Buddies in Bad Times, North America's largest gay and lesbian theatre company, was founded in 1978 by 2 York University Theatre School friends, Sky Gilbert and Matt Walsh. The name was taken from Eric Bentley's translation of a Jacques Prevert poem.
Buddies in Bad Times was incorporated in 1979 by Jerry Ciccoritti and Gilbert, who became the company's first artistic director. Its first production was Gilbert's Angels in Underwear, in which Walsh played Jack Kerouac and Ciccoritti played Allen Ginsberg. It was staged at the Dream Factory, an old Toronto brewery at Queen and Sumach streets.
New Faces of '79 (later the Rhubarb! Festival) was launched in 1979, the year Gilbert announced publicly that he was gay. Walsh and Ciccoritti left the company, and the following year Buddies began an alliance with the feminist Nightwood Theatre. Buddies and Nightwood collaborated on 6 successive Rhubarb! Festivals and were among 6 companies that had banded together to form The Theatre Centre.
Gilbert's first successes were Lana Turner Has Collapsed (1980) and Cafavy (1981). By 1982 Buddies in Bad Times had received its first government grant, a sign of growing recognition for its cutting-edge work. A year later, there was funding support from all 3 levels of government.
In 1983 the prolific Gilbert wrote and directed the box-office hit Pasolini Pelosi, which contained a controversial fellatio scene. In 1984 Gilbert's The Dressing Gown proved to be a breakthrough production, receiving widespread critical acclaim.
Buddies won its first Dora Award in 1984 with a production of Jim Millan's Dali. Christopher Bye became the company's first full-time general manager the same year.
Another controversial production, Gilbert's Drag Queens on Trial, ran for 5 weeks at the Toronto Cinema in 1985, the year of the first 4-Play Festival of Gay and Lesbian Theatre. Established to showcase works of exceptional quality, the first 4-Play Festival was held at Theatre Passe Muraille and included If Betty Should Rise by David Demchuk and Claposis by Audrey Butler.
In 1986 Demchuk brought Buddies in Bad Times its second Dora Award for Touch, and Gilbert's Drag Queens in Outer Space set new company box-office records. The second 4-Play Festival, meanwhile, featured several works of outstanding merit, including Robin Fulford's Steel Kiss, which became one of the most important plays of the 1980s, and Hillar Liitoja's groundbreaking This Is What Happens in Orangeville. The latter, a co-production with Liitoja's DNA Theatre, won a jury prize at the 1987 Festival de théâtre des amériques in Montréal.
Buddies' in Bad Times' first mainstage production was Gilbert's popular The Postman Rings Once, held at Toronto Workshop Productions on Alexander Street in 1987. In 1988, the year that Tim Jones became general manager, Buddies and its associated companies won 10 Dora Awards, while 1989 saw the establishment of Queerculture, a multimedia festival that gave greater emphasis to lesbian concerns.
In 1991 Buddies established its own performance space at 142 George Street. Early successes there included Gilbert's Suzie Goo: Private Secretary, Daniel MacIvor's 2-2 Tango and Don Druick's Where Is Kabuki? which was nominated for a Governor General's Award.
In 1994 Buddies in Bad Times moved into the newly renovated 12 Alexander Street after negotiating a 40-year lease with the city. Soon after the move the company found itself in financial difficulties, due partly to higher-than-expected municipal taxes, but austerity measures and an exemption from property tax for not-for-profit theatres helped ease the problem somewhat. The 4-Play Festival and Queerculture were shelved, but MacIvor's Here Lies Henry and The Soldier Dreams were major successes. Tim Jones resigned in 1996 to be succeeded in 1997 by Gwen Bartleman. Tired of being an administrator, Sky Gilbert himself stepped down in 1997.
Under the always provocative cross-dressing Gilbert, Buddies in Bad Times courted controversy and offended many. "Buddies is not about assimilation and never has been about glossing over the differences between gays and straights," Gilbert said in a 1989 interview. "We are interested in life on the edge, the avant-garde, forbidden territory."
However, with the move to 12 Alexander Street, in the heart of Toronto's gay district, the company deliberately became more inclusive, reaching out beyond the fringes to the mainstream gay community. When Sarah Stanley became artistic director in 1997, Buddies in Bad Times' mandate was changed to foster good relations with lesbian and gay communities. Stanley's 2-year tenure was noteworthy for the premiere of Brad Fraser's Martin Yesterday and Elise Moore's Live With It, as well as for the establishment in the 1997-98 season of the Ante Chamber Series, a playwriting workshop led by company dramaturge Edward Roy.
Since David Oiye's appointment as artistic director in 1999, Buddies in Bad Times has undergone a number of changes that reflect not only its central position within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and the Toronto/Canadian theatre communities, but also its desire to continue to be esthetically and administratively innovative.
In 1999 Buddies launched its first Queer Youth program with a summertime workshop led by Franco Boni, which included queer youth from all over Ontario. The Queer Youth program has shifted its focus from simply supporting/educating queer youth to fostering the development of young queer artists through programs, workshops, festivals and cabarets that run year-round. These efforts led to the inclusion of 2 productions in Buddies' 30th-anniversary season (2008-09) by former youth-program participants: Waawaate Fobister's Agokwe and Mark Shyzer's Fishbowl: A Concise, Expansive Theory of Everything.
Significant administrative restructuring began with the resignation of Gwen Bartleman as general manager in 2002 and Jim LeFrancois taking on the new role of artistic producer. Charissa Wilcox became the production manager in the spring of 2003.
Buddies in Bad Times marked its 25th anniversary in the 2003-04 season. The changes it had made greatly influenced its subsequent development, and were characterized by an engagement with its past as a means of directing its future. For example, Sky Gilbert returned as an artistic force within the company. Gilbert's Suzie Goo: Private Secretary and Play Murder were both remounted, and he continues to produce his new works under the aegis of his Cabaret Company at Buddies. The company also appointed Moynan King as associate artist. King was instrumental in launching Hysteria: A Festival of Women and also worked with Franco Boni to produce Retro-Rhubarb!, which revisited past Rhubarb! Festivals by inviting various artists to remount some of their memorable productions.
Perhaps the most important project that Buddies in Bad Times undertook during its 25th-anniversary season was the rewriting of its mandate. It articulates the company's political and esthetic goals through a bifurcated definition of the term queer: the first part describes the company as "a queer-run organization committed to representing the LGBT community by supporting its artists, and by telling its stories" while the second part commits the company to a queer esthetic, "work that is different, outside the mainstream, challenging in both content and form."
In the 2006-07 season, Buddies in Bad Times presented Daniel MacIvor in his solo trilogy, House, Here Lies Henry and Monster, which also served as the farewell season of da da kamera, the artistic partnership of MacIvor and producer Sherrie Johnson. This season also saw Audience Relocation, a series of projects that engaged a number of artists and companies in various locations inside and outside the theatre, as well as the presentation of Mammalian Diving Reflex's "social acupuncture" experiments, collectively presented throughout the season at the theatre under the moniker Diplomatic Immunities. In 2007 the company also announced that it would address gender inequality in contemporary Canadian theatre - in response to the Canada Council for the Arts report "Adding it Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre" - by committing the 2009-10 season exclusively to projects initiated by women creators, and to gender equity in all subsequent seasons' mainstage productions.