Around 60 members of Sudbury’s arts community gathered on-stage at Sudbury Theatre Centre on Monday night for a frank — and at times emotional — round-table discussion as STC and YES Theatre attempted to clear the air about their planned merger.
Last month, STC and YES Theatre said they will be working together to put on a joint 2022-2023 season out of the STC building. The two theatre companies legally remain separate entities, but they are exploring the idea of a merger over the next year.
This situation has sparked concern from many supporters of the financially-strapped Sudbury Theatre Centre, who say merger talks earlier this year lacked transparency, and wonder what will be lost in the process.
YES Theatre founder Alessandro Costantini, currently artistic director for both YES Theatre and STC, said his intention is to preserve the legacy of Sudbury Theatre Centre, the place where he got his start.
A professional actor known for his role with the national production of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” Costantini said he is committed to making the merger work, and won’t be lured away from Sudbury by “shiny opportunities.”
“A lot of people said ‘You should have waited until STC closed’,” he said.
“That was the advice I received from very prominent people in this country, and I didn't want to do that, because I got my start in this building.
“The photos on the wall, people who have worked here, the artists who have worked in this space mean a lot to me, I did not want to say goodbye, goodbye legacy, that beautiful book you made (celebrating STC’s 50th anniversary) … This is not a death, this is an evolution.”
At the end of the nearly two-hour meeting, a former and a current member of STC’s board had an emotional exchange about the current state of affairs, seeming to express the frustration of many people with how STC has been functioning, or not functioning.
Anita Ansimaa, a former STC employee as well as board member, said she left the theatre centre’s board last year “because it was not functioning.”
“It was a very lazy board when ideas were brought up,” she said. “There was always an excuse. There was never any motivation.”
She said STC’s board could use people who are as passionate about the theatre centre as Costantini is about YES Theatre.
“And if you don't want to do it, please don't, and let people who care move with it moving forward. Or just fold. Just fold. Take the name off the building, and let them do it. Because right now all I can see is the name of the building, and a couple of pieces of legacy programming that are left over.”
One of STC’s current board members, Mary Anne Fraser, said she found Ansimaa’s comments insulting.
“I think the board has a right to say that we are as passionate about the theatre centre as Alessandro is about YES Theatre,” said Fraser, who became emotional. “And that's the most insulting thing that you can say.”
At this point, Costantini quickly wrapped up the meeting, saying “I just want to reiterate that this is a community, this is a theatre, the intention to start from is to serve the community, and everything else is minutiae to that.”
A lack of transparency was one of the major themes discussed during the meeting.
Communication from STC’s board to the community about the severity of the theatre centre’s financial problems “just wasn’t there,” said Bill Sanders, a member of the Sudbury theatre community since the 1980s.
“We would have liked a lot more transparency,” he said.
Linda Cartier, the former president of the Sudbury Arts Council, said one of the lessons learned should be that had there been transparency, “maybe there could have been less angst in the community.”
Patricia Meehan, co-chair of STC’s board of directors, addressed the transparency issues.
She brought up STC’s decision earlier this year to part ways with John McHenry, the theatre centre’s artistic director. McHenry was among those who attended the round table discussion Monday, although he did not speak during the event.
Meehan said McHenry sought “sought privacy with regards to certain decisions, which we honour at his request.”
“With regards to transparency of decision-making, we have an AGM. We have means of people finding information. We did choose not to give numerous press interviews, because we were still trying to find our way to talk to funding bodies first.”
Sudbury Theatre Centre board member Brian Koivu told those gathered at the event that STC has been operating out of a line of credit for the past six years. He said the city provided STC with $200,000 in 2017, and the theatre centre cut its accumulated debt from $500,000 to $250,000 at that time. STC currently has a mortgage on its building of $130,000 and a line of credit of about $100,000.
Koivu said the theatre centre never contemplated filing for creditor protection, and doesn’t have a long list of creditors. “But we've just reached the point where trying to match revenues and expenditures became impossible to the point of being exhausted,” he said.
Scott Denniston, general manager of both theatre companies, explained that for the next year, the partnership will see STC and YES Theatre share both the costs of putting on live theatre and the profits that are brought in.
Several people at the meeting also spoke about Sudbury Theatre Centre’s decision to withdraw from the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (or PACT).
The organization that requires members to uphold professional standards, safety and certain levels of pay.
However, Costantini told Sudbury.com last month that with the collaboration of YES Theatre and STC, “our employment of Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) members will increase by 24 positions this year.”
“This is a huge departure from STCs mandate,” said Lara Bradley, a local playwright.
“Professional does not necessarily mean good,” said Meehan. “It also doesn’t mean that it brings the crowds in.”
Central to the vision for the new collaboration between YES Theatre and STC is the concept of “citizen artistry,” which might see a professional actor performing alongside someone in their first play.
Given that YES Theatre is predominantly known for putting on musicals, there has also been some concern that other types of theatre will take the backseat.
Kim Fahner, a former Greater Sudbury poet laureate, said she became a playwright because of STC’s Playwright’s Junction program. She said she didn’t see a lot of text-based plays in the plans for the upcoming shared STC-YES Theatre season.
Costantini asked if Fahner felt that her development as a playwright was threatened because of the STC-YES Theatre partnership.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Fahner said. “OK, so it’s not,” Costantini said, adding that a robust playwrights’ new works development program will be created.
He said that although he’s worked extensively in musical theatre, he trained as a classical actor. “There will be a variety of material in this space, and that's what we're working on right now to program,” Costantini said.
Heidi Ulrichsen is the associate content editor at Sudbury.com. She also covers education and the arts scene.