Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest queer theatre, has a surplus of over $400,000, an impressive achievement given the toll COVID-19 has taken on performing arts institutions. Twelve Alexander Street, the company’s home since 1994, has recently undergone significant repairs, and the company has a full slate of post-pandemic programming planned.
But in late January this year, patrons, fans and the city’s theatre community were shocked when Buddies’ entire board of directors resigned after discussions with facility staff, with three board members staying on temporarily while an interim board was appointed to ensure operations could continue. Within a few weeks, Jason Aviss, who was initially chosen as board president, left and was replaced by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett.
The board’s sudden departure is just the latest in a series of off-stage dramas at the venerable institution. The theatre has been without an artistic director since Evalyn Parry, the company’s fifth, resigned in August 2020, one year short of the six-year tenure she had planned. In June 2020, shortly before Parry left, the theatre announced that it would initiate “a comprehensive transformation process to address anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression within our organization,” though no details were given about the experiences of specific artists or whether the review process played into Parry’s decision to leave.
Shortly before the outgoing board resigned, longtime managing director Shawn Daudlin and bar manager Patricia Wilson were terminated, according to a social media post by Wilson, without explanation. Wilson’s departure, in particular, sparked a community uproar. A beloved artist, musician, poet and writer who’d worked with the company for over three decades, Wilson is an icon of Toronto’s queer scene. (An online fundraising campaign for Wilson has raised over $70,000 so far.)
How does a venerated and financially stable queer institution end up without a board or key leaders? I spoke with several dozen Toronto theatre people, both on and off the record, about the forces that have caused the meltdown and how the company might survive the current crisis. Opinions on the organization’s past and future were both diverse and conflicted. But a common theme emerging in nearly all my conversations was the difficulty of generational change: younger artists unhappy with established systems pitted against older artists feeling shouted down and pushed out.
Playwright and performer Sky Gilbert established the theatre in 1979 as a maverick institution unafraid of offending delicate sensibilities. Plays like Ban This Show (about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe) and Suzie Goo: Private Secretary (a drag musical exploring trans identity) offered frank discussions of promiscuous sex and skewered notions of binary gender. His approach embraced sexual hedonism, including hosting BDSM dungeon parties at the space, and dismissed heteronomative practices, like same-sex marriage, often putting him at odds with both the conservative media and the mainstream queer community. Although Gilbert left Buddies in 1997, taking up a career in academia, he continued to present work there, along with hosting cabaret nights and drag shows. Some observers say his provocative mindset lingered in the company’s leadership, even as it became less appealing to a new generation of artists. But the issues at play in the departure of the board are not merely about the sensibilities of the early gay liberation versus more contemporary thinking on sociopolitical issues. Sources also cited the theatre’s failure to be inclusive of people of colour in both the company’s programming and the organizational structure, complaints that led to the 2020 organizational review to address “anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression.”
Daniel Carter is part of the new generation pushing the organization to work in different ways. He began at Buddies in 2019 as the community and education programming curator, becoming interim programming director after Parry’s departure and taking over operations in January when Daudlin was terminated. He was one of the signatories of a letter last year, asking the committee tasked with finding a new artistic director to reconsider Buddies’ leadership structure and create a hiring process more open to staff input. (The search for an artistic director is on hold while the board is being rebuilt.)
“The question we, as a company and community, are trying to deal with is how we honour our history and our legacy while also making space for the narratives and stories and people that have been excluded,” Carter says. “That means making space for other points of view. It’s a really messy tough question because we’re confronting a lot of negative things around our shared history. I don’t think there’s going to be a clean-cut answer any time soon.”
The question of legacy is key for Ellen-Ray Hennessy, an actress, director and 22-year veteran of the board. She began working at Buddies in the early 1980s, long before the organization set up shop at its current Alexander Street location. For her, these calls for systemic change are a destructive force, tearing the company away from those who fought so hard to build it.
“I’m offended, I’m angry, and it’s eating my soul,” she says. “I can’t pretend that all of these people leaving is okay. It’s a loss on a grand level. It’s fine to have an institution run by young people. But you can’t get rid of history just because it doesn’t suit your purpose. This is the moment when we need to bring in some of the old guard.
“Buddies is our house, too, and a huge part of us echoes through its corners. Look at the pillars the space was built upon and you’ll recognize the temple it truly is. In our community, we often forget what wisdom means. The present moment includes both the past and the future. And those who don’t understand that are making a huge mistake.”
