Open Letter from the Board of Directors of Factory Theatre

From the Factory Theatre (July 30, 2012)

To our patrons, subscribers, artists, funders, sponsors and the broader Canadian theatre community:

As many of you are aware, a boycott against Factory Theatre was announced on Wednesday, July 25.

This letter represents the position of each of us on the Factory Board and, as a result, it is comprehensive, as we wish to address the following issues as clearly as possible:

  • Ken Gass’ contract termination
  • The critical need for physical accessibility and improved artist working conditions at Factory Theatre while maintaining the Theatre’s long term financial and operational sustainability
  • The impact of any boycott on the artists and staff at Factory Theatre and the wider community
  • How Factory moves forward from here, including a role for Ken

Before we discuss these issues, all members of the Factory Board would like to say, again, that we have significant respect for Ken Gass, for his passion, and for the contribution he has made towards igniting Canadian theatre and giving Canadian playwrights a voice.

If you had asked me over a year ago if we would be in this current situation, I would have told you that it was absurd. Many of the Board members were chosen by Ken to join the board or joined because of him. We nominated him for awards and later celebrated those successes with him. And, during the last decade when we were faced with large deficits and key staff turnover, we buckled down and worked hard to support Ken and the Theatre by finding new ways to ensure financial stability.

My personal role with Factory started in 1999 when Ken asked for my help with the negotiations and financing to buy the building that is Factory’s home. In 2005, Ken personally invited me to join the Board and subsequently I was asked to become Chair. For many years he and I have had a strong and fruitful relationship.

Ken Gass’ termination of contract

It is an indisputable fact that until the most recent events, the entire Board has supported Ken and the Theatre in good times and bad. Our differences are not about the artistic direction of the Theatre, as both Ken and we have acknowledged. As a volunteer Board of a registered charity, our job and our commitment must first be to the sustainability of Factory Theatre. This is also part of the job of the Artistic Director.

The termination of Ken Gass’ contract as Artistic Director was not a decision that was taken lightly; it represents the conclusion of an AD/Board relationship that deteriorated over a considerable number of months. However, a board’s loyalty must be to the entire theatre and the broader community, not just one person. Our job is to insure that Factory Theatre remains for many generations.

It is now a matter of public record that one of the key issues that led to the deterioration of the AD/Board relationship was related to the capital project to provide physical accessibility and improved conditions for artists, which the Theatre intends to launch. I would like to provide some additional context here.

The Factory has had some very tough times over the last decade, starting in 2004 when six of nine of the Board of Directors resigned followed by an accumulated deficit of over $350,000. While the company struggled with reducing its deficit, subscriptions plummeted to just over one-third of our previous high of over 1200.

Many of us were invited to join the Board, by Ken, to help fix these problems, and working with the Artistic and Managing Directors and with the support of Creative Trust’s deficit reduction program, we did a good job. We have recently completed a year with no cash crisis and proudly report that 2011/12 subscriptions were up 41% over the previous season.

Stabilized and entering into a renewed growth period, we began to look at Factory’s longer term future. With Metcalf Foundation support, we had developed a potential vision that would double its square footage from approximately 17,000 square feet to 33,000 square feet. The cost estimate prepared by a commercial estimator in 2009 for the work was $14 million, excluding capital campaign costs. As fiscally prudent managers, the Board could not and did not commit to this large capital project. In year three of the Metcalf project, a new Managing Director was hired and her efforts have led to improved focus on subscribers and operational management.

During a 2010 Strategic Planning session, in which Ken participated, we determined that physical accessibility to the theatre was a priority. As many of you know, the stairs to the box office and the Factory main space are a barrier to many of who would otherwise attend our performances. In fact, some patrons and subscribers had told us that they could no longer come to the Theatre because they could not access any of our spaces.

In 2011, the company secured initial funding of approximately $400,000 to $500,000 to start a capital project for Factory that addressed physical accessibility in the Theatre as well as improvements for artists’ conditions in the Studio theatre. At a cost of $1.5 million, with 60% allocated to accessibility [patron elevator, ground-floor box office for both stages and washroom accessibility] and 40% to improve conditions for artists in the Studio Theatre [improved technical equipment, sound separation between backstage and theatre areas, the creation of more appropriate dressing rooms and washroom facilities etc], this would be Factory’s largest capital project since the acquisition of the building in 1999. It would require fundraising of over $1million. This project had to be successful to ensure there was confidence in the capacity of the organization to build a next phase of capital improvements.

In the fall of 2011, the Board formed a Capital Committee to manage this specific project,a standard and prudent procedure for any large undertaking, and we established a fundraising committee. The AD and MD were members of the capital committee and provided their input throughout, as did Shawn Kerwin, a Board member and artist who often works at Factory. The Committee worked to move the project from the initial concept to detailed drawings, detailed costing, financing negotiated line of credit (as a backstop), the arrangement of multiple quotes, and the provision of regular feedback to the Board. Ken and Sara as ex-officio members of the Board are invited to all board meetings.

While some may see this smaller capital project as modest, we see it as having critical objectives – provide physical accessibility and provide our artists with better working conditions in the Studio Theatre. The architect who created the larger scheme worked with us to develop this concept to integrate the elevator access, arrivals and box office, and undertake key artist improvements. This plan, the basis for the revised $1.5 million capital project that received Board approval in January 2012, was reconfirmed at a Board meeting on March 26, 2012, at which Ken was present.

