Academy Theatre struggles with direction, leadership

By Roderick Benns

Academy Theatre struggles with direction, leadership
The Academy has been a cultural fixture in our area since 1893. Photo: Sienna Frost.

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.

Advocate Publisher Roderick Benns.

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.

Academy Theatre struggles with direction, leadership
Helen Nestor, former GM.

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 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.”

Community Will

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.”


  1. Community member says:

    Imagine taking a disgruntled former employee and writing an expose piece on a community organization. Lol! Bush league journalism at its finest. This article spews a bunch of lies and isn’t well vetted. Oh well!

  2. Craig says:

    This story is bang pretty accurate I think although I don’t know all the details.

  3. D. McGee says:

    Have to agree with Mayor Letham, throwing money at an organization that has gone through at least 9 general managers in the past 13 years, does not seem like a prudent investment. One has to question either the vetting on the hiring process, or an inability of the board to accept guidance from the professionals. It seems the turnover problem must rest with the people that do the hiring. Their track record over the last decade or so, does not instill confidence,that the current financial issues can be readily resolved. Incidentally, other arts groups wising to use the theater, must recognize that while the Academy is a non profit,it is not a charitable organization.

  4. Maria says:

    She didn’t just piss off some people, she pissed off the wrong people. Lindsay is not Toronto. There is not an infinite number of arts organizations in a small town lining up at the door looking for a place to shine. Things may not have been working the way that they were, but there is a right and a wrong way of doing things.
    I hope that things turn around for the academy. I wish that I could say that I was a strong supporter of the theatre, but honestly the only shows that have ever really interested my there were the ones put on by the local arts organizations. I do not really want to spend my money watching impersonators of singers/bands from the good ole days no matter how talented they are. I am also not much into country. Now, unfortunately, with the bad blood between the academy and the locals providing those shows I can’t see myself attending the theatre at all.

  5. Joan Abernethy says:

    The problems that plague the Academy are also the bane of many other NFP arts, heritage and culture organizations not only in Kawartha Lakes but all across Canada. Nestor is correct that that is largely due to inadequate board governance education and experience. Most board members are part-time volunteers with good intentions who unfairly rely far too heavily on equally inexperienced staff. I also agree with Nestor that an open, straightforward and honest approach to governance is vital to success. But it is likely that attitude that got her fired. Over 50% of Not-For-Profit organizations in Canada lose a median of $120,000 per year to financial mismanagement and fraud. An individual who works in arts, heritage and culture economic development told me “everybody does it” as if that somehow makes it okay to turn a blind eye to the bad financial habits that are felling our arts, heritage and culture institutions. Everybody does not do it – Settlers Village is financially independent – but 50% is a significant number. It is a dirty little secret that causes insularity, paranoia, heavy staff turn overs, and financial instability. Susan Taylor is right. The Academy and similar NFP arts, heritage and culture organizations cannot keep expecting tax payers to throw good money after bad. Nestor is right too that education is the key to turning this around. There is no shame in needing help (as opposed to more money). New board members alone will not be enough to turn this around; unless a majority of board executives commit to education, openness, honesty and accountability, any board minority that advocates for such an approach may well find him/her or themselves the target of a fate similar to Nestor’s that may include false allegations made in secret to smear their reputation in the community and render incredible their honest efforts to correct the financial instability. The mayor is quite correct to place limits on what Council is willing to give. Show us a well-detailed and exhaustively costed business plan first before we consider further funding. To promote the public education needed to shine a light on what ails us, I challenge the Advocate to publish a story on how Settlers Village stays financially afloat and independent as an arts, heritage and culture organization in our community.

  6. A Gural says:

    Lindsay Little Theatre (which is also a charitable organization) was made to feel that we were a garbage/useless organization with nothing to offer. After Helen Nestor and The Academy forced four different contracts on us for Harvey (with them always ignoring the signed agreements, and then changing the rules), we decided we could no longer go forward under the bad faith contracts they kept pushing on us. We felt, for our dignity, and for the financial sake of LLT, that working under those circumstances was detrimental to us. A small charitable not-for-profit local community troupe is certainly in no position to pay the same fees that would be charged to bigger professional acts. We kept being told by Helen that she couldn’t approach this from a standpoint of community good will, that she had to see the bottom line only. LLT heard her, and withdrew for our own good.

  7. Helen Nestor says:

    When I received a call from Roderick Benns a couple of weeks ago letting me know that he was writing a piece about the Academy Theatre, and wanting to interview me for the article, I gave him a resounding “no.” I didn’t want to be a part of a piece that was going to point fingers and make accusations toward an organization that I was no longer an employee of, and moreover, one where I had been fired after only four months. Besides, what good would that do me or the organization? It has been months since I was fired. I know what happened, I know the truth, and I am not interested in convincing anyone of anything in order to feel better. I am a strong believer in difficult situations making you stronger. I’ve made the best of what happened, I have learned a lot, and I am most definitely stronger because of it.

