Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
July 20, 2012, by

An open letter to some of the old farts

A response to “An open letter to the newer generations of Toronto theatre artists from one of the old farts

Dear Old Farts,

You are absolutely right: “The issue is far larger than the firing of one AD”.

This is perhaps why you don’t see as many young members of our arts community getting up in arms about the firing of one AD as you might like. It’s not because we’re apathetic, it’s because we’re busy fighting those bigger issues and making art.

We’re opposing our governments at all levels. There are those who wish to corporatize the arts, and those who wish to politicize them, either by cutting funding or by moving resources away from arms-length funding bodies and into community events and festivals where the risk of political or dissenting art is low. And, in some cases, not allowed.

We’re engaging in municipal processes that are supposed to be about creating new culture plans for our city, to determine cultural priorities, how money should be invested, how best to build and maintain a cultural ecology. We wrote about those consultations extensively here on While I tweeted live from many of them, I was surrounded by young, active, vocal members of our community. Though I must say, it is rather dispiriting to realize you’ve been invited to contribute to a document that was written before you arrived.

Throughout those rooms the voices present asked that the city talk about art not just in terms of financial investment and return, but about the less tangible contributions that a healthy cultural community can offer a vibrant city. You’ll not see any of those voices included in the new culture plan. When it became clear that any voices in opposition to “creative class theory” would not be included in the report, I asked that my name be removed from the “Consultation Participant List”. I was not consulted, and nor were many of the people in those rooms.

We’ve been speaking up about our own professional association that was built based on old models of making work that no longer reflect today’s realities. Young artists often find the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association to be one of the biggest roadblocks to the development of their work, another issue we’ve written about extensively. You’ll find no apathy on this topic. Younger artists have been working together for years to bring change to this important but out-dated organization, and that work is hopefully about to pay off, despite the fact that some of the old farts have been vocally opposed to reforms that would empower the younger generation of theatre-makers.

The Toronto Indie Caucus is made up of “emerging” and “submerging” artists alike and populated by some of the most driven and passionate young people in this community, and it continues to grow. The work of these artists has contributed to some highly significant votes for change within the association, the development of an Independent Theatre Review Committee, and a possible new indie agreement on the horizon. Let’s hope these extensive consultations to which we have lent our voices will actually take those voices to heart.

We have also spoken out about Luminato, our most recently created arts festival. It was not created by a collective of artists, but by two Toronto businessmen who used their connections with the government to get millions of dollars in funding to create an arts festival as a way of luring tourist dollars back to the city after the SARS crisis. They wonder why, after 6 years they’re failing to find a dedicated audience, community support or “brand awareness”, though I don’t suppose I need to remind our readership that their most recent season included no Toronto theatre artists in its lineup.

And finally, we’re fighting those very structural models upon which the Factory Theatre, and companies like it, is based. For years, arts organizations have been forced to fit into a certain mold in order to appease the various funding bodies. So we’ve incorporated, we’ve set ourselves up as not-for-profits, we’ve created our boards of directors, and we’ve gone after charitable status. This worked for a number of years while there was enough money to go around, but that’s no longer the case.

So we’re researching, we’re investigating best practices in other cities, and some of us are working with Arts Action Research in a program called Theatres Leading Change, which is all about discovering new models that are best for the work that we create, and the way we go about creating it.

When we’re asked to consult, we show up. When there are debates and votes happening at City Hall, we’re there too. When Equity tries to bully us, we get together and push for reforms. When our institutional leadership fails us, we speak out.  Also, when elections happen, many of us work our arses off canvassing, letter writing, phone calling, and video-making.

This is not apathy, but a quiet community of passionate and dedicated artists working away at changing what no longer works. I am not silent, I sit on no fence, and I am not complicit. I’m just offering my voice to a different fight.

In “The Empty Spaces, Or, How Theater Failed America”, Mike Daisey had this to say:

“I’ve gone drinking with the artistic directors of the biggest theaters in the country and listened to them explain that they know the system is broken and they feel trapped within it, beholden to board members they’ve made devil’s deals with, shackled to the ship as it goes down. I’ve heard their laughter, heard them call each other dinosaurs, heard them give thanks that they’ll be retired in 10 years.”