The current shifts at Buddies—which I’ve alternately heard described as “a racial reckoning” and “the destruction of a sacred space”—are part of a larger set of changes happening at queer spaces and art institutions in Canada and around the world. In 2016, Pride Toronto saw the departure of executive director Mathieu Chantelois after a much-publicized conflict over demands made by Black Lives Matter for key reforms at the not-for-profit institution. In 2020, Franco Boni (who previously ran Buddies’ Rhubarb Festival and its youth programming) was terminated from his position as executive director of Vancouver’s PuSh Festival after a budget shortfall led to the layoffs of two racialized employees, sparking community outrage. The same year, Gary Garrels, chief curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was forced to resign after he told staff that the museum would continue collecting works by white artists, along with those of BIPOC artists, because not doing so would constitute “reverse discrimination.” In the United Kingdom in early 2021, Pride in London’s entire advisory board resigned over concerns about the treatment of BIPOC volunteers.
This particular chapter in Buddies’ story probably started with its founder, Sky Gilbert. In 2018, the company had planned a reading of Gilbert’s 1986 play Drag Queens in Outer Space as part of programming celebrating their 40th anniversary season. Then, shortly before the event, Gilbert published an open letter on his blog to Vivek Shraya, a younger South Asian-Canadian writer who had recently come out as trans. Gilbert took issue with the title of Shraya’s book I’m Afraid of Men (which Gilbert admitted in his post that he hadn’t read). Two weeks later (having read the book) he published a poem called “I’m Afraid of ‘Woke People,’” which addressed his fears of doing or saying the wrong things in social and professional situations. Notably, since it started in 2012, Gilbert’s site “Another Blog That Nobody Reads” has been more of a digital diary than a space for his serious writing. The fact anyone even noticed his missive to Shraya probably had more to do with her substantial social media following than the actual content of Gilbert’s post. Nevertheless, in the face of pressure from Buddies community members who supported Gilbert and those who opposed him, Parry ultimately cancelled the event, replacing it with a community discussion. Shortly after, Gilbert pulled his new opera, Shakespeare’s Criminal, from the company’s season.
“When the reading was cancelled, I was very afraid,” Gilbert tells me. “I knew Buddies wasn’t a safe space for me anymore so the best thing was to end my relationship with the company. Many works of art were created by people who have views we don’t agree with. But that doesn’t mean we cast aside the art. If we did, we probably wouldn’t have anything to see. When art is reduced to politics, all artists must be afraid and I think Buddies is the canary in the coalmine for theatre.”
One of the people involved in the reading, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that while they found Gilbert’s posts problematic, they disagreed with the decision to cancel the event. Yet they were afraid to speak publicly about what happened, believing—correctly or not—that it would cost them work opportunities in the theatre sector, a concern echoed by other artists I spoke with.
Two years later, Parry herself parted ways with the company, though she stated that she would “continue to make herself available to an upcoming community consultation process on the company’s shape going forward.”
Parry’s departure followed a community call-out led by artist Shaista Latif over allegations of racism Latif and others said they had experienced at the company. An online fundraiser for Latif and other “folks who have come forward to give testimony about their time at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre,” which has raised over $11,000 so far, suggested that Buddies was not accountable after Latif wrote an open letter about harm she experienced while in a romantic relationship with an unnamed member of the queer arts community who sometimes worked on contract for Buddies. “Shaista has also been working hard to responsibilize Buddies in Bad Times for their harmful behaviour towards marginalized and racialized people,” states the fundraiser page.
In June 2020, Buddies committed to an organizational review, which included “updating our equity hiring practices and frameworks, leadership succession planning at all levels (board and staff), and addressing anti-Black racism, racism, reconciliation and meaningful inclusion at all levels of our organization.” Their last published report stated that Buddies had “mandated the board’s Transformation Committee to continue to recruit BIPOC Board members.” As part of the review process, a committee, which included Latif, had been “facilitating a variety of methods to gather experiences of harm and hold the institution accountable.” It’s unclear, from the people I spoke with, what role the committee’s activities have played in recent events at the organization.
Other longtime staff members have left, including technical director Adrien Whan and the company’s head of production Charissa Wilcox. It was Wilson’s departure, though, in January, that struck a chord with longstanding Buddies’ community members. While her termination was described by the company as “a personnel issue,” for many it was a sign that the organization was cutting ties with its past and casting out the people who built it.
Yet many artists in the community are making the case for dramatic change at Buddies. Trinidadian-born theatre director Rhoma Spencer was one of the early voices criticizing the organization for its lack of inclusion. In 2003, she approached the creative leads with a proposal to produce a series of three plays by a queer African-American woman. When her idea was not accepted, she felt frustrated by the effort, and set out to build a career elsewhere.
Decision-making at cultural institutions can be shaped by numerous factors; mission imperatives, personal connections, taste, prejudices and the dictates of funders. But choices are nearly always, on some level, subjective. Buddies, like most Canadian theatres receiving federal funding, is mandated to produce works by Canadian playwrights, which limits the voices that can be presented on stage. The company also traditionally presents works they’ve had a role in creating, though existing works and those by non-Canadian writers do appear on stage when produced by other groups renting the venue.
