Factory TheatreToronto's Factory Theatre Lab was the first English-language theatre in Canada to devote itself exclusively to Canadian scripts. It was launched on 1 May 1970 by founding director Ken GASS, who sensed it was time for Canadian theatres to shake off colonialist influences and produce Canadian work.
Gass, along with co-founder Frank Trotz, borrowed $3000 to launch the company, whose first home was in a greasy former candle factory above an auto-body shop at 374 Dupont Street. The first season proved Gass's intuition correct: David Freeman's Creeps, directed by Bill GLASSCO, and Herschel Hardin's Esker Mike and His Wife, Agiluk gave the theatre immediate prominence.
Gass saw Factory as a laboratory for the research and development of new Canadian plays, with the playwright pre-eminent, and the theatre nurtured playwrights such as George F. WALKER, Larry Fineberg, Freeman and Bryan Wade and directors such as Paul Bettis and Eric Steiner. The memorable 1971-72 season included 2 plays by Walker (Ambush at Tether's End and Sacktown Rag), Fineberg's Stonehenge Trilogy and 2 sell-out productions, Larry Kardish's Brussels Sprouts and Maybe We Could Get Some Bach by Louis Del Grande.
In December 1972, a dispute with Actors Equity over minimum payment for its members and the loss of a job-creation grant brought the first of several major financial crises. Special grants enabled the theatre to recover and to stage Walker's Bagdad Saloon in April 1973, the final production at Dupont Street. In September 1973, the theatre used a $42 000 government grant to take Bagdad Saloon and Esker Mike to London, England. After 3 productions in rented spaces, Factory moved to a converted warehouse at 207 Adelaide Street, where it remained until 1980. Major productions during those 6 years included Walker's Beyond Mozambique (1974), The Boy Bishop (1976) and Winter Offensive (1977); Wade's Underground (1975); and Hrant Alianak's Lucky Strike (1978). The controversial Winter Offensive was heavily criticized for its sex and violence, and Gass resigned in April 1978. Bob White, Factory's dramaturge, became artistic director for the 1978-79 season and re-affirmed the theatre's commitment to script development. Factory moved from 207 Adelaide Street to the nearby Adelaide Court Theatre in 1980, left there in 1982 and was homeless for 2 years.
Walker's achievements during this period included the punk-rock musical Rumours of Our Death (1980); Theatre of the Film Noir, the hit of the 1981 Toronto Theatre Festival; and The Art of War (1983).
In November 1984, the renamed Factory Theatre found a permanent home at 125 Bathurst Street in a 3-storey Victorian mansion. The string of Walker hits continued with Criminals in Love (1984), which ran for 6 months, and Beautiful City (1987). Another important production was Neil MUNRO's Crossing Over (1986).
Jackie Maxwell succeeded White as artistic director in July 1987, and a precarious financial situation eased only after a major fund-raising drive at the end of 1988. Acclaimed productions during Maxwell's tenure included the Raymond Storey and John Roby musical Girls in the Gang (1988), Walker's Love and Anger (1989), which ran for 8 months, Walker's Escape from Happiness (1992) and Munro's Bob's Kingdom in 1993. Maxwell also championed Québec theatre and showcased some important works, including Robert LEPAGE's The Dragon Trilogy and Tomson HIGHWAY's The Rez Sisters.
Michael Springate took over in 1995 and scored an immediate artistic success with Andrew Moodie's Riot. When fiscal troubles mounted, Ken Gass returned as artistic director at the end of 1996, putting in $5000 of his own savings to keep the theatre afloat. But 1997-98 was a banner season, thanks to a critically acclaimed series of 6 new plays by Walker under the umbrella title of Suburban Motel. Three plays from this multi-award-winning cycle were remounted for the 1998-99 season. In the fall of 1998 the theatre bought the building it had leased for 14 years for $1.15 million and embarked on a vigorous and successful fund-raising campaign. Indeed, the purchase laid the foundation for a stable and secure future for Factory, and in the following years the theatre received substantial grants to renovate its spaces. In 2003, Factory Theatre was the biggest single recipient of the City of Toronto's cultural-facilities capital-grants program. In 2008, Factory received $400 000 in new financial support for its operating season, most of it directed towards capital improvement.
During this time of growth and renewal, Factory Theatre continued to showcase new and innovative Canadian work on its stages. Some notable playwrights to have their works premiered at Factory since the year 2000 include Florence Gibson, whose plays Belle (2000), Home is My Road (2003) and Missing (2009) all received world premieres at Factory; Linda GRIFFITHS, whose play Chronic had its world premiere in 2002 and whose Age of Arousal was produced by NIGHTWOOD THEATRE in 2008 after a successful run in Calgary; Andrew Moodie, whose plays The Real McCoy (co-produced with The Great Canadian Theatre Company in 2007) and Toronto the Good (2009) premiered at Factory; and Adam PETTLE, whose plays Zadie's Shoes (2001) and Therac 25 (2002) received their professional theatre debuts. Theatre Smith-Gilmour also premiered their popular adaptations of Chekhov at Factory during this period: Chekhov's Shorts (2000-01), Chekhov Longs... In the Ravine (2001-02), Dr. Chekhov Ward 6 (2003-04), Chekhov's Children (2004-05) and Chekhov's Heartache (2006-07).
In 2003, Factory Theatre was the subject of controversy when Vancouver playwright Carmen Aguirre withdrew her play, The Refugee Hotel, from Factory's season, accusing Gass of "racial and cultural insensitivity." The conflict stemmed from disagreements over casting, namely Aguirre's dissatisfaction with Gass's efforts to find non-white actors for the play, which was about Chilean refugees living in a Vancouver hotel after fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship. While Gass took responsibility for his role in the conflict, he also stood by his reputation for supporting the work of artists from diverse backgrounds. Indeed, initiatives like CrossCurrents, a new play festival dedicated to showcasing and developing work by writers of colour, produced at Factory under Gass's tenure since 2001, are a testament to Gass's commitment to diversity.
Despite the controversy, the following season Factory bounced back with the smash-hit Bigger than Jesus, a co-production with Necessary Angel created by Daniel Brooks and Rick Miller, and Trout Stanley, a new work by playwright Claudia Dey, whose early career was nurtured by Factory. Throughout the decade, Factory also continued to have success reviving George F. Walker's earlier plays.
With its uncompromising, nationalistic mandate, Factory was the prototype of the smaller, leaner alternative theatres that sprang up across the country in the 1970s. Today Factory Theatre has battled back from the financial crises of its earlier years and, in its strict adherence to its policy of producing all-Canadian work, continues to prove itself "the home of the Canadian playwright" - its byline.