Tuesday, July 3, 2012

After Dark, July 3, 2012

The Executioners
A little WTF and some solutions
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

In the short life of the Charlebois Post websites, I have had the misfortune of being witness to at least two executions.

At the end of last summer, the board of the Hudson Village Theatre in Quebec summarily dismissed the artistic director, Andrew Johnston. At the end of this theatre season the board of Factory Theatre in Toronto summarily dismissed artistic director, Ken Gass.

I am completely aware of how hyperbolic I am being with the word "executions" but the fact remains that no matter the nice words spoken after such dismissals, they still bring a cloud over the reputation of the person dismissed. How many conversations - perhaps in hushed whispers - have I heard where one or the other of these two artists were discussed in terms of, "I wonder how they fucked up."

We need boards and ADs who are happily "married".

I am certainly not going to defend the boards in these two cases. They made a dog's breakfast of something that should be done with diplomacy, elegance and the utmost respect. But I am going to defend the "idea" of boards. The problem with the idea is that, in this country, it seems to have gone terribly askew. The intentions are good, but I don't need to remind anyone of the rest of the aphorism.

We need to act to redefine what a board should be and what it can do. We need ironclad contracts for our artistic leaders so they can see their vision for a company to its end and the leaders have to state this vision loudly - to invite Canadians (not just theatre artists) to understand it. We need boards and ADs who are happily "married". The health of our greatest arts organizations demand it.

What we do not need - and what we have seen in these two dismissals - is board members who - for good or ill - think they are doing the right thing being treated in fora (Facebook, Twitter) like they were douchebags (a word that is fairly common to the conversation). Yes, the boards in these two cases showed a level of hamfistedness and PR retardation that beggars the imagination, but there is no doubt this is not what they set out to do and NOT ALL BOARDS ARE LIKE THAT.

I'll say it again: Not all boards are like that.

So what should we do now? Artistic directors who have found the ideal model need to step forward and point to it; why it works, what type of people are on it. Right off, it is clear we need to change the system of board appointments. The Factory board, for instance, may all be saints and martyrs but the fact that there was only one artist among them is simply stupid.

PACT needs to get involved. Actors' Equity needs to say something. But nobody needs to say too much because, clearly, we know what to do. The evidence is in happy, functioning theatres across the land.

We just need to know what that evidence is.

1 comment:

  1. I've been sitting on theatre boards for over 20 years now, so here's my $0.02 on the subject.

    Part of the problem is that, technically, the board of directors is at the very top of the food chain of any not-for-profit, so they are the people who are financially responsible for the success or failure of the organization. Much as it would seem from the outside that the AD is the boss/owner, he or she is (again technically) just an employee. And when there's serious disagreement between an employee and employer, guess who wins and who gets fired?

    There is a long-standing tradition that employees/ADs should not be members of the board, but it's not a legal requirement. As long as members of the board aren't being paid for being members of the board, they can hold jobs in the organization and sit on the board at the same time. Which is how most small companies work.

    The real problems arise, in my opinion, when an AD gets the kind of standing that a Ken Gass has - putting his own money into the organization and being considered the heart & soul of the company. At that point (again, in my opinion), the board and the AD should agree to appoint the AD to the board. That way, there's no dissonance between the perception and the working reality, and everyone is working together as equals. I think the last thing any AD wants is a board who ties his hands - but it also sucks to not have a clear mandate and direction. Good planning and honesty about expectations and limitations are key, and that goes both ways.

    As for contracts, well, as Mr. Goldwyn once said, a handshake isn't worth the paper it's printed on....


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