    Roderick went on to say that he had already spoken to several people, from several perspectives, and that he also wanted to hear my take on what was going on at theatre. I said I would get back to him and did my own research, and discovered that he had indeed spoken to several people already. I called him back, and told him I still wasn’t convinced. He said that the piece was going to run with or without my input. I thought about it and asked for two things from him – one, I didn’t want this to be a “dirty laundry” story, I wanted my experience to open up a discussion, to be the beginning of clarity and hopefully some positive changes, and secondly, I wanted him to write a follow-up story in January with the new and positive things that were going to happen at the Academy as a result of this article. He promised me on both points. Now I know some of you out there are rolling your eyes. How could I believe anything that someone in the media was saying to me? Believe me, I understand. I have worked with the media for many years, and I know how a story can go sideways, but there was something in the way he spoke to me that made me believe he was being sincere. Besides, I know that truth is like cream, it always rises to the top but, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

    Hey anonymous community member, sitting behind your computer and saying the article “spews a bunch of lies and isn’t well vetted.” That’s the very frame of mind that keeps things stuck in the same old mud. Be brave and make yourself known. Tell us all what the lies are so that we can all be made aware and learn from this. Also, I’m not disgruntled. Again, if I knew who you were and we had a chance to talk, then you would know I’m positive and looking forward to new and exciting things for the theatre, the arts community and for Lindsay as a whole. I believe that Lindsay is on the precipice of great and wonderful change and growth. I also believe that I am going to be a part of that somehow. So, anonymous community member, come out from hiding and let’s talk. You can buy me a coffee, since I’m out a job these days. Lol, right?!

    Yes Maria, I pissed people off, but I don’t live by the perception that some people are better than others and deserve preferential treatment to others. I didn’t “piss off the wrong people.” No Maria, I pissed off the absolutely right people. Why were they pissed off? You say “there is a right and a wrong way of doing things.” Could I have handled things differently? Well, perhaps, but that is not why there were pissed off. Think about it Maria – I was calling for fairness to all community organizations, transparency, no preferential treatment, and equal fees to all community groups. I’m completely aware that Lindsay isn’t Toronto (you certainly don’t have to tell me that), but what does my being from Toronto have anything to do with trying to make things fair, and fix the financial affairs of the theatre? Again, I was hired to do a job and everything I did was approved by the Board. I did my research, I spent hours and hours going through every file at the theatre, I made charts and lists, I called people and spoke to other experts in the field. The theatre hadn’t raised their rental rates in over 10 years. I don’t know about you, but my water bill seems to always go up, and so did the theatre’s as did the bill to run those lights. Besides, the rental fees only went up slightly. I knew that the community wasn’t going to bear the brunt of the deficit. The raised rates were only a small part of what needed to change. There was a process, a strategy that I presented to the Board, and they were all in agreement until the pushback came, and I became the scapegoat.

    I’m not making any excuses Maria, but I was under an onslaught of negative letters, bullying, lies and personal attacks. None of the people who were saying these terrible things about me even took the time to call me or come to the theatre to speak with me. They just assumed and jumped to conclusions that just weren’t true.

    I committed no crime. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll say it again, I was hired to do a job, a job I didn’t even know the magnitude of when I was hired. In my attempts to right a ship that was taking in water, I was dismissed without just cause and without warning. I was only given one reason, and that was that I was “not the right fit.” By “right fit” if you mean that I will not stand by and allow the same old unfair behaviour and financial irresponsibility to continue, well then, you are right. I will call it out. I will try to do better, and yes, some people will get pissed off, and that’s ok. Change is difficult sometimes, I completely get that, but that is not a reason to keep doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “well, that’s just the way we do things” or “we’ve always done it that way” since my coming to Lindsay. No Maria, that is not good enough.

    Yes D. McGee, I agree with you that throwing money at an organization that can’t manage their financial affairs is not a good idea, however, the financial affairs at the Academy can absolutely be resolved with a determined and open approach. The arts are a critical component of any successful community. They bring revenue into the town, and are often the reason why people come to a place to visit. The Academy and other arts organizations in Lindsay need to step up, get educated, expand their way of thinking. Conversations with Mayor Letham need to continue, and financial support is an important part of the success of the arts in Lindsay. Let’s continue to talk.

    Finally Altaire Gural, although I have met you, I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with you one on one. I appreciate your passion, however, you are misguided. I had a couple of meetings with Lindsay Little Theatre, and you were not in attendance, so my guess at this point, is that there has been a misunderstanding in what I said. I never, not once, not ever, told any community group to leave the theatre, that they were garbage, or that they were not welcome there. I am not like that. I’ve worked professionally in the arts for decades. This is my chosen profession, and I make my livelihood from the arts. I chose this profession because I love the arts. I have had a hand in supporting hundreds of shows and thousands of artists. I am very grateful to work in this industry. Am I perfect? No! I am however, open to learning and doing things better. Your statements aren’t even close to what actually happened. I never asked Lindsay Little Theatre to “pay the same fees that would be charged to bigger professional acts.” No, not even close. I understand that it’s easy to blame and point fingers at me, however, that isn’t going to bring about the changes that are needed. It’s time to clean things up.

    Clearly, there are hurt feelings here, but let’s not get mired in personal vendettas. Let’s use the passion that people have for the theatre as fuel toward new and better ways of doing things. Let’s seek out growth and get educated. I truly believe that the people of Lindsay want the theatre to not only survive, but thrive. This is not a time to segregate, but a time to come together with the arts community as a whole, and see where we can improve the way we do things. My faith in the arts as a bridge to positive change, remains solid. I truly do look forward to the next chapter.

  8. Avatar photo Roderick Benns says:

    A short reminder to folks that the Advocate’s very purpose is to build community, but that has to include highlighting concerns as well as all the positives. A good story offers readers a range of views to help them make up their mind about an issue, or at least to inform them that there are varying ideas, approaches, and opinions about how to get there. The purpose of journalism — and especially Advocate journalism — is to provide probing stories about issues we’re not necessarily involved in. Sources can’t — and shouldn’t — dictate stories, but by adding their perspective, they can help others understand an aspect of the story.

  9. Shirley Wooldridge says:

    After reading all of the above comments I feel that by having a general meeting scheduled for December 11 that all of the issues that have been eluded to can be vetted and brought to the attention of all members and resolutions can be sought. I state again that unless and until the facts are presented the problems will continue and the board will be responsible for the negative impact on the community. I look forward to the meeting and finding out the facts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.