Artistic Director: Franco Boni, The Theatre Centre, Toronto
by Simon Rice
Franco Boni is an organizer.
Or at least that’s the term The Theatre Centre’s current Artistic Director seemed to prefer when I asked him about producing. I met with Boni in his attic office high above the historical Great Hall Building at Dovercourt and Queen. The office is sparse but stylish, echoing Boni’s appearance. There is a picture of Barack Obama pinned to his bulletin board. The neighborhood surrounding The Theatre Centre known for its hipster haunts and booming nightlife can sometimes feel dauntingly pretentious. But Boni, as soon as we sit down by the window is disarming, at times passionate, and at other times displaying a self-deprecating sense of humour. “ Well initially, you know, everybody wants to be an actor, but I found out really really quickly that I couldn’t act,” Boni laughs heartily, “so that was over.”
Boni studied at York University, majoring in theatre and minoring in religious studies. And early on in his words he, “ just started running things.” Boni organized PlayGround, a juried fringe festival for York University now in its 17th year. “I was just trying to find a way for our voices to be heard.” And he continues that quest today. Since taking the reigns of the theatre Centre in 2003, he has started an artists residency program, “a two year structured creation unit offering artists the resources of space, dramaturgy, design input, financial and administrative support.”
Just after finishing university Boni volunteered at the Playwrights Union of Canada and undertook a complete reorganization of their collection. “ I got to know Canadian theatre through the playwrights.” It would be one of those playwrights who would give Boni his biggest break. After seeing Boni’s direction in a dress rehearsal for the Rhubarb Festival, Sky Gilbert decided to take him on as an Assistant Director, for his 1994 production More Divine, which would open the new space at Buddies and Bad Times.
Boni’s work at Buddies would continue as part of its Youth Outreach Program to, “ make young queer youth aware of their history.” The program, for which Boni ran the Theatre Division, connected local Queer thinkers and historians with young people. “ It’s hard being young and queer. I think it really made an impact on these young people.”
From there Boni would go on to run The Rhubarb Festival for three years and then Summerworks for five years, before inheriting the The Theatre Centre job from David Duclose in 2003. The Theatre Centre celebrated its 30th birthday and Boni is proud of its history, but before he hands the reins over to anyone else he would ultimately like to find it a permanent home. The Theatre Centre leases from the Great Hall building, a beautiful Victorian construction, with an interesting history of it’s own. Boni enlightens me that not only was it formerly the headquarters of the West End YMCA, (the actual theatre centre playing space was the basketball court) but famous Canadian runner Tom Longboat used its track to train.
History is important to Boni, but so is social justice, his early theatrical hero was Vaclav Havel, “I really keyed in to these people who were citizens first, but also happened to be artists with artists tools.” And The Theatre Centre is more than a building. It is an idea. With that in mind Boni looks to the future with his eye on a new space for the company better suited to its needs.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity to relocate to a magnificent heritage building one block from our current home. This building is a former Carnegie Library located at 1115 Queen Street West. It is owned by the City of Toronto and is currently used as offices for the City’s Public Health Department. The building is located in the heart of the West Queen West neighbourhood where intense redevelopment is disturbing the traditional artists’ habitat. Concerns raised by the City and the public about the plans for this community resulted in landmark settlements being reached between the City and two developers whereby one developer will provide new office space for Public Health and the other will contribute 1 million in cash towards the renovation of the Carnegie Library as a creative hub.”
When I try to get Boni to talk about what he thinks is wrong with the Toronto theatre scene he doesn’t quite jump at the opportunity. “ Theatre is quite a conservative form, and maybe there is too much cautiousness out there. But I don’t like to focus on what other people are doing wrong. It’s better to focus getting right what you are doing. And just keep doing things.”