“I never felt welcome at Buddies,” says Spencer, whose play Dance Macabre appeared at the space in February. “I saw it as a space for gay white men. As a black queer woman working in theatre, I had no place there. I think what’s happening now is a process of healing through restructuring the company to move forward and appease the generations of BIPOC artists who haven’t felt welcome in the space. To me, it’s a new beginning, a new and improved Buddies, and I’m excited to see what comes next.”
Indigenous artist Yolanda Bonnell took a different path in her relationship with the institution. She began as a volunteer in 2011 and continued to familiarize herself with the organization for several years, before pitching her first show, bug, to the Rhubarb Festival in 2016. In 2019, her group manidoons collective became a resident company (one of several teams who receive free access to the space over a period of years). Her show White Girl In Moccasins appears at Buddies in March.
“I hope the company continues,” says Bonnell. “There’s a foundation there that can be built upon and this is a great opportunity to build up a different type of space where more folks can feel safe to tell their stories. I have a really special place in my heart for Buddies. It’s one of my theatre homes in the city. I’ve always had a great experience. But my great experience doesn’t discount the harmful ones that have happened. I think it might be important for the folks who believe that these changes are destructive to remember that as well.”
Among institutions dealing with these issues, Buddies stands out for the amount of effort they have put into change through their organizational review processes. Yet it’s also unusual in terms of how opaque these efforts have been. Unlike some institutions, which have held digital town halls and community consultations, the machinations taking place at Buddies have largely happened in shadow. Public statements have principally come in reaction to various crises and have offered little in terms of specifics. They gave no reason for the mass exodus of the board, stating simply that the departure “provides an opportunity for us to intentionally rethink these structures and explore researched and new ways to build more collaborative and inclusive environments, enacting meaningful and long-lasting change.” With regard to the departures of Daudlin and Wilson, the company’s statement was pointedly ambiguous, saying both had “meaningfully shaped every facet of Buddies in their two-plus decades of work here” and that the theatre “will undoubtedly be a different space without their presence.”
“Right now, I’m feeling a mix of confusion and sadness,” says Derrick Chua, a veteran theatre producer and entertainment lawyer, who has worked on numerous shows at the space. “It’s hard to think about where they should go because they haven’t been open about where things are at. The communication with and to the community feels lacking, and recent announcements have just led to more questions. It may be that the traditional governance structure of a not-for-profit theatre company with staff and artistic leadership reporting to a board of directors isn’t the way to go anymore. But the way that the government legislates charities and public funders means that much of your funding depends on complying with rules that were never designed for theatres.”
Artistic leadership comes and goes. But theatre companies usually hold some essence of their founders. When younger artists enter the space though, they aren’t necessarily going to honour or even understand those principles, in part because the artistic and political contexts in which they’ve grown up are radically different from those of previous generations. In the case of Buddies, that founding spirit is very much wrapped up in Gilbert’s ideology and it has remained in varying degrees under different artistic leadership, haunting conversations on how to open the space up to other parts of the community.
Broadly speaking, there’s often a sharp divide in these discussions between older and younger generations. Where older generations see a more diverse range of identities on stage as a sign of greater inclusion, younger generations look at company structures and working processes and see the exact opposite. When these two groups clash, it’s hard for them to understand each other, because each brings a unique set of experiences and traumas to the conversation. Older generations will bemoan the fact that younger people don’t understand the struggles of the past, and younger generations complain that older people don’t understand their own privilege. What’s critical for both sides to remember is that younger generations will eventually take over spaces by default. How that transition happens is the central question: Will it be orderly and respectful or chaotic and hurtful?
“Change and transformation take time and patience and compassion,” Carter says. “And we can acknowledge that there’s been a lack of clarity in terms of what work has been done, what is currently being worked on and what our path forward is. Going forward the board and staff want to be clear with short, mid and long-term goals, and articulating what we’re making space for with these processes we’re undertaking. Looking back, we were working in large chunks of time with very vague objectives. Being able to break down what the company is planning into smaller, more feasible chunks will make it easier to share that information with our community as Buddies moves through this process.”
Though Carter admits the current situation could be viewed as a crisis, he sees it as an opportunity to take stock of what the company has done, both recently and historically. This in turn will allow them to examine which communities they are serving and what gaps exist, so they can develop a leadership and organizational structure that’s supportive of those operations.
“There’s a pitfall in taking a cookie-cutter structure and placing it onto the organization at this moment,” Carter says. “The idea is to really tease out what the artistic programming could be, and then build a structure around that. But I don’t think we can determine what that is until a bit more research and experimentation is done, by board, staff and community.”
“We’re still in the early stages of our work, but we’re conscious of the need for community involvement in how we move forward as an organization,” says Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, current chair of the board. “There’s an urgency to what we have to do but we’re eager to bring in different ideas and perspectives. These things take time, so we want to make sure we take the time to do them right.”
