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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

First-Person: Don Anderson on the situation at Hudson Village Theatre

First-Person: The Situation at Hudson Village Theatre
It May Take a Village
by Don Anderson

[Editor's Note: We asked Don Anderson, as an actor who had performed at Village Theatre and as an active participant and very keen observer of the situation, to write a first person piece of the entire story. He very kindly agreed to do so.]

The Decision:
Three weeks ago, Andrew Johnston, the Artistic Director of the 148 seat Hudson Village Theatre, was summoned to an executive meeting of the Board of Directors of the theatre. In a radio interview Johnston, who’s been AD for almost 8 years, later described being asked by the President of the Board, Clint Ward to come to a local golf club to discuss “the current financial crisis at the theatre and a possible solution”. Immediately agreeing to the meeting, albeit with three hours notice, Johnston asked Ward what was to be discussed in order to prepare any necessary figures, proposals or plans. He was told to simply show up.

It turns out that the current financial crisis was to be solved by eliminating the position of a year-round Artistic Director at the 20 plus year-old English language theatre, effective December 31, 2011. There would be other “restructuring” as well. This restructuring would also reduce the responsibilities and by extension the pay of the two remaining full-time employees. Certain tasks, currently performed by the Box Office Manager and the General Manager, would instead be done by volunteers.  
According to the Board, live theatre at the Hudson Village Theatre cannot sustain itself with ticket sales and the current structure. Therefore, substantial cuts to live theatre expenses were required. They claim that over the last few years there had been an extraordinary series of bequeathments and last-minute-angels that have helped balance the books. However, these exceptional occurrences cannot be relied upon.
It bears mentioning that prior to taking the decision, the Executive Board had started having “in camera” meetings, excluding other members of the Board and the extended group of stakeholders, including Johnston. Jane Needles, the well known and highly respected theatre funding expert, recently resigned from the HVT board. Some have speculated that it was due to this less than forthright manner in which the Board was conducting itself.

The Timing:
As some of you may know, I have performed professionally several times in Hudson since 2002. I have also volunteered my time, sweat and talents (such as they may be) at the theatre many times before and since. I have been repeatedly amazed by the level of passion, warmth and resilience shown by the people of Hudson towards their beautiful theatre. I have great respect for Andrew Johnston, as well as Heather Markgraf (the founder and former AD) and even the members of the Board, some of whom I've gotten to know personally over the years. 
On a purely selfish level, I wanted to know why the Board decided to drop this shit storm on their community on the eve of the announcement of the one-week extension of the most successful show in their history.
The HVT had recently received yet another rejection letter for an annual operating grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. It came with a caveat though. The Canada Council indicated that it was restructuring too. They would be refocusing their funding of rural theaters, the HVT being one of five, nationwide, that would be given special consideration next year. They also indicated that the funding issues, which had long plagued the theatre needed to be addressed.
So, why had the Board chosen to dump the AD position, an essential component that funding bodies look for when doling out the cash, just as talk of an annual operating grant from the Canada Council was becoming more like a reality? 

The Reactions:
The much talked about and heavily trafficked “In support of Andrew Johnston” Facebook page was created within hours of the meeting at the golf course. Initially, well intentioned people were adding “friends” to the page without their knowledge or pre-approval. Key people, close to the effort to get the Board to reconsider its decision, actively began to mitigate the rampant and totally random adding of “friends” to the page.
The Board hastily sent out the press release informing the world of their decision.
By then, the passionate supporters of the HVT seemed to have polarized into two distinct camps. 
On the one hand there was the Board and their key supporters, a seemingly monolithic block of well heeled, long serving, community minded patrons of the arts. These people felt that the money they’ve raised or otherwise donated has earned them the proprietary purview over the physical structure, basic management structure and mandate of the theatre. After all, are they not the sole body that would oversee the financial sustainability of the theatre? They also claim to have been made to feel under-appreciated, insulted. As one of the Board members put it “...surprising is the vilification of the Board and individual members, and the suggestion that they, in their collective judgment, have not made the decision in the best interests of of the Theatre.” Generally, they felt they’d been cast unfairly as villains
On the other hand there was the large number of volunteers, certain former Board members, certain subscribers, an editor of the one of the local papers and various theatre artists who quickly rallied behind Johnston, if only as a symbol of their discontent. Some of these people felt that there were members on the Board who have ulterior motives while others feel that, at the very least, the Board has ossified over the years. They claim, among other less flattering opinions, that the Board is unable or unwilling to reach out to the broader community. After all, there are roughly 48,000 Anglophones in the immediate area, most of whom have never heard of the theatre. One example they use is that the Board’s annual $130 a plate gala only actually raises about $25 per plate. The high cost of participating in this one event has made some of these people feel like the disenfranchised plebs.
An article in the Montreal Gazette drew parallels between what was happening in Hudson with what had happened in North Hatley and Lac Brome. It seemed that the Board's ham-fisted and chevalier response to hundreds of it's members, local artists, supporters, volunteers and staff, not to mention the wider artistic community, had demonstrated a level of hubris usually reserved for the protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy, or an efficiency-mad mill owner swapping out spare parts. 
The effect, if not the rationale, of the Board's decision had cast the Board in a very poor light. Had they placed the HVT's ability to raise funds locally in jeopardy, and possibly dashed any hopes of the much needed and highly anticipated Canada Council operating grant? Had they fired the much loved and admired Andrew Johnston in a rather sloppy way? The Board needed to explain its behavior and in a way that treated all of its valued community like intelligent human beings, not merely as expendable machine parts at a mill. The Board called a meeting.

