Lessons from history: Academy Theatre needs its drama on stage, not at board table

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

Lessons from history: Academy Theatre needs its drama on stage, not at board table

Way back in 1996 I was fortunate to win a first place national newspaper award through the Canadian Community of Newspapers Association (CCNA). The only reason I bring this minor tidbit of nostalgia up is because of what the award was for.

As arts reporter for Lindsay This Week at the time, I wrote a series of articles about Kawartha Summer Theatre’s board woes the year previous, back in the waning days of the Academy’s summer stock theatre.

Advocate Publisher Roderick Benns.

Kawartha Summer Theatre at the Academy was led by the late, great Diane Nyland Proctor.

Di, as she was known to all, spent more than 50 years in theatre, whether as a performer, dancer, choreographer or director. She got her start as a 16-year-old dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. Always an innovator, Di invented the role of Josie Pye in the first production of Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival in the mid-1960s. Most Canadians, though, know her for her 1970s Canadian sitcom role, The Trouble with Tracy.

I still remember to this day the headline I had to write on my story in late 1995: ‘Bank Calls the Curtain on Kawartha Summer Theatre.’

The drama that was meant to be kept on stage had spilled into the board room. The board of directors at the time claimed the Bank of Montreal had frozen their funds; that the theatre had a great debt load; that Di was to blame because of her ambitious season.

They laid her off and the community was devastated.

However, I later discovered that the Bank of Montreal did not freeze its funding to Kawartha Summer Theatre, the debt load was far less than reported by the board, and that Di had followed her budget to the letter.

I also discovered that she had been let go prematurely, according to her contract. After my story came out the entire board resigned at the fall annual general meeting. About 15 minutes after that, another meeting was called and a new board was put in its place.  Di was returned to her post as artistic director. Kawartha Summer Theatre went on to produce some impressive attendance numbers in the subsequent season.

There are striking parallels here as the Academy’s current board (and recent boards) struggle with running the theatre’s affairs, as recently reported. Lately, there have been too many secrets and not enough transparency and authenticity. And, with many of the players involved, there has been a startling lack of EQ in dealing with one another and with the community at large.

The best boards are made up of diverse people of various backgrounds and areas of expertise. They have governance experience or a desire to make the commitment to learn. There can’t be alliances that pit board members against staff or board members against one another.  Their only alliance – their only common cause — should be nothing other than the well-being of the institution itself.

There may be a membership meeting of the Academy Dec. 11. The lessons of history – even local history, 24 years ago — tell us anything can happen at such meetings.

No matter what board leads the Academy into 2020 it must do so with a profound sense of trust and obligation. This storied theatre, with all the echoes of history behind it, has given us so much and so deserves no less.

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