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Why this boy won't boycott

Why this boy won't boycott

The old saw goes that the only people who regularly attend the theatre are gays, Jews and women of a certain age. To judge from the latest controversy enveloping Toronto’s Factory Theatre, even these die-hard ticket buyers might not be showing up next season.

The last show I had produced in Toronto was True Love Lies — at the Factory Theatre three years ago. The experience, despite my long and mutually respectful relationship with Ken Gass, its founding artistic director, was not a positive one. I made my dissatisfaction with the promotional and administrative end of things clear to Ken and his staff and decided I would not work there again.

So when I heard Ken had been fired by his board of directors a few months ago, I initially thought it was a very positive move — until they revealed that their reason for sacking Gass had nothing to do with the quality of his work but was based on a disagreement about the future of the Factory Theatre building. It seemed a lame excuse, and the dismissal seemed particularly callous.

The community wailed and cried. Petitions were signed. Plays were pulled. Public condemnations rang out, and, when none of the above created the desired effect, people called for a boycott of Factory Theatre.

That’s when I felt the protest had gone too far.

There are two words that should never be uttered together, and they are “boycott” and “theatre.” The largest part of the general populace has unconsciously done this already.

Despite the potency and influence of the medium, theatre audiences — except in the most commercial offerings — have continued to decline over the last 10 years. People who are quite willing to spend hundreds and thousands on electronic forms of entertainment are notoriously hard to lure into theatres with any regularity. Giving them any excuse not to come, even for what appears to be a good cause, is a very dangerous thing to do.

What does this boycott accomplish? Does it help the small but loyal audience that has supported Factory when it alters the season they signed up for? No. It just makes the theatre look unreliable. Does it punish the board? Since they’re generally unknown, unpaid and can leave anytime they want, I’d suggest it doesn’t. Does it help anyone currently working at Factory? No, it makes their jobs harder and increases the stress in an already volatile environment. Does it help those people who have already been hired for next season? Certainly not.

Does it help Ken Gass?

Personally, I don’t think so. Gass started the theatre and saved it from ruin years later. Those are not easy accomplishments. They require someone who knows how to fight his own battles. If the theatre is as much “his” as his supporters contend, then so is the board and the rulings they used to fire him. He’s already sought legal counsel, and the question will be settled in court, where it should be. Gass himself has spoken out against a boycott.

Some people have asked why this incident has been so galvanizing. People didn’t get so exercised about Richard Rose’s censoring of his own theatre company on behalf of Stephen Harper’s government when Rose chose not to produce Michael Healey’s Proud. What about the absolute lack of public interest when the Vancouver Playhouse closed? What about the two artistic directors of Stratford who vanished in the McAnuff takeover or the many other shitty, unfair things that happen in artistic institutions across the country?

What we’re seeing here is a groundswell of anger and fear that has been building for more than a decade. We who work in the theatre know we’re in trouble. The usual plays, the usual subscription seasons, the usual ways of doing things, are breaking down.

Theatres everywhere are cutting their seasons, laying off staff, programming cheaper shows, becoming more cautious and doing anything else they can, however dishonourable, to stay alive. There’s no denying that much of this fear comes from people desperate to keep jobs they might not be particularly good at. But it also comes from very talented people who rely solely on the theatre for their livelihood.

The sad truth is our audiences are dying, and we haven’t found a way to replace them. I don’t believe calling for a boycott of any theatre, at any time, for any reason, is going to help change that fact.

Postnote: When I first presented this essay on local theatre to my gay editor at the gay magazine I work for, he came back and asked me to find a way to make it clear this was germane to Xtra’s readership. I suspect that says as much about the current relevance of the theatre as anything I’ve written here.

