't even come out five days later.
And my experience is that readers and artists complain to me when that happens. The Globe and Mail has decided to buy my ticket around opening and others have also said they won't go along with this. What's the point if the critics are not willing to be experimented on?
I don't know yet, because we haven't tried it. I think I'll be able to give you a better answer once we've tried the experiment.
This is the first season that hasn't opened under the shadow of the boycott that came after Ken Gass was fired. Why pick a fight with theatre critics now – and risk overshadowing the shows? I'm writing a column about this now because I want to be able to simply write about The Art of Building a Bunker when it opens.
We've never viewed it as a fight. … You people are most welcome to come. It's just a slight delay on the invite. This was a shot at trying something new. It wasn't meant to offend or insult or be unethical.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Art of Building a Bunker opens at Factory Theatre opens in previews on Oct. 11 and officially opens on Oct. 16.