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‘Sold themselves out’: Former STC artistic director speaks out

Sudbury Theatre Centre chose not to renew John McHenry’s contract this past winter; YES Theatre’s Alessandro Costantini taking over the artistic director role in the interim
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Former Sudbury Theatre Centre artistic director John McHenry speaks at an event in 2018. (File)

The former artistic director of Sudbury Theatre Centre is speaking out following confirmation this week of what STC’s board calls a “new partnership” with YES Theatre, and what concerned supporters of the theatre are calling a merger or takeover.

“The STC board has basically sold themselves out to YES Theatre,” said John McHenry. “YES Theatre has money. STC has a building. And, you know, they’re going to see if they can make that work.”

YES Theatre staffers are now also assigned to STC, the theatre centre’s board announced this week, and the organizations will program a 2022-23 season “that fulfills both STC and YES Theatre mandates,” said the May 12 statement from STC’s board.

In early March, McHenry suddenly left the theatre company, cryptically announcing his departure by tweeting just three words: “Exit stage left.”

McHenry said STC’s board had a meeting on Feb. 23, and afterward, he was informed via a Zoom call that they would not be renewing his contract, which was up in June.

Knowing that STC’s final show of the season, a one-woman show called “This One,” had been cancelled, McHenry said decided to finish work with the theatre company in March, shortly after the beginning of the run of the production of “Ever Falling Flight.”

If there's nothing for me to do, why would I continue to go in?” he said. I'm not just going to go in and make tea and sit around all day, and drink tea.”

Around the time he was let go, Scott Denniston, who’s also the general manager for YES Theatre, started working for STC as its general manager.  

McHenry said he feels there was “no clear plan for sort of transition for the merger for the takeover, whatever you want to call it” between Denniston and STC’s board.

With overlap between STC and YES Theatre’s staff and board members, McHenry said “there's nobody there who is looking after STC’s best interests.”

Other examples of this overlap include YES Theatre founder Alessandro Costantini, revealed this week as STC’s new interim artistic director, as well as Patricia Meehan, who is both on YES Theatre’s board and the co-chair of STC’s board.

Several STC supporters have called this situation a conflict of interest.

McHenry said his concern is for the future of professional theatre in Greater Sudbury, which is not what YES Theatre does - they’re an amateur theatre company known for putting on a summer theatre festival.

“There is a place for YES Theatre, and they do good stuff,” he said, adding that YES Theatre gets funding on its own merits, but it’s from different sources than grants received by STC.

McHenry was with STC for four years. He was brought on by the theatre company to try to turn it around when it was struggling financially. 

“My first season, we had 600 more subscribers, which was way up considerably from the season before, because the subscribers enjoyed what I was programming,” he said.

“So we were off to a good start. And then other circumstances, you know, financial circumstances, the second season was a season of one person shows.”

In March 2020, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, cancelling live performances. The entire 2020-2021 season was eventually scuttled, but STC returned for its 2021-22 season last fall. 

McHenry said people were still unsure about coming out to the theatre this season due to the pandemic, and STC was already talking about cancelling its last production of the season for that reason even before his departure.

For now, McHenry remains in Sudbury, sending out resumes, and hoping someone will bite, and say “Oh my goodness, we can’t continue without John.”

Sudbury.com was also able to speak to Alessandro Costantini - now both the interim artistic director of STC and artistic and managing director of YES Theatre - following the STC board issuing a press release this week about the aforementioned changes.

He said YES Theatre was approached by STC several months back to examine ways the two organizations could collaborate.

Essentially, what we're looking at is for the 22-23 season, coming together and working on presenting the season of programming that will be very exciting, create a lot more opportunities for professional artists here in the community, and give something really compelling and wonderful for audiences in our community,” Costantini said.

“You know, in many ways, it's going to be an incredibly abundant time.”

Regarding some of the comments that have been made lately about the new relationship between STC and YES Theatre, Costantini said those who have spoken out are expressing “legitimate and real concerns.”

Asked if he finds some of these comments hurtful, Costantini said he’s “trying not to take it personally.”

He said interested individuals are welcome to attend the May 25 press conference in which YES Theatre and STC will release more information. They will be able to ask questions at that time, Costantini said.

“You know, I want to move forward in the spirit of collaboration and, and I know we'll get there because, you know, really the truth tells all, right?” he said. “We will connect, we will speak with open hearts and look to the future.”

Regarding the allegations of conflict of interest stemming from overlap between the two organizations’ boards and personnel, Costantini had this to say:

“So in regards to conflicts of interest, everything has been done above the board. Anybody who has a perceived conflict has recused themselves from conversations and deliberations in regards to these matters.”

Several concerned STC supporters have pointed out that the theatre company is a member of 

the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), while YES Theatre is not. PACT requires members to uphold professional standards, safety and certain levels of pay.

Costantini said that PACT or other organizations such as the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association do “not have jurisdiction over what constitutes professional practice, safe working conditions, equitable pay scales.

“These are things that YES Theatre values and ensures, and that has grown over the years.”

Regarding whether professionals who are members of PACT and the actors’ equity association (representing live performance artists in Canada) will be employed, Costantini said “it’s going to be a bit of an amalgamation,” but said those jobs will actually be increased.

Costantini spoke to the evolution of YES Theatre, which he started as a teen back in 2010. 

“When I was 16 years old, working in a parking lot, there were very different things that were important to me,” he said.

“Now that I am a full grown person, these things are all deeply important to me. The safety and the sustainability of artists in our community is my life's work.”

Katherine Smith, the former interim director of operations at Sudbury Theatre Centre, said the information revealed by STC’s board this week was pretty much what she thought it would be.

But Smith said “it doesn’t really address the questions that the community is asking about transparency and about conflicts of interest and about who's actually advocating for STC.”

As for the promise of more information at the May 25 press conference, Smith said “here’s hoping” that people get “actual answers” at the event, but adds she’s “sure there’s a party line.”

She said she’s not sure if she’s going to attend the press conference herself, adding it’s an emotional issue for her.

“I’ll be surprised if the transparency actually comes forward,” said Smith. “I don’t know what they could say that could sort of make what this looks like not be what it is, right?”