Brad Fraser is a Toronto playwright, screenwriter and producer whose plays have been staged in Canada and around the world. Fraser’s Edge appears in every other issue of
Xtra.
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Comments

I'll reiterate
Just to be clear, If you read the article what I actually say is, "I would not work there again". I do not say I don't support the theatre or that I would never return and I certainly didn't urge anyone else to stay away for any reason. I did in return a couple of times order to support friends since then so it was hardly a boycott. Please, by all means, take umbrage with what I've written but not waste my time or your with what you think I've written. This attacking of semantics and unproven details with other unproven details makes me fairly sure I hit the nail on the head with the actual message of the piece.
Definition of Boycott
From Wikipedia:

"A boycott is an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for political reasons. It can be a form of consumer activism."

So, technically, both boycotts.
Hear hear
In Edmonton, as is happening across Canada, theatres big and small are facing exactly the pressures you describe. Whatever our feelings about the programming that remains, I suggest we continue to support our local theatre companies (particularly those that produce new plays by Canadian playwrights) and find other ways to voice opinions about programming. By staying away, we'll only ensure there are no local theatres left to bitch about.

Another great article, Brad.
Reply to bdog
I don't need to insult your intelligence. You do that quite well yourself. Boycott doesn't mean what you want it to so look it up. Also, anyone who leaves anonymous notes on the internet, unless in danger for governmental whistleblowing, is not just stupid but also a coward. That's my opinion.
We can read alright
You have a grievance with the theatre because you were unhappy with the way they operate. This is a decision. Those who have decided to join a boycott are unhappy with the way the theatre is operated, also a decision for much the same reason. In my opinion it is a case of, same shit different pile. Insulting my intelligence because I disagree with you weakens your argument. You could take the high road and encourage dialogue instead your response is dismissive and beneath you. Don't write an opinion column if you can't allow others to have their own.
Boycott, look it up.
Some people really don't know how to read. Not working with a theatre anymore is a decision, asking everyone else not to work with that theatre is a boycott. And Paul, please do send me your stats with theatre attendance going up- well- where ever-
Your arguments are off the mark
Your arguments are a little off the mark.

First, the decline in theatre attendance. I’m not sure it can be statistically supported. I’d like to see some real figures. I might be prepared to accept that there is a paradigm shift in marketing trends. The successful subscription based model that grew up in the Sixties and Seventies may not be working anymore. In all fields of entertainment (including rock and roll concerts) last minute, specific event purchasing seems to be very much what’s going on. Generally speaking subscription purchases are suffering as a result. (Although apparently during Ken’s last season it grew by more than 20% at the Factory.) On the other hand festivals over the last ten years have grown in popularity as is attested to here in town by events like Summerworks and The Fringe. Indeed in music jazz barely exists in Toronto out side of the many festivals. The audience has shifted, but I don’t think it has disappeared. The escalation in ticket prices is problematic and, of course, this grinding recession is taking it’s toll but live performance isn’t going to die. In any case ignoring the boycott at Factory isn’t likely to do much to effect capital T Theatre’s demise or evolution.

Second. You may be correct in feeling Factory failed to promote a show I thought was pretty great. Like you I frequently have been exposed to the administrative failures of the underfunded, understaffed theatres who produce my work. I have also self-produced a lot over the years and understand how hard it can be to successfully promote a play, even with a decent budget, so I have some sympathy for The Factory even if they are guilty as charged. But that, of course, is irrelevant and has nothing to do with the issue at hand as you admit so you digress. (More….)
Don't do as I do
It is hard to take the high road when taking the same action one professes to object. You won't work with the theatre and object to a boycott. Can't have it both ways.

A kind suggestion to Brad. Be a true leader. Mend the issue you have with the theatre. Produce another show there. Otherwise your wise words are just a bunch of hot air.
partisan infantilization
The note about the Xtra editor's comments to you are indicative of many things but the most germane is the turn over of Xtra from a gay audience (who traditionally support any theatre) and a Queer audience who are only interested in partisan/identity theatre that reflects their reality/interests. Gay supported art period. Queer only supports Queer and related art. Gay was polyglot; Queer is facebooked (the world is made up of only Friends or Haters).
Boycott
Interesting that you think boycotting is wrong, but then you re-iterate your own boycott of the theatre!

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