So yes, you’re right, this issue is larger than one AD, and those bigger issues are the ones we’re trying to tackle.

Yours in action,

Aislinn Rose

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  1. Philip Akin says:

    Well written and passionately discussed Aislinn. I am all for people picking which battles and windmills they choose to tilt at. And just cause a person doesn’t get onto your horse with you doesn’t mean they are not riding off elsewhere to do other good things.


  2. Colin Doyle says:

    I agree with Philip.

    This is perfectly worded and speaks of many things I have witnessed, participated in, and been proud of my peers being so vocal about.

    Thank you.

  3. And this is why we run a theatre company together. Excellent summary of many of the non-apathetic activities the “newer generations of Toronto theatre” have been up to.

    Reading this reminded me about how stupid and angry-making the the so called “consultations” were on the city’s cultural plan. I was at both a “stakeholders” invite-only consultation and also attended the public ones that Aislinn live-tweeted. Throughout the majority of the discussions I participated in, participants emphasized the need to move beyond zero-sum analyses of culture as a revenue driver for the city.

    I also was forced to remove my name from the document when i was told I would not be able to read it before my name would be attached and that it would embrace creative class theory and make no mention of the fact that many those consulted rejected this frame of reference for culture. The fact they called the report “Creative Capital Gains” was just salt in the wound.

    If we take the time to engage with our government, and the whole thing is just a pre-determined farce, it’s really hard to have any faith in that institution or branch of government moving forwards.

  4. Blair Francey says:

    Well said, Aislinn. I commend Praxis on its continued push to create new models of development in an antiquated system.

  5. […] From Aislinn Rose – An Open Letter to Some of the Old Farts […]

  6. […] UPDATED July 20 Response from Aislinn Rose – An Open Letter to Some of the Old Farts […]

  7. Great post, Aislinn. I didn’t anticipate that Ken’s firing would evolve into such a wide-ranging discussion re: the current state of theatre as a whole.

    Speaking from my comfy old fart lay-z-boy, I can totally see why the next generation of artists wouldn’t really care about Ken’s firing. It’s hard to identify with someone else’s problems when your own house is on fire. I’ve had the good fortune to witness some truly amazing activism from the next generation of artists over the last few years. This new activism does not care for outmoded institutions and methods of creation. Why should it? Especially when the old institutions obstruct the next generation’s plans. Theatre is going through a revolution, folks. “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

  8. Rob Kempson says:

    Thanks Aislinn, for this thoughtful and passionate (and truthful) response. And thanks David (as I imagine he’s trailing these comments too) for your thoughtful and passionate (and truthful) letter. And thanks to you geniuses at Praxis for providing a place for discussion like this to occur. It is clearly essential, and it’s nice to know that people can speak their minds, and that others are actually willing to listen and engage–often rare in online communication. I’ve read all of the comments on both posts, and I thank all those who have spoken so well about what they believe. That’s all of my thank yous out of the way.

    I would consider myself active within the theatre community. On one hand, I struggle with the same things that we all struggle with–finding opportunities for my work as a writer/performer, accessing any public funding for that work, connecting with the institutions to be seen as a professional. I also find myself having to advocate with grit and teeth-barred for artists younger than myself, though my role as the Artistic Producer of the Paprika Festival. Richard Rose and I have sparred on the subject, but he has always been respectful of my point-of-view. I also work for Theatre Passe Muraille, and find myself connected to a major institution who struggles to connect with young and emerging artists. I adore Andy McKim and consider him to be a mentor and friend. I don’t really know Ken Gass. He lives on my street, and I’ve met him a number of times, but he meets lots of people and doesn’t remember me, so we don’t really say hi. I’m sure he’s nice. And I have no lack of respect for what he has done for Canadian theatre. Like many of “this” generation, I’ve studied him and his contemporaries and had many-a-celebrity moment upon meeting these Canadian greats firsthand. Prior to working at TPM, I worked at Canadian Stage. I have loved working with Marty Bragg and Matthew Jocelyn. I’ve been fortunate to have had inspiring interactions with Philip Akin and Allen MacInnis and Judith Thompson and Susan Coyne. I’m a fan of the “established” artist.

