Standing on the shoulders of visionaries

by Jini Stolk

Over the past few months I had the sad but rather wonderful experience of attending memorial events for two titans of the theatre scene. Both George Luscombe and Tom Hendry were major forces in the development of our theatrical voice and community: unafraid of forging new ground; deep believers in the power of art to change lives.

  • Luscombe, founder of Toronto Workshop Productions and the subject of Conversations with George Luscombe by Steven Bush, was an exceptionally demanding director who forged an acting company of the highest professional standard. His expectation of excellence was uncompromising – and I have to admit that, after hearing the memories of people who worked with him closely, I was relieved that I had never had that opportunity. He was not an easy man. But he built a seminal company, and produced an amazing number of powerful shows that remain as highlights in my memory and that of many others.
  • Tom Hendry, an unexpected mix of accountant, storyteller, playwright, and theatre builder, matched his business and analytical skills with his belief that everyone had the right to experience theatre. Toronto Free Theatre started as an actual free theatre. He was unafraid to fill the gaps, to start what was needed, and to envision a future filled with well-paid artists freed to create transformational art. His pioneering study (Cultural Capital: The Care and Feeding of Toronto’s Artistic Assets) was the first, successful, call for consistent increased funding for the Toronto Arts Council.

We all stand on the ground they broke. This seems to me to be important to remember in light of recent impassioned discussions, including at the Edmonton Summit – which, after all, was titled “How do we speak for the arts in Canada today” – about generational transition in the arts.

I am privileged to be working closely with the Toronto Arts Foundation and Council as it creates new strategies to increase opportunities for young and culturally diverse artists, to unblock the funding stream, and make room to support artistic expression in every part of Toronto. I am also watching with great interest the Canada Council’s efforts in this direction. Our changing demographics, and the continuing vigorous growth of our arts community, require nothing less.

I do know, however, that the trajectory described by Urjo Kareda in a tribute reprinted in Conversations with George Luscombe, is something we should make every effort to avoid. He outlined a scenario which he says has been replayed time and time again in Toronto theatres: starting with the struggle for an initial foothold; the first defining hit; the pursuit of a permanent space; the move to bigger quarters and their attendant bigger problems; the difficulties of success; the departure of core artists closely connected to the original vision; the question of succession – who should be chosen? who should do the choosing? ; and, finally, a board of directors out of sympathy with the founding vision fires or forces out the founder.

This course of events, which has indeed rolled out numerous times over the years, is not what we mean when we talk about “succession planning.” We can and must break this particular cycle, and come up with some rational and proactive succession strategies for the future.

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