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Langham Court: How did a small community theatre become a hotbed of offstage drama?

In conflict: One side says Langham has had a toxic, racist culture, the other says that's not true
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Langham Court: simmering disputes and cancelled productions. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Its newly elected board says Langham Court Theatre has a longstanding toxic, racist ­culture that is desperately in need of repair.

Others, including former board members who recently resigned in protest, claim the new members are not acting in good faith, and have personal agendas that are causing irreparable damage to the mostly volunteer-run entity, which has been in operation since 1929.

The dispute erupted into the open at a rancourous annual general meeting and election in November that resulted in ­several key changes, ­including, ultimately, the abrupt ­cancellation of Langham Court’s current season. That caused a ripple effect that has spread to other corners of the ­performing arts community in Greater ­Victoria, illuminating issues some feel have been stewing for years — and others feel are ­completely overblown.

So how did a quaint, 175-seat theatre at the end of a quiet, dead-end street in the Rockland area find itself at the centre of such a storm?

The Times Colonist interviewed about a dozen people for this story — those for the ­preservation of the theatre as-is, and those who believe it warrants a culture change. The majority were unwilling to speak on the record.

Some were wary of a ­backlash online, where many heated debates have taken place. Many cited fears of being sued. They all wanted to speak, however. To a person, those interviewed for this story said it would be a shame to see the theatre close permanently.

A six-month timeline for ­reopening has been suggested, but while the doors remain closed, arguments are being waged in public, sometimes through ­letters in the Times Colonist. Langham Court volunteer ­Debbie Laverty wrote that she has “never witnessed or heard any harassment “or bullying behaviour,” which has been alleged by the new board.

“Cries of a hostile takeover are false,” actor Kyle Kushnir, who has appeared in several ­productions at the theatre, countered in another letter. “A majority of members voted for change and it was done openly and ­democratically.”

Board secretary Erica Petty, one of five new members voted in during the Nov. 14 election, said she’s aware of several examples that point to a community in need of fixing. “It’s false to say this theatre has been ­running smoothly for years,” Petty told the Times Colonist.

“The reports of toxic behaviour are well-documented by past managers and boards, and those same types of reports continue to be shared with the current board. What I can tell you is that in the last two months, since our appointment as board directors, we have received reports of racial slurs being used, of ­people being called names, ­people being threatened, bullied or intimidated, both in person or by email, and of personal property being vandalized. None of this is OK, and it doesn’t just speak to a historical problem, but a ­continuing problem.”

Petty said she could not elaborate, per the advice of legal counsel, while the board investigates the allegations. But Holly McGimpsey — co-producer of two upcoming Langham Court productions that were cancelled by the board on Dec. 29 — thinks the newly elected board members are not being forthcoming.

She said she has more questions than answers. “I have no first-hand knowledge of anything happening,” McGimpsey said. “I think what has fuelled the fire is the Human Rights Tribunal, and they keep rehashing it, rehashing it, rehashing it. It was settled almost a year ago. But they won’t let it go. The fact they are saying continuing racism and harassment, it’s absolutely untrue. Absolutely untrue.”

The continuing impact of the tribunal decision, of which there are an equal number of champions and critics, is pulling Langham Court apart. A complaint was lodged by Victoria actor Tenyjah McKenna, who was told via email by director and lifetime Langham Court member Judy Treloar in 2017 that she was not eligible for a particular role because “a black woman would not be a neighbour or a sister” for a play Treloar was casting at the time.

Langham Court settled with McKenna, less than one month before the tribunal was set to go to a public hearing. “The settlement was made over our objections and against our express wish to proceed to a public hearing,” Treloar’s husband, Drew Shand, wrote in an email to the Times Colonist. He believes Treloar has been “convicted as a racist” in the court of public opinion. “She was deprived of the right to confront her accuser and test the complaint before an impartial public hearing. We believe she had a strong case for dismissal” of the complaint.

Treloar’s lifetime Langham