    I’m also writing these comments while in Stratford, having seen Hirsch–a play which clearly examines many of this issues and speaks to the creation of a national theatre identity. I then got to speak with Alon Nashman (one of our greatest actors) about the creation of the piece, and why he is passionate about the subject matter.

    And this all brings me to my point: having a young theatre culture (David says 40 years) is a blessing and not a curse. Sure, it carries with it some challenges (as all blessings do), but it is something to be celebrated. I’ve had the great opportunity to meet many of our “greats”–people who defined and continue to define Canadian theatre–and there is not another theatre scene where the established, definitive artists of that theatre tradition are still alive, still creating work, and still connecting with the community as artists, not simply living in the archives. Canada is unique, and pretty fucking awesome in that way.

    So I’m distraught by this conversation as a whole. I’m struck by the fact that this is the wrong conversation to be having. We cannot continue to divide ourselves based on emerging and established. Those words no longer carry meaning anyways. We cannot continue to think of creation as opportunities to hire our “friends” because we know how they work and we’re scared to take a risk on someone new. The whole concept of “finding your tribe” has contributed to an ongoing division of the community based on age, experience and/or education. And that’s the traumatic part here. That’s where we begin to sound like municipal politics–looking for opportunities to polarize ourselves to ensure that we’re always fighting and we’re never working together. If we can see that polarize in the politic sphere, why can we not see that it’s happening within our own community?

    Art-making is about collaboration, no matter how cliched that is. So let’s stop talking to each other like enemies and start talking to each other as collaborators. That’s when we’ll start to see each other’s points of view. That’s when we’ll stop harkening back to the “good ol’ days”. That’s when we’ll all be present for show openings AND for political action. And I dare say it, that’s when we might actually figure out a way to move forward with the community we’ve got–stronger, unified, bound-together by mutual respect.

  9. Aislinn says:

    Thank you for such thoughtful comments everyone. I consider myself lucky to be part of a company and community with such an interesting and respectful comments thread!

    Rob, I completely agree about the need for collaboration going forward, which is why I love working with the Indie Caucus made up of the “emerged & submerged” alike, including that old fart, Mark Brownell, who I don’t believe has any time for a lay-z-boy. You should join the caucus Rob.

  10. Katherine Grainger says:

    Fantastic discussion and much needed. Aislinn, your argument is eloquent and I can truly support it fully. I’m also with Kempson on this one. I think it’s important to have these discussions, but I fear that this ‘old fart’ v.s. ‘young’in’ debate, however thought provoking, is not going to help us for long. It’s good to remember that not all are seeing the issues the same way, but let’s not all forget we are looking at the same thing. Change is upon us. It has been for years. Things are finally being done, and they can’t stop. Hats off to all of you who have moved beyond re-examining, and are now re-invigorating and re-inspiring this art form. The young, the not so young and the very, very old alike!

  11. So many of the problems we are facing as a community – the polarization, the young vs the old, and so on – harkens to problems in our larger North American society. We are a culture obsessed with youth and sex. We are a culture that tells people as they age that they are useless and outdated. The fact that David, who I have immense respect for, referenced in his letter the idea that we are waiting for the old guard to step down, is a dangerous attitude – but I think one many people feel. And what happens from that? people hold on. Artistic Directorship (regardless of the size of the establishment) is not something someone should hold onto forever. They shouldn’t hold onto it forever because it is a huge job. A job that requires constant inspiration, growth, and the ability to see what the community needs and answer to it. What one person can do this for 20 years? But if the feeling is that there are young desperate artists snapping at your heels waiting to push you out why wouldn’t you hold on. Tom Walmsley has said to me recently he thinks all AD’s should be fired after 45. I disagree with this but I see where he is coming from. Let the leadership rotate so that the artistic product reflects the community. Let other people see how hard the job is so they don’t just sit around poking holes. But at the same time NEVER make artists feel obsolete. Never disvalue those who have paved the way, even if you are making your own and new paths (which most of us are). The model of the Factory Theatre does not speak to my needs as an artist, but it was created to serve the needs of the community 40 years ago and if it hadn’t happened then, I wouldn’t be able to be doing what I am doing now. Our newness as a community does allow us to have marvellous access to each other but it also means we are all holding on so tightly to one model as opposed to accepting that if theatre is to live it must change, it must breathe, it must be torn down and re-created. It answers where we are at any given moment in a society. If it does not then it is not doing its job. And maybe that is why people aren’t going. Change is coming, and that is a good thing. But we all need to stop being afraid of each other. The young afraid of competition, the old afraid of the young, the young convinced we are being shut out, the old convinced we don’t care. Our goals are more common than they are different. I have no witty way to sign off on this, but I appreciate the break from writing grants.

