Academy Theatre struggles with direction, leadership
Ray Marshall served as general manager of Lindsay’s storied Academy Theatre from 1985 to 2006 — 21 consecutive years of service. After Marshall moved on, there have been at least nine general managers, and currently there is no general manager at all.
This revolving door — and the erosion of good will associated with it — is not only threatening the theatre’s reputation but its continued operation.
The Academy, said to be the most technically perfect theatre in Canada, is the crown cultural jewel of Lindsay. It was once led and nurtured by Dennis Sweeting, the founder of Kawartha Summer Theatre (KST), who was also the first president of the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). His wife, Maggie Sweeting, was the administrator.
KST ran from 1966 to 1997. At its peak its highest summer attendance for eight plays in nine weeks (six performances a week) yielded about 25,000 ticket sales from 1981-84 .
The average summer show attendance, per play, was 375-400 people, while matinees and Saturdays were usually sellouts.
Susan Taylor, chair of the cultural centre committee and chair of the cultural centre working group, spoke to the Advocate about the Academy from a bird’s-eye view as someone concerned about arts and culture in our area.
“If we’re looking to tap into and promote the arts within Kawartha Lakes, then the Academy is key,” Taylor says.
And there’s certainly economic potential. According to the City, visitor spending at cultural tourism destinations was $1,817,419 in Kawartha Lakes in 2016, and more than $6 million on retail purchases.
One former committee member of the Academy, who wanted to remain anonymous, says there is one key issue above all others that could help the theatre succeed: improved board governance.
“In many ways the board can’t be faulted because they don’t have the education,” says the former committee member. “It’s this lack of education (about how to run a non-profit board, like the Academy) that is preventing representation to the best of their ability.”
Once this is completed, the source says, the Academy can rebuild its once-central role in the community.
That’s the kind of stability that Jeff Broad, the theatre’s technical director, can only dream about lately. “I’m disillusioned,” Broad tells the Advocate.
“How can I be effective in my job, dealing with a new general manager every six months? It’s exhausting,” he says.
Broad, the only staff member who would speak with the Advocate, says the theatre needs a good board that understands the business side of running things, not just the creative side. He thought the theatre was finally set when they hired Helen Nestor back in April.
Doing Things Differently
Nestor was from Toronto; she had both a strong business and creative background, and a great deal of experience as a general manager at other arts organizations. She also had no ties to or knowledge of our small town culture and politics.
Realizing how much she loved Lindsay and surrounding area, Nestor bought a home here in anticipation of a long career with the Academy, knowing she would be putting in a lot of late nights and wouldn’t want to drive back to Toronto every day.
She lasted four months before being fired in August.
The Advocate reached out to Alex McLeod, then chair of the Academy’s board. Nestor says he and board member Mike Piggott were the ones who let her go. McLeod would not speak to us on the record about any issues related to the Academy; he resigned soon after we made our request. Piggott is the new chair of the board.
Nestor spoke with the Advocate in her Lindsay home, which she now rents out to Fleming College students, since she no longer has a job here. “‘You’re just not the right fit,’ I was told,” Nestor says.
“I didn’t come here with any agenda. I have no history here at all, and nothing I ever did was behind closed doors.”
Asked to describe her leadership style, she didn’t hesitate. “Straightforward. Open. Honest to a fault. Clear. Tough.”
Nestor was also thorough, she says. She went through every relevant file she could find, to understand what had been happening at the theatre. She says she found a theatre that was not financially stable. She believed that “things needed to be done differently,” including supporting more board governance education.
“When you’re having trouble paying the water bill, does it make sense to keep doing things the same way?” she asks rhetorically.
She initiated training on the Ticketmaster program for staff, an initiative started by her predecessor, Cory Strong, who also only lasted a matter of months in the position of general manager.
Nestor standardized contracts, talked with people to understand the structural condition of the building, and wasn’t in favour of granting the same deal to community arts organizations that they were used to getting, if the Academy was going to lose money in doing so.
“I pissed some people off. That’s what happened. I wanted to do things differently – I felt we desperately needed to do things differently.”
