After his messy breakup with the Factory Theatre, Ken Gass has rebounded with a star-studded new company. How a shy indie producer became one of the most powerful players in Toronto theatre
In June 2012, the harmonious Toronto theatre community experienced its first juicy scandal. That month, the Factory, one of the most storied players in the city’s indie drama scene, fired Ken Gass, their long-time artistic director—he founded the company in 1970, rescued it from financial ruin in 1996, and introduced Canadian theatregoers to nascent dramatic giants like George F. Walker and Tomson Highway. At the heart of Gass’s dismissal was a scuffle so mundane it could’ve been a Slings and Arrows spoof. He wanted to transform the haunted mansion of a theatre into a sparkling modern arts centre. The board refused, claiming Gass’s plan would have cost $13 million—about 40 times the yearly fundraising amount.
After months of circuitous negotiations, the board offered Gass the title of director emeritus—“a ludicrous token position,” Gass sneered at the time. Even more shocking than the firing was the volcanic wrath of Toronto’s theatre community. More than 4,500 people signed an online petition demanding Gass’s reinstatement, and an army of local celebrities publicly boycotted the company, vowing never to work there or attend their shows. The list included theatre stars like Walker, Judith Thompson, Seana McKenna and Michael Healey, as well as concerned local fixtures like Atom Egoyan, Gordon Pinsent, Michael Redhill and Lloyd Robertson. “Firing Ken was an act of cowardice and dishonesty,” Walker told me recently. “The Factory Theatre no longer exists, as far as I’m concerned.” Gass lost his job despite the hue and cry, but the scandal also outed him as one of the most powerful figures in Toronto theatre, one who’s spent the past four decades quietly, assiduously amassing a back pocket full of A-list connections—an asset he plans to exploit in earnest with the Canadian Rep Theatre, his new company.
Gass is an unlikely impresario. He’s timid and retiring, with tired eyes and an Elizabethan forehead framed by a wisp of dark hair. He’s awkward, too—when I met him for coffee, he spent the entire hour avoiding eye contact, neurotically arranging raw sugar packets at right angles. That nervous energy hides a steely chutzpah. At 68, Gass has created a bare-bones company: Canadian Rep lacks a staff, funds, even a dedicated place to rehearse. For this first season, he’s counting on the goodwill of his theatre-world friends to put him up.
The company’s mandate—to produce works by Canadian playwrights—is the same spiel Gass has been reciting for 40 years. In today’s context, it’s a risky move; Toronto is already flush with virtuous nationalist theatre companies chasing the same crowds. But no one is better equipped to hook audiences than Ken Gass. He’s a theatrical Pied Piper, the kind of artist whom actors, writers and directors will follow anywhere he goes. It’s largely due to his uncanny prescience: Walker was a taxi driver in 1972 when he responded to one of Gass’s posters soliciting new work for the Factory; now he’s probably the most frequently produced playwright in the country. And in 1985, before theatre wizard Robert Lepage was creating $16-million mega-productions for the Metropolitan Opera, Gass produced Circulations, the first Lepage work staged outside Quebec.
Gass quietly opened Canadian Rep’s first season in January with a production of the YA fable Pacamambo, by Wajdi Mouawad, the Quebec playwright who wrote Incendies. It was sweet and well received, but felt more like a softball trial run than a trumpets-blaring debut. The true test comes this spring, when he premieres two much bigger productions. One is Judith Thompson’s spooky one-woman show, Watching Glory Die, set in a women’s prison and inspired by the Ashley Smith suicide case. The other is a new Walker play, Dead Metaphor, a black comedy about the war in Afghanistan that dazzled American crowds and critics when it premiered last year in San Francisco.
When blockbuster producer David Mirvish heard that Gass was starting a company and staging Walker’s work, he called him up and offered to co-produce, providing city-wide marketing and the Panasonic Theatre. For Mirvish, the collaboration is a chance to produce more plays, something that’s been lost in the era of Wicked and The Lion King. “I used to walk out of the Royal Alex after a play and hear people arguing about what they saw,” he says. “I want to get them arguing again.” By working with Mirvish, Gass is busting two myths: he’s pitching Canadian drama, often presumed to be sleepy and self-seriousness, as provocative and fun, and stoking the notion that populist theatre is more than musicals and Shakespeare remounts. “Working with them will give me the opportunity to reach a lot more people,” Gass says. And sell a lot more tickets.
Dead Metaphor is the perfect show to bridge the schism between small-scale and big-box theatre, offering a tart cocktail of earthy political commentary, savage humour and universal appeal. It follows Dean, a 20-something soldier fresh off a tour in Afghanistan, who returns apparently unscathed by his experience; he’s well-adjusted, likable and ready to re-enter society. Trouble is, society doesn’t know how to cope with him—his family, friends and employers are the ones traumatized by his past as a sniper. They’re scarred and skittish, tipping deeper into political extremism and villainy, while the baffled hero looks on in horror. Walker’s satire is a funhouse mirror that lampoons the moral decrepitude of our society and upturns the maudlin PTSD cliché that’s saturated so much post-9/11 culture. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, it blends highbrow social commentary with loopy spectacle.
After the season closes, Gass will spend the summer developing the company—finding rehearsal space, commissioning new works and creating a new board. When I ask if that makes him nervous, he shoots me a weary look. “It’s like a divorce. You move on. You get remarried.”
Produced by Ken Gass
May 20 to June 8