The Sept 4th Meeting:
I was greeted very warmly, when I arrived, by Clint Ward and patrons who had seen me on the very same stage we sat before now. I also recognized the son-in-law of one of the Board members, a strapping 6 foot plus young man with a shaved head and glassy blue eyes. He stood, oddly out of place somehow, at the door all night. It was a weird vibe, one I had never experienced in this theatre, otherwise so familiar to me. 
Shortly after 7pm, the moderator, Frank Royal, a pillar of the community with passionate ties to the theatre, yet no official connection to the Board, spoke first. He laid out the ground rules. Respect and decorum would be maintained. A two minute limit on questions and comments would be strictly enforced. This limit would include any exchanges that might result from a particular question. The meeting would go until 9. The President of the Board then made an opening statement and then sat down, turning his back to the assembly for the remainder of the evening.
The other Board members then very calmly and respectfully told the half full house that the maxed out credit line and $50,000 shortfall in the budget left them with no money for an AD. There would be no new plans or initiatives to raise money, no need for any change in previous fund raising methods and that we should trust them to make all the right decisions with the limited funds they do have. They used the term "donor fatigue", again. They made it clear that the sponsors and donors have been insulted by some of the comments made on the facebook page.
They then fielded a variety of very civil, if not entirely articulate questions. Virtually every question was politely skirted around and or dismissed, under the gaze of the increasingly bored yet, still powerful looking doorman with razor wire tattoos standing at the door.
As for my question about the timing, I got this response from Cam Gentile, long time Board member and one of those holding court that night at the theatre. He told me that they needed to execute the plan immediately upon reaching the decision in order to provide Johnston with ample time to find other work. When I pressed him on answering the question “Why last week, not next week?”, he added that the theatre would also need to start preparing for the 2012 summer season. I was was more baffled than before.
Only after the prospect of volunteers eventually drying up and staying away in droves was brought up, did the Board acknowledge that volunteers are valued highly and "... without them the theatre would die". It was a clumsy bit of backpedaling to assuage the number of regular volunteers that had shown up.
We were told that the Canada Council letter, though couched in very positive, even optimistic terms, was still a rejection letter.
There were also many people there who passionately believed that the Board had made all the right decisions. They spoke passionately about the need to be civil and come together for the good of the theatre, essentially to leave the Board alone to continue their work. These people asked no questions but, generally were allowed to continue to comment longer than the prescribed two minutes, often being rejoined by Board members singing the praises of the rich benefactors, some of whom were in attendance. One of whom, it was said, had contributed $250,000. It was later revealed to me that this very nice man spends roughly the same amount on the annuals for his flower beds every spring. 
I began to feel the love. After all, some of the current Board members have ponied up considerable sums of their own money over the years, for which they are to be commended heartily. As should the others in the community who have donated massive amounts of cash at times. 
Then, one Board member, who‘d taken particular offense to some of the comments made on the “In support of...” page, inferred that those who had made said statements would someday regret their insolence. I snapped out of my trance. 
I began to think the Board and big money donors have grown to view the theatre like a kind of mooching brother-in-law who's constantly broke and asking for more money. I think they have begun to see this profligate, living in in a huge house with whopping utility bills and a staff, needing to be taught a lesson in frugality. 
Comments and suggestions about what could have been done differently, or what could be done now, were patently ignored, fobbed off or patronizingly muted by the Board's convenient need to keep the pertinent facts confidential. 
The evening's proceedings were civil, a little catty and ultimately produced absolutely no explanation about the Board's behaviour over the last several weeks. An outcome that, I’m sure, pleased both the Board and the now drowsy doorman. The Board's message was made clear repeatedly and chanted like a mantra. There's not enough money.
Now, I totally agree that the tone and the rhetoric needed to be dialed down. After all, reputations were at stake here. Andrew Johnston doesn’t want to be known as a lightning rod in the theatre world. Besides, AD’s have a shelf life that’s typically counted in years not decades. 
But, the "... surgery to remove a limb", as a Board member described the abolition of the Artistic Director position, may have been a success but, the ultimate survival of the patient seems just as unsure now as it was three weeks ago when the decision was made to dump Andrew Johnston.
The next day, I received a follow-up email from a Board member to the effect that Johnston was told about the decision and he, Johnston, had asked for time to think about the way this would be handled. The Board member went on to say that they had discussed the need for a carefully timed press release of the restructuring so as not to adversely affect the ongoing play. The details of the announcement would be discussed with Johnston and the Executive at a meeting later that week. The Board member went on to say that Johnston, or someone else, then broke the news prematurely. 

I replied to him, asking him and or other members of the Board to attend a meeting set up by those who had felt they have a contribution to make, scheduled for September 11 at 7pm at the Hudson Community Centre, 394 rue Main, Hudson, QC

I’ll be there. Stay tuned...

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