For instance, Lindsay Little Theatre’s production of Harvey was supposed to be staged at the Academy in July, but ultimately ended up at its facility on George Street due to “lack of cooperation from management, related to cost negotiations,” according to one anonymous source.
At her core, though, Nestor says she believes all arts organizations matter in order to create a viable cultural sector within Kawartha Lakes. “But you have to show you’re willing and able to take care of your business. Otherwise why would anyone want to support us?”
When asked why the last general manager didn’t work out, Piggott responded that he would “not comment on personnel issues.”
The Advocate asked Piggott why he thought the theatre seemed to be struggling with governance issues and with general managers coming and going so quickly.
“Over the past decade, all the members of the volunteer board of the Academy Theatre Foundation have worked hard to keep the best interests of the theatre in mind at all times. Since the resignation of a long-time manager it has been difficult to find the ideal candidate to manage the theatre,” he replied in an email interview.
He writes that it is not easy and that all theatres are grappling with “declining attendance, competition with more easily accessible forms of home entertainment” and an aging demographic along with busy families who have fewer expendable dollars.
Piggott says he wants to build the board and committees in size and in expertise. He notes there are currently advertisements running, and a committee devoted to filling an additional four to six board positions “concentrating on persons with fundraising, sponsorship and finance backgrounds.”
“We are also in the process of interviewing for a manager,” he notes.
If people want to help out the Academy, says Piggott, it always comes down to finances for a “non-profit theatre of this size.” He notes that there are many avenues available to the public to show support. These include buying a diner’s card, which offers savings at local restaurants, or by making a donation at academytheatre.ca or by contacting the box office. Volunteering time and/or services is welcome, “or simply come to a show.”
Academy as strong anchor for business
From a business perspective, there’s no doubt there are spillover benefits of a strong Academy Theatre.
Nicki Dedes, owner and operator of the Olympia Restaurant in downtown Lindsay, says “when the Academy does well, we do well. That’s why my dad (Chris Karkabasis) was a patron of the Academy from the beginning. He knew it was in the whole community’s interest,” for the theatre to do well.
Dedes says it was always “good days for the restaurant, whether it was a matinee or an evening performance.” Inevitably, when something was on at the Academy, it would bring people to the downtown who were looking for a place to eat or shop.
Like Nestor, Susan Taylor also believes the defeatist, business-as-usual mentality has to go if arts organizations are going to find success. “We (the arts community) can’t keep going to council, begging for money. It presents the entire sector in a negative light,” she says.
Taylor believes that fresh blood at the board level with people who have the requisite skills, coupled with strong committee structures made up of community members, would go a long way to changing things for the better at the Academy.
She would like to see the City adopt an approach like Peterborough’s, where there is some regular investment in the operational costs of arts organizations. A requirement for receiving such funding would be a commitment to ongoing education of board members to ensure stability.
In the past, the Academy has received C.H.E.S.T. Fund grants, and the City has come to the aid of the theatre here and there over its long history. But there is an absence of annual funding that other like-sized municipalities offer to their signature theatres, according to most of the people the Advocate spoke with.
Piggott agrees. “We recognize and appreciate the challenges facing the City. Having said that, Christmas is just around the corner and a line item on the City budget supporting the theatre would be a lovely gift,” he writes
Mayor Andy Letham says the first step would be to create a “solid business plan.”
“Once that’s done, I’m open to having that discussion moving forward.”
There are few institutions as storied as the Academy Theatre, which has been a cultural fixture in our area since 1893, hosting theatre, movies, music, dance, comedy and more. The community came to its rescue in 1962 when it was slated for demolition — does that same will to see our theatre thrive still exist? As more retirees from the Greater Toronto Area settle here and as more entrepreneurs find Kawartha Lakes a viable alternative to city life, they will be looking for cultural options. A revitalized Academy has the potential to provide this quality of life.
Nestor says that in her longer term vision, she was looking forward to bringing back summer stock theatre to the Academy and taking some calculated risks on bringing in bigger acts.
“I still believe we could see positive change happen for the Academy,” says Nestor, who often used the term ‘we’ in our discussion. “This could be the beginning of a new chapter for the Academy, if we want it to be.”