A day prior to the Board meeting (March 25, 2012), Ken wrote a letter to the Board, expressing some reservations over the smaller capital project while maintaining his commitment to the larger vision of the 2009 plans:

“I recognize there are simply different viewpoints at play here, and I take none of it personally. I also remain extremely appreciative of the now engaged volunteer effort from members of the board and will be respectful of the decisions the board makes. However, I will absolutely not give up on the larger vision, whatever we do in the interim.”

At that time, the Board understood that Ken was saying that he respectfully disagreed with the plan but would allow the Theatre to move forward. And he said he did not intend to give up on the larger vision. But neither did the Board – our only issue was with focusing attention and limited resources on a massive project for which we had no money. A month later, Ken’s tone and position changed.

Letter from Ken Gass to the Board, April 22, 2012:

“The members of the (Capital) Committee bring varying degrees of expertise to the planning and construction process, but they have no experience running a theatre or similar arts organization.”

My letter to Ken, April 24, 2012:

“We have a Board approved capital project that is in the final design stage for building permits. We have $500,000 in public sector funding and $400,000 in bridge financing, with a summer 2012 construction window. In addition, there is a financial and business plan in place for this project – a project that is designed to make Factory Theatre more accessible to its audiences.

In addition to this initial project, there is full Board support to explore future, bolder and larger capital renovations to support the theatre’s operations and ultimately, to support what is required to grow Factory Theatre into a significantly larger theatrical operation. The Board of Directors,however, does not feel that Factory Theatre is currently financially stable enough, on an annual basis, to take on a broader capital project. Instead, we continue to believe that the smaller project is the most viable for the theatre’s immediate future. Once completed, we feel we can then examine Factory’s next set of needs (and our capabilities to fulfill them), so that we can turn our attention to bolder capital initiatives.”

Ken wanted the Board to financially commit to the larger vision by a specific date, and we refused, not because we didn’t support the vision. We did. But with current circumstances, how could we commit when we did not know when we would be in the financial position to launch the project? There was no suggestion of the Board wishing or attempting to “run” the Theatre. That is the job of the Artistic and Managing Directors.

To put this in perspective: if the current smaller capital project has a cost of $1.5 million (with as much as 50% of the project receiving government funding), we would need to raise approximately 3.5 times what Factory has raised in an average year. With the demand for a commitment to the $15 million project (assuming that we did receive $8 million in government funding), Ken was insisting that the Board of Directors commit to a project that would mean Factory Theatre would have to secure additional private sector support of nearly 40 times what we have been able to raise in the past. No responsible board could ever commit to an expense that was 40 times its normal fundraising revenue.

We met with Ken to obtain his support of the smaller project, separate from the larger plan, and he again refused. We sought mediation, but there was no common ground. Ken began to actively (initially without the Board’s knowledge) oppose the renovation in a manner that both undermined the Board and the entire project. In the balance was funding for hundreds of thousands of dollars, as there were timelines set to expire. We were in danger of being left with no accessibility for patrons who required it and no improved working conditions for artists.

We could not and will not make a financial commitment without sufficient due diligence and the assurance that the plan is achievable given organizational capacities and the current financial climate. That is why we did not agree to set a date by which we would be spending nearly $15 million or more on a massive project. For theatre companies in Toronto, financial stability is a relative concept. In recent memory, we have seen friends at other theatres require public support to avoid bankruptcy. Thanks to support from our subscribers and prudent management, Factory was able to pull itself out of a challenging situation and wind up on a firm fiscal foundation. Why would we undermine all this hard work?

The impact on staff and artists of a boycott

The Board and I, and the many people who have written to us, have been deeply disturbed by the assaults on the institution and its 2012-2013 season. Artists who committed to Factory have faced extraordinary pressure to pull their work – threatening to undo the art that has taken years to develop and prepare for the stage.

To have this pressure then followed by a call for a boycott of Factory Theatre, supported by Ken, its founder, is unfathomable. It must be assumed that while any boycott seems inconsistent with Ken’s statement below, it seems that it does have his support or he would have taken strong steps to end it.

From the site:

“…I just want to make clear, I would NEVER ask artists to pull their work from the season, no matter who is running the theatre… Also, artists simply need the work.”

Any boycott is a direct attack on the livelihoods of the artists and staff who work at the Theatre or wish to work there. It creates tremendous pressure on the staff who work in effect to serve the season and the artists. It undermines and even threatens the future of the institution that Ken, as one of its two founders, envisaged. It defies logic, pits artists against artists, confuses supporters and audiences, and is destructive to the Theatre as a long-term institution. Who benefits? The boycott and harassment of artists needs to stop. There are better tools to engage debate.

Moving forward

When we made Ken the Artistic Director Emeritus offer, we did so with the understanding that we could confidentially discuss this new paradigm with him. Ken elected to immediately and very publicly reject it. We were trying to create a position that reflected his stature as a co-founder of Factory, and particularly his contributions over the past 16 years, in an effort to ensure a continuing role with Factory outside the AD position.

In an ideal world, the Board would like to find a way for Ken to be a part of Factory and its future. We have always expected Ken to have a role at Factory. He has much to offer.

Meanwhile, we will continue with the search of a new Artistic Director to provide the artistic vision, develop long term strategic artistic plans, and to work collaboratively with the Board, staff and community in realizing a vision for the future.

In conclusion, let me repeat what I said at the beginning, a board’s loyalty must be to the entire theatre and the broader community, and our job is to insure that Factory Theatre remains for many generations. We hope we can count on your support.

Yours very truly,

Ron Struys
Chair of Factory Board
With the members of the Board