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Documents of Interest - A Stratford Tempest, December 6, 1980

In 1979, the Stratford Festival Board, after the departure of Robin Phillips (and after criticism about non-Canadian artistic directors) hired Urjo Kareda, Martha Henry, Pam Brighton and Peter Moss to share the directorship of the company. Two months later, after the directors had submitted a proposed season (which the Board contended would send the company deeply into the red), the directors were fired. The angry letter, sent by the "Gang of 4" (as they have come to be known), was read into the minutes of the general assembly of the Stratford membership by a member of the acting company, Greg Wanless.

"This will be the last public statement made by the Canadian artistic directorate of the Stratford Festival - empowered September 13, 1980, dissolved November 10, 1980, both actions executed by the 1980 Stratford Festival Board of Governors.

"If it had been possible for people to look at us as we looked at ourselves, as a single organism, then it would be clear that the qualifications, the expertise and the experience of this organism were varied and powerful indeed. This artistic directorate, a unit implemented by the 1980 Board for the purpose of supplying artistic leadership, was Canadian-born, a naturalized citizen, and had landed-immigrant status. It had roots in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and in England. It received education and obtained degrees at the University of Toronto, Cambridge University, London University, Michigan State University, Carnegie-Mellon and the National Theatre School of Canada. It has run two theatres and has helped to run the administration of the Stratford Festival for a collective ten years, including four years on the Board's own planning committee. It has directed and co-directed fifteen productions at the Stratford Festival. It has worked on new plays by James Reaney, Timothy Findley, Sheldon Rosen, Larry Fineberg, Suzanne Grossman, , Steve Petch, Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, Edna O'Brien, Edward Bond and David Edgar. It has worked at the Shaw Festival, Lincoln Centre, the Royal Court Theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Centaur Theatre (Montreal), Theatre London, the Globe Theatre (Regina), the Phoenix, the Half Moon Theatre, the Leatherhead Theatre, the Arena Stage in Washington, the Leicester Haymarket, Theatre Plus, Toronto Workshop Productions, the Adelaide Court, the Young Vic, the Adelaide Theatre Festival in Australia, the New Play Centre, the Crest Theatre, the Canadian Players, the Crewe Theatre, the Leicester Phoenix, Young People's Theatre and in the West End. It has worked for the BBC and the CBC. It has acted in thirty-two productions on the Stratford Festival stage, given approximately fifteen hundred performances. It has worked under the artistic direction of Robin Phillips, John Hirsch, Jules Irving, Jean Gascon, Jean Roberts, Marigold Charlesworth, Oscar Lewenstein, Murray Davis, Vivian Matalon, William Hutt, Edward Gilbert, Anthony Page, William Gaskill, Lindsay Anderson, Zelda Fichandler, Michael Bogdanov, Paxton Whitehead, Marion André, Robin Midgley, George Luscombe and Michael Langham. It has worked for five years as a drama critic for a leading Canadian newspaper. It has taught at the University of Toronto, Michigan State University and the National Theatre School. It has won awards from both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail as 'director of the year.' It has won grants and fellowships from the Canada Council, a British Arts Council associate director's award, a Theatre World award and a Genie. It has worked in the theatre for a combined total of sixty-three years. It has been married six times and has five children. It has never - until November 10, 1980 - been fired.

"On November 10, 1980, the Stratford Festival Board of Governors chose to dissolve this artistic directorate.

"We have stood by until now without a formal public statement because we knew perfectly well that not every member of the Board was responsible for this decision. However, they continue to present themselves as a complete entity with the right to slander our professional reputations. The continual and constant media coverage since November 10 has summarized the events leading up to that date in a misleading and often totally inaccurate fashion. Not one member of the 1980 Board has spoken on our behalf. We can no longer allow this situation to continue.

"On the CBC on November 11, John Lawson of the Board said, 'It comes back to maintaining a financially viable theatre. If the artistic directorate could have done that, then fine. Unfortunately, they were not able to, in the Board's opinion.'

"Peter Trueman on the Global TV news on November 27 said, 'The Stratford Board hired Dexter two weeks after the firing of its four-person artistic directorate for coming up with a financially unviable season.'

"These statements are false.

"We were given the go-ahead by the Board, in a letter of intent signed by R.V. Hicks at 3 P.M. on Saturday, September 13, 1980. We were fired at 8:15 P.M. on Monday 10, 1980. Between these two dates, working swiftly and with the total support of a highly efficient and gifted production staff, we were able to plan a 1981 season.

"We had made commitments to five Canadian directors, not counting Pam Brighton herself; seven of these eleven productions were to have been directed by Canadians, and three directors were invited from England. We had made actual verbal offers to seventeen leading actors, and on Monday afternoon, November 10, we had drawn up the basic construction of the rest of the company, which would have reached a total of approximately seventy-five actors. We had scheduled auditions in Vancouver. We were in the process of constructing a workshop and teaching situation which would have involved permanent movement, voice, fencing and Alexander technique instructors working within the company, as well as text, improvisation and music sessions taught by senior members of the acting company and the artistic staff. We had begun discussions with Michael Ondaatje (working with Paul Thompson) and Erika Ritter about new scripts for the 1982 season, following workshop explorations in 1981. We had a meeting scheduled for November 14, 1980, with Nielsen-Ferns to discuss a forthcoming link in film production. And we had asked Len Cariou to do a solo concert on a Monday night in August during the 1981 season.