  12. Shira says:

    Thank you so much for this, Aislinn. This letter summarizes exactly what I’ve been thinking, albeit in a much more eloquent way.

  13. Camyar Chai says:

    Bravely put with thanks from a friend (and almost old fart) in Vancouver.

    A few ears ago, tired of the system, rather than beat myself and the company I founded to death, I retired. The team that took over took the company to new heights and I have a renewed passion and outlook on how I will create in the future. Win win.

    Amidst it all, let’s remember that Canadian theatre artists whether Gass, Rose or Ferries, are passionate about the same thing though they may approach it in different ways.


    Camyar Chai

  14. Anonymous says:

    Fantastically put.

  15. Cole Lewis says:

    Thank you. While I appreciated David’s suggestion that this particular issue is larger than one AD, my experiences in Canada have only led me to question his “under 35” assumptions. Your letter is so perfectly clear and for that I commend you!

  16. Thanks for this great letter- once again Praxis comes forth with a thoughtful and clear perspective. This conversation is National, I’m Co-AD of Green Fools, a Calgary creation based company. We’re in solidarity regarding many issues you raise, including Equity reform, and our artistic practice defies the cookie cutter of the establishment. As well, even dripping in bitumen out here in the west, we are feeling the grants seize and evaporate. Regarding Factory, I too believe this is about more than one AD. I find it very disturbing that artists are parented by boards. I’m really interested in the new models you mention. Do you have more resources/ info on this?

  17. Good response. We each choose the site of our battles. I find myself somewhat less concerned by the incompetent dismissal of Ken Gass than I am by Tarragon’s decision to not produce Michael Healey’s PROUD. Why is that? Perhaps because I’m satisfied I know the facts of the Healey/Tarragon case (see; but more, because Boards are an easy target. The Healey/Tarragon case involves conflict among artists.

  18. Aislinn says:

    Thanks again to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. I absolutely agree that this shouldn’t be a matter of the different generations fighting each other, but rather working together to figure out how to make our community stronger as we face new challenges.

    Camyar, your post was refreshingly honest and raises a great question that others are asking: “when should an AD step down?”, and hints at the other questions even fewer people like to ask: “Is there ever a time when it’s ok for a theatre company to close?”.

    It’s a question Jacob Zimmer asked in his post “Questioning the everlasting nature” in March, where he also challenged our use of the ever-popular ecology metaphor. It’s a good read:

    It is heartening to see all of the blog posts and facebook notes that have been written as a result of David Ferry’s initial question.

  19. Aislinn says:

    Also, Jennie, you asked about resources with regards to the discussion of new models. The Toronto Theatres Leading Change process is ongoing and will eventually produce a report, but Arts Action Research led the program with companies in NYC and that report is available for download here.

  20. […] Praxis Artistic Producer Aislinn Rose responded with a letter of her own, this went to a whole new level, with more people coming to the site in one day than saw all three […]

  21. […] group, you have a vital stake in what is happening and you need to express your opinions.” He was countered by Aislinn Rose at Praxis, who took the discussion in a different direction, saying that the young theatre artists are not […]

  22. […] without any apparent avenue for redress. Readers of the Praxis Theatre blog had an intense debate on the disenfranchisement of artists from their institutions; so far, there’s no obvious […]

  23. […] year in particular there has been a lot of conversation about the divide between younger artists and more established artists, with the younger generation […]

  24. […] I responded by saying I felt the issue was larger than the firing of one Artistic Director, and that an assumption could not be made that silence on one point was an indication of apathy on all points. I talked about this generation’s participation in Toronto’s Culture Consultations, about our work with TAPA & Arts Action Research’s Theatres Leading Change, about the Indie Caucus and our ongoing struggles to bring necessary changes to an important but outdated institution that is the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, and more. […]