Buddies in Bad Times’ new board chair leaves amid ongoing tensions about the future of the Toronto theatre

Last year, staff demanded restructuring and more power in hiring decisions

In the aftermath of the resignation of the entire board of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in December and January, the original chair of the newly-appointed board has already resigned. Before the wave of resignations, the company had already lost the lead of an advisory committee that has been looking into racism, anti-Blackness and other forms of oppression at the LGBTQ2S+ cultural institution.

The three members of the new board, appointed Jan. 26 (Jason Aviss, as board chair; Christina Cicko and Brendan McMurtry-Howlett as members), were suggested by a group of staff at Buddies and appointed by three departing board members who stayed on to help the transition. But Aviss, who works for a non-profit providing financial services to arts organizations, has since resigned. Now, McMurtry-Howlett, a director, performer, creator and teacher, has replaced him as chair. Cicko, a production co-ordinator at York University’s School of the Arts, remains on the board, while Ashley Belmer, a senior manager of communications at Shaw Festival, has replaced Aviss. None of the new board members agreed to be interviewed for this story.

Conflict between a staff group and the old board and senior staff members over the direction of the company seems to have come to a head after a November 2021 letter was sent by eight staff members to the board hiring committee tasked with hiring a new artistic director. The theatre has not had an artistic director since Evalyn Parry, who had led the company since 2015, left one year short of her intended six-year term in August 2020.

“We were turning it over to that staff group in large measure,” said Russell Mathew, one of the departing board members who stayed on until the new board was in place. “We asked them for a list of people they thought were appropriate. The people proposed seemed to be decent people of goodwill.”

“Our insistence on and multiple requests for greater transparency and dialogue between the staff and leadership have largely gone unheeded.”

The letter accused the organization of lacking transparency and failing to address concerns of institutional racism, despite an organizational review that had begun in mid-2020.

“In August 2020, when Evalyn announced her resignation as Artistic Director, we, the undersigned staff, were hopeful that company Leadership, including the Managing Director and the Board of Directors, would work in the spirit of transformation to reimagine the possibilities of a queer theatre and address the organization’s adherence to the status quo that has allowed for systemic and structural racism to go mostly unaddressed,” the letter stated.

“Fifteen months later, this hope has quieted. Our insistence on and multiple requests for greater transparency and dialogue between the staff and leadership have largely gone unheeded. And while the message of transformation has persisted in public-facing communications, the internal reality is quite different. In key moments throughout this period, including Annemarie Shrouder’s organizational review and the latest round of Board recruitment, we have continuously felt unsupported and ignored by the Board of Directors.”

 

According to the Toronto Star, three of the board members who resigned are people of colour: Alia Ahmed, Rain Chan and Andrew Wang. Mathew says everybody on the board agreed with the need to address issues of racism, but he suggested that the pandemic—which shut down most Buddies events for almost two years—heightened the tensions over how to do so.

“It was an opportunity for a lot of people to think about a lot of things,” he said. “They focused on a number of issues that were going on, matters of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“The idea was that they could somehow be replaced with a non-hierarchical structure. I don’t think staff really understood the role of the board.”

At the end of January, two of the older, longest-serving staff members—bar manager Patricia Wilson, who had worked there for almost 30 years, and managing director Shawn Daudlin, who had worked there for almost 25 years—announced they had “agreed to be terminated,” according to a post by Wilson on social media, causing some supporters of Buddies to wonder if an intergenerational battle was driving a purge.

The staff members contacted by Xtra for this story did not agree to be interviewed (one, Daniel Carter, interim director of operations and programming, did talk to Xtra about the future of the company for a different story). But Mathew suggests their concerns about how Buddies operated extended beyond grappling with racism and anti-Blackness.

“There were a few issues around hiring a new artistic director and what sort of organization we should be going forward. There was just a very strong effort put forward by staff to change the structures and all the senior management and board. The idea was that they could somehow be replaced with a non-hierarchical structure. I don’t think staff really understood the role of the board,” says Mathew. “It was highly ideological. There was a lot of discounting and ultimately dismissing of the views of certain people. Especially older people who have been around for a long time. White people were part of the problem, the oppressors. It created a fair bit of conflict. It got a bit heated at various points. There were fairly significant demands made of the board, mostly to leave. It just made the place an impossible place to work for some. It was ungovernable.”

Perceptions of racism definitely played a part in the tensions. After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and the ensuing protests led by Black Lives Matter that dominated the news, Buddies released a statement: “In light of the community calls to action that have arisen over the last few weeks, we are pausing most of our Pride programming at this time to reflect and take action on structural racism within our organization.” This came just two weeks after the theatre had launched its Pride programming for the year.

