Opinion: STC board owes John McHenry an apology

Writer Kim Fahner says the Sudbury Theater Center’s recently ousted artistic director worked hard to cope with the establishment’s financial crisis and the impact of the pandemic, and that his unceremonious removal was an insult to the both to McHenry’s work and to the Sudbury theater community.

I was dismayed to learn that the Sudbury Theater Center (STC) Board of Directors has decided not to renew Artistic Director John McHenry’s mid-season contract. More shocking is how the STC decided to release this information and the sheer disrespect it showed a man who has done such incredible work in our community.

I wanted a Sudbury Theater Center board member to thank John McHenry. Nobody did.

Not correctly.

So, I am – as a local playwright and supporter of TCT – writing this public letter to thank a man who thoughtfully and carefully supported our local theater during a pandemic, and who arrived to take the lead of this theater in times of financial crisis, before the new coronavirus decimated theaters around the world.

I find it particularly appalling that the work of John McHenry as Artistic Director of the Sudbury Theater Center has not yet been properly recognized by the public. As a playwright who has received two Theater Makers Grants through the STC and the Ontario Arts Council Referral Grant program — for my plays Sparrows Over Slag (2018) and Letters to the Man in the Moon (2019) — I would like to thank Mr. McHenry for encouraging local playwrights to pursue our projects and seek funding sources.

Both of these plays had staged readings at the Play Smelter Theater Festival, led by Lisa O’Connell and Pat the Dog Theater Creation, in the spring of 2018 and 2019.

A big part of creating a new play is having a professional theater guide you through the process of writing, dramaturgy, workshops and staged readings. It takes time, care and bonding work. It also takes a commitment to the idea that what ultimately happens on a stage, in front of an audience, may not be the most important part of a theatrical experience – even if it is the part whose members of the public will likely remember the most.

Yes, it takes someone who knows that words, that the plays we write as playwrights, are crucial for the creation of theatre.

John cared. He has helped develop many voices in our community, taking the time and care to help promote emerging playwrights. McHenry gave a group of local playwrights – including Lara Bradley, Jesse Brady, Rick Duthie, Sarah Gartshore, Matt Heiti and myself – a place to meet regularly to discuss our work. We met on Monday evenings, when the theater is traditionally “dark” because productions take off that night. We called ourselves The Dark Wrights.

This small group continued to create new works for the stage, and we discussed issues of craftsmanship and offered each other support and dramaturgy in the creation of our new plays.

That McHenry encouraged such informal, yet crucial, creative enterprise was heartening. That he wants this to happen inside the walls of the STC building speaks volumes about the importance he places on writers creating new plays, that he knows the process of creating theater is complex. and should be honored and respected.

Mr. McHenry and Ralph McIntosh also encouraged the launch of a pilot program, From Page to Stage, a series of eight-week courses with Sudbury-area teen playwrights. I was thrilled to participate in this program from November 2021 to January 2022, working with Kelsey Routledge to teach students the playwriting process and helping them create a collaboratively written play about their pandemic experiences at the adolescence.

Part of McHenry’s work included the PlayMine Script Reading Series, which showcased the work of Northern Ontario playwrights through staged readings open to the public.

After a playwright writes a play, the playwright needs to hear it read by actors and see how an audience will react to its structure and nuances. These readings allow us to see our work in a new light, to do more revisions, to strengthen our pieces for stage production.

Writing a play is a collaborative and time-consuming process. That these plays are written about our Sudbury stories is something else that needs to be protected and nurtured. My latest play, All The Things I Draw, was supposed to have a staged reading through the PlayMine series in March 2020, but that was canceled due to the pandemic.

It had been postponed until April 1, 2022, but was dropped in the change of administration at the STC.

For me, as a playwright, it’s disappointing. No formal notice was given to me of this program being cut a month or two before the date of the staged reading.

If the STC does not continue to encourage strong dramaturgical programming, I wonder if this is the professional theater it has grown over the past 50 years.

Trying to make a theater “more economically viable” after a pandemic doesn’t just mean producing popular plays or musicals. It also means programming strong, independent Canadian plays, especially plays written by a diverse group of playwrights – including BIPOC, LGBTQ2S, female and Northern Ontario writers.

It means engaging and challenging theater audiences and trusting that they are able to encounter (and appreciate) new plays from local playwrights. It also means ongoing partnerships with other provincial and national not-for-profit theater groups and funding agencies.

It’s a real blow to think that STC is in danger of losing its status as the only brick-and-mortar professional theater in Northeastern Ontario. The decimation of the humanities and arts programs at Laurentian University last spring was brutal and had a profound effect on the arts in the City of Greater Sudbury.

I imagine we have yet to see the ripple effect of these cuts to post-secondary humanities programs, including the elimination of theater and music programs.

One less arts organization in Sudbury would be another blow to the cultural fabric of a city that has come so far over the past 50 years since the inception of the STC. I feel like we’re going backwards instead of forwards, and I feel like transparency is something that’s asking too much. It is terribly worrying.

But above all, the STC board owes an apology to John McHenry for the thoughtless way in which he announced his departure, for the way in which he disregarded the care with which he carried out a very difficult – trying to turn around a theater that was dangerously collapsing due to a lack of leadership at the board and staff level.

Despite everything, John managed to do it all with grace, kindness, good humor and professionalism. We owe John some thanks, so I’ll pass it on to him here.

To me he has been a mentor and a friend, and I am grateful to him for the work he has done for professional theater in Sudbury. I only wish the board had thought to sound out the thoughts of local theater supporters, including patrons of the STC, as well as local playwrights, actors and theater workers.

Hopefully, perhaps, the board will move more carefully with a national call for a new artistic director in the coming months, considering long-term planning with vision and foresight.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Kim Fahner is a poet, playwright, writer and educator based in Greater Sudbury.

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