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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

After Dark, August 30, 2011

The Village People
It really does take a village

By Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Epithets flew among members of the group. Chief among them was that the board was a bunch of "bean-counters." 

Way outside of the city of Montreal, off the massive Island and then some, is a small summer theatre called The Village in a small town called Hudson. This last week, judging from one Facebook page, the hamlet was the site of a seismic shift in the theatrical landscape.

Perhaps it was.

Here's what happened: the board of directors of the company called in the artistic director, Andrew Johnston, and told him his contract would not be renewed next year. Within hours there was an FB page created to support the ousted AD. Within a day or two it had over 200 supporters and artistic directors of Montreal's other English-language companies were part of it. Several of them wrote, into the group, letters of support for Johnston.

What the bean-counters had decided to do, to save the house, was to change the company's model from a year-round artistic directorship, to one with a guest AD who would fill the summer.

Epithets flew among members of the group. Chief among them was that the board was a bunch of "bean-counters."

My problem? It seems to me that a board is meant to be precisely that: a bunch of bean-counters. It is, after all, their job to keep the institution healthy enough to move from season to season. What the bean-counters had decided to do, to save the house, was to change the company's model from a year-round artistic directorship, to one with a guest AD who would fill the summer.

I cannot tell you much about what led to this decision except that the theatre was apparently ailing enough to require the removal of the full time position, no matter the artistic questions which might surround it. I can share a few personal impressions. Johnston is an able, if not inspired, AD. The shows, for the most part, were standard-issue summer fare (Norm Foster) which other companies program virtually in their sleep. I have been displeased by the way the company has treated The Charlebois Post (prefering to curry favour with the print media than us) - but that is neither here nor there. (Though ignoring internet media is not a wise idea these days.) The house hired local actors, used local designers and had a staff of locals.

A company's identity is a shared thing; shared with the community it plays to.

And that, no matter what you think of Johnston's work, is the core of the uproar. A company's identity is a shared thing; shared with the community it plays to. And Village was, quite clearly, a part of the community.


Also part of the community are the board-members trying to save the space. I do not believe for one minute this was a decision they made with lightness-of-heart. Even bean-counters have souls. They have said, in announcing the decision,  “[Johnston] has given us great artistic leadership and passion during the past seven years...and we very much hope that he will remain involved with the theatre, and direct or act in some of the plays to be staged in the future.” They didn't point fingers as to who was responsible for the dire present situation.

But fingers were sure as hell pointed at them. Aspersions were cast on the president of the board, unfortunate language used (despite that it was, after all, a public Facebook page) and a meeting of the angered has been called for September 11, though the board has assured its decision is final.

So the raison d'être for the meeting? To make speeches? To grand-stand? (There is certainly no lack of that on the Facebook page.) To rumor-monger? (No shortage of that either.) To form a new company? And after? Fire the bean-counters? Burn them in effigy?

The fact is it does take a village
for a theatre...any theatre from Stratford to Village, from Ship's Company to The North Vancouver Community Players. And like it or not, the village cannot survive without some damn good bean-counters.

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1 comment:

  1. Gaëtan:

    Sorry to have to disagree with you on this.

    After seven years as Artistic Director Andrew Johnson should have as much right to determine the future of Hudson Village Theatre as any Board member. My guess is he has been serving the theatre longer than most Board members. What has happened is in essence a high-jacking of the theatre by the Board.

    The central problem is the nature and composition of Boards in English Canada. Quebec theatres have a healthy tradition of having artists as full voting members on the Boards of public arts institutions. Even the senior Quebec artists from the company are full voting members of the Board. Makes total sense since the usually underpaid and overworked artists contribute greatly to the survival of the institutions. If Andrew had been on the Board he would have had to have been consulted about the future. If in addition there had been representatives from the artists who have given so much to the theatre on the Board, then Andrew would have had feedback and support. Imagine the Board of, say, Ex Machina trying to pull a clandestine manoeuvre to dump Robert Lepage! Imagine the Board of La compagnie Duceppe trying to dump Louise Duceppe as General Manager. (She is VP of her own Board.)

    Gaëtan, I have been on quite a number of boards, large and small and remain very cynical about their purpose and function. Most ‘Bean Counters’ on public boards would not even know what a bean is. Most members of large boards are there for networking or other business reasons. While I was on the Board of Harbourfront in Toronto, the President of the Board was a VP of Molson, a site sponsor of Harbourfront. He ranted on at Board meetings about the size and visibility of the Labatts’ logo on the front of the Baseball Hall of Fame one of the buildings on the Harbourfront site.

    An honest and honourable way would have been for those members of the Board who were unhappy with Andrew as Artistic Director to resign. I find the vague assertions of fiscal irresponsibility in the Board’s press release to be cowardly innuendo. My gut instinct is that something stinks about the whole affair, some power play behind the scenes by someone(s?) who wants to run the theatre her/himself and thought s/he could pull a coup and get away with it.

    It is all part of the bizarre legal structure that we have in place in Canada to (not) support the Arts. All theatres in Canada have to have a corporate structure with some kind of an educational purpose in the letters patent in order to classify as a Charity with all the concomitant financial benefits. We have built corporations rather than developed artists. And then corporate Boards suddenly think they are artists.

    The only solution (for the moment) is for the artists themselves to build their own Boards. To surround themselves with a group of caring individuals from all walks of life, who mirror and represent the theatre’s audience and who are there for the Art not for their own egos.

    But imagine if the Canada Council supported the artists, that is, gave the grants directly to the artists, and not to corporate entities. And the artists then went to the various theatres with their grant money and said: “I have a grant and I would like to perform in your theatre…” The theatres would then be vying to get the best artists into their spaces. Ya, I know, scarey and it would take some polishing up, but we’d have better theatre.

    You are wrong. After seven years of service as Artistic Director, with the kind of testimonials that Andrew has from senior artists that have worked with him, there is no way a Board, the 'Bean Counters’ as you used the term, should have the unilateral right to not renew his contract.

    Now if only the public meeting was not scheduled at the exact time as the ACTRA Montreal Awards!

    Guy Sprung
    Artistic Director


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