“Latif said that while the festival had produced an impressive mission statement about its approach to racism, it was hard to take it seriously given ‘the history of harm that has occurred.’”

That June, Buddies created an anti-racism reading group and the Board of Directors’ Transformation Committee to focus on an organizational review of “racism, anti-Blackness, and equity within our institution.”

In August 2020, artist Shaista Latif posted a video to Facebook criticizing the failure of the Rhubarb Festival, which is produced by Buddies, to address issues of racism. Latif said that while Buddies had produced an impressive mission statement about its approach to racism, it was hard to take it seriously given “the history of harm that has occurred,” particularly “when the very institution has been at the centre of creating so much harm and is still not being transparent in its process of accountability and is disregarding the many marginalized voices, including myself, in this process.” That same month, Parry announced her departure, citing her wife’s health concerns. Parry did not agree to be interviewed for this story, but told the Toronto Star in January: “The not-for-profit board structure itself is one that desperately needs to be reimagined,” Parry said. “It is an antiquated, colonial structure that serves to keep the status quo in place, even and especially within the arts.”

“The overarching goal of this review is to facilitate reconciliation and accountability with the Buddies community.”

In October 2020, the Buddies board brought on the diversity and inclusion consulting firm Annemarie Shrouder International to conduct a multi-phase organizational review. “The overarching goal of this review is to facilitate reconciliation and accountability with the Buddies community, as well as building active understanding of anti-oppression work, particularly as it relates to addressing racism and anti-Black racism.” Then, in the summer of 2021, they initiated another review, known as the Buddies Advisory Committee, led by Toronto writer and community activist Zainab Amadahy and including Latif. This review, the results of which Buddies says will be made public, is to “discuss how Buddies can learn about, respond to, and play a role in healing harms that have been done over the years to racialized and other vulnerable folks within the community.” However, Amadahy resigned from the committee in January.

Marusya Bociurkiw, a Buddies board member from December 2018 to December 2021, told the Toronto Star that the committee wasn’t getting the respect it needed. “When the community began calling out Buddies for racist harm, BIPOC board members and allies including myself initiated the Board’s Transformation Committee,” Bociurkiw told the Star in January. “But it wasn’t enough, and there was never complete buy-in by the rest of the board regarding the work of the Transformation Committee. As I see it, the board was lagging behind the important changes that were happening on stage and behind the scenes at Buddies.”

The November 2021 staff letter to the hiring committee included two key recommendations: to reimagine the organization’s leadership structure and to include term limits within the job posting. The eight signatories also made a series of demands, including that the hiring committee review Parry’s initial resignation letter and recommendations, and that the committee “engage Evalyn in a consultation process.” The signatories were Daniel Carter, who was at the time interim programming director; Jacqueline Costa, acting director of production; Clayton Lee, director of the Rhubarb Festival; Julia Lewis, box office and front of house manager; Jonathan MacArthur, marketing and engagement manager; Aidan Morishita-Miki, communications and outreach manager; steph raposo, rental and events manager; and Chris Reynolds, manager of touring.

In their letter, the staff members concluded by stressing the need for more input from staff.

“Since Evalyn’s resignation, we have been told by the Board of Directors time and time again that there isn’t enough time to include the staff,” stated the letter. “We, the undersigned, are asking, again, to be included in this process in a meaningful way. We believe that all of us, including the Hiring Committee, are collectively interested in seeing the organization transform in a way that simultaneously addresses its history of structural and systemic racism and becomes more responsive to the needs of our many communities, here, now, and in the future.”

Correction: March 8, 2022 10:13 amThis story has been altered since publication to clarify the departure date of Zainab Amadahy from the advisory committee and the spelling of her name.

Krishna Rau

Krishna Rau is a Toronto-based freelance writer with extensive experience covering queer issues.

Read More About:
Culture, Identity, Feature, News, Toronto, Arts, Theatre

Keep Reading

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 14 power ranking: The final three

For the first time since Season 12— and the first time intentionally since Season 8—we have just three queens in the finale

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 14 recap: An open book

A “House of Hidden Meanings”-inspired memoir challenge gives us one last elimination

What does ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs. The World’ Season 2’s ending tell us about its future?

It can’t help but feel like “The World” is facing an impossible challenge
Brendan Healy wears a tight white collared shirt and two small hoop earrings. He has short brown hair and a short greying beard. His eyes are blue.

Brendan Healy on the loneliness of being gay, finding connection in theatre and bringing ‘The Inheritance’ to Toronto

The Canadian Stage artistic director brings Matthew López’s two-part masterpiece to the stage