Theatre artist Ryan G. Hinds has been working with Buddies since he was a teenager, appearing in youth programming, Rhubarb shows and cabaret events, along with the theatre’s 2019 co-production of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies. As someone with long-term involvement at the company, he sees conflict as a critical part of its ability to grow.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Buddies,” Hinds says. “It’s been a school, a family and a home. And that’s why I think there’s a future for the organization, even if an entirely new group of people comes in. It’s a singular institution. The thing about community is that there’s no promise everyone is going to agree or get along or even be friendly. So if we’re considering Buddies as a community, we have to make space for that discord.”
The current meltdown is not the first in Buddies’ history. The company has experienced both mass staff departures and near financial collapse several times before. The most prominent of these occurred in 1997 and then again in 2009, though several other less public emergencies have nearly shuttered the organization over the past 43 years. Each time, the company has been rebuilt in a matter of years, typically under new leadership and with a creative rebirth. But where previous troubles have been met by unified support for the company, this time they’ve caused a rupture in the queer community. If social media chatter is any indication, the current situation has torn us apart.
One of the key challenges in Buddies’ ability to move forward is a reckoning not only with the company’s past, but also with the fundamental nature of theatre institutions. Despite the carefully worded statements a company makes or the training they offer their staff, the inescapable fact is that these spaces are, by their nature, exclusionary. A theatre, which has limited space, a limited budget and a limited number of nights, hosts certain artists, artworks and ideas, and excludes all others by default. No matter how porous an organization tries to be, it will never accommodate all of the people who want to be there. Rather than viewing what’s happening at Buddies as a shift towards broad inclusivity, it’s likely better understood as a change in who and what is being excluded.
My own relationship with Buddies goes back to 1996, when I started as a teenage intern with bleach blonde hair and facial piercings. Since then, I’ve worked there as a director, playwright, curator and drag performer, and written numerous articles about the organization for this publication and others. Like many in the broader Buddies community, the company has been not only a creative space for me, but an intellectual space, a social space, a sexual space and a political space. My hope, since this crisis started to unfold about three years ago, was that the current team could transform the institution in the ways it needs to transform, without forgetting its founding principles. Talking to sources within the organization have buoyed my belief in their capacity to lead the company through this new phase in its life. What remains unclear is whether this next stage will retain any aspect of the theatre’s history beyond the name and its address on Alexander Street.
As I see it, there are three possible ways forward. The first is to simply let this incoming group of artists and managers lead the company in a new direction and accept the fact that previous generations no longer have a place there.
The second is more akin to a negotiated surrender. The current team could keep the building, the operational funding and the charitable registration, but give up the name “Buddies in Bad Times” and permit the company archives to be transferred elsewhere for preservation. This approach would allow a clean break with the past and the concerns about systemic oppression that the new guard wants to address, while creating space for them to assert their own identities and politics under a new moniker.
The third possibility is what we might think of as a treaty. In this case, Buddies would remain the resident company of 12 Alexander Street, but make space for additional organizations to work there, sharing production resources while remaining financially autonomous. This third option is, in fact, the way the building was initially supposed to run. When Buddies was awarded the space by the City of Toronto, they had proposed to share their new home with four other groups including The Augusta Company, DNA Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts (an idea that never came to fruition). This arrangement would offer artists who’ve been pushed out (some of the people Hennessy refers to as the “old guard”) the opportunity to build a new organization that can create and present work in the space without being governed by the same board and funding structures.
Whatever path is chosen, recent events at Buddies demonstrate three things. The first, which is obvious though under-appreciated, is that organizational transformation is messy. People can lose their access to a space, their platform to the public, their livelihoods and their health insurance. As we address past harms, we must work to minimize future harms during these processes. Simply saying that people should “go find another job” (as one source told me, referring to those who’ve been terminated by Buddies) reflects a lack of compassion at odds with the new values the organization aims to embody.
The second is that, while equity is not always a zero-sum game, in the arts it frequently feels that way. Limited resources mean that, no matter how those resources are allocated, certain people will be shut out. The situation we’ve seen in the last few decades, with artists arguing over how money and space are distributed, is exactly what the government wants; it diverts attention from the fact that our sector is chronically underfunded. Rather than work from a space of division, we must fight together to increase the amount of resources we have, pushing politicians and funding agencies to boost budgets and invest in new programs. Increased equity should be a goal we all aspire to but it can only come with increased opportunity.
The third thing this whole process demonstrates is that queerness itself is messy. For many years, queer institutions have struggled with ways to balance representation, frequently failing to hold the diversity of identities our communities contain. Along with increasing resources, we should also be building new institutions. Buddies was founded 43 years ago by people spurned by both mainstream theatres and society at large. New communities have entered the space, but the needs of the previous community have not disappeared. Perhaps it’s time for Toronto to build a second queer theatre?