"Although we had within the building no person empowered to draw up any contracts for the actors, directors and playwrights we had contacted, no person other than the executive director, Peter Stevens, and therefore we have not one signed contract for the 1981 season, we do have documented proof of our work. This is documentation of commitments in the form of notes, memos, letters, telegrams, and verifiable telephone conversations to prove that every word of the above is true and factual. We have not included the names of artists from whom we had not yet heard, nor of artists who turned down our invitation. We have not included the many thoughts and plans which were only in our heads or in private notes. Everything stated above was actually in the works.

"On October 21, 1980, this season was presented to the planning committee of the Board, and was received with acceptance and, indeed, enthusiasm. (Arnold Edinborough, who was at the meeting, wrote a laudatory paragraph about our plans in his column in the Financial Post appearing November 1, 1980.)

"On October 31, 1980, a balanced budget based on this same season was submitted to the Canada Council in a detailed application signed by R.V. Hicks, the Board president; Peter Stevens, the executive director; and Gary Thomas, the general manager. On that same date the Board executive - by its own account - 'unanimously agreed to recommend to the Board that the program should not be proceeded with and the artistic directorate be disbanded.' Also on October 31, the Board states - in its own account - that they learned that John Dexter was available.

"On November 2, members of the Board met with John Dexter. By November 5, this same season had acquired a deficit of $1.3 million, and in the same breath we were told that we were being replaced by John Dexter as a fait accompli.

"At a press conference on November 17, the Board was asked by what manner they had arrived at this deficit figure. Gary Thomas, Stratford's newly appointed (October 15) general manager, stated that using attendance data collected over twenty-eight years, they had decided that our proposed season would not come in at the eighty percent attendance in the festival Theatre they had set down in the Canada Council application, but only sixty-five percent, and that the Avon would draw only sixty percent rather than the budgeted seventy-five percent. (The figure of $1.3 million can be culled only by taking fifteen percent off a total projected revenue, a total which includes corporate funding and council grants as well as box-office revenue.)

"Yet we used some figures from these past twenty-eight seasons in helping us plan our 1981 season, and they may be interesting here: In 1997, Ghosts at the Avon Theatre (an Ibsen play like The Wild Duck we planned for 1981) drew 87.2 percent of capacity. In 1980, The Gin Game - a famous American play with Kate Reid and Douglas Rain, who were both to appear in another famous American play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - achieved 89.7 percent attendance. In 1977, when Maggie Smith opened in As You Like It at the latter end of the season, as she would have done with Madame Sans Gêne in 1981, the production achieved 92.9 percent attendance. In 1976, The Merchant of Venice achieved 87.5 percent regular attendance and 96.2 percent at school performances; in 1970 The Merchant of Venice achieved 96.6 percent. In 1969, Hamlet on the Festival stage, without an international star, achieved ninety-three percent. In 1976 The Way of the World, in 1970 The School for Scandal and in 1972 She Stoops to Conquer - all examples of non-Shakespearian classic comedies on the Festival stage, as The Rivals would have been in 1981 - achieved over ninety percent attendance. Eve, a new Canadian work at the Avon, achieved 99.4 percent attendance in 1976; John Murrell's Waiting for the Parade, its popularity already established in this country, could reasonably be expected, given its cast, to attract a large audience. In 1968, John Hirsch's production of The Three Musketeers, a French popular classic as Madame Sans Gêne would have been in 1981, achieved 95.2 percent.

"If the Board of Governors wished to fire us because they were more impressed with someone else's biography, then fine: let them do it. But let them do it cleanly and let them have the courage to say that's why they are doing it. We might be angry or wish to jump on a nationalist bandwagon, but basically we would have had no recourse. The Board runs the theatre and has the final say, as much as we might disagree with their decision.

"But for the Board to try to discredit us artistically and financially in order to justify their decision is intolerable. For a building contractor, the vice-president of a furniture company and an insurance man to sit in front of us (as Oliver Gaffney, John Heney, and John Lawson did on November 23, 1980), and tell us that our season was not artistically viable is a ludicrous, craven and intolerable insult.

"We would demand from this Board of Governors some evidence of its honesty and good faith. The Board has created this crisis, and only the Board can resolve it. Nothing can happen until confidence and good faith are restored. Not until that faith is restored can the Stratford Festival represent Canada or Canadians. Let them quickly empower a Canadian or Canadians as artistic directors so that Actors Equity can lift its boycott, and so that the Stratford Festival can proceed with a 1981 season which we could call upon the entire artistic community of this country to support."

Source: Martin Knelman. A Stratford Tempest. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982.

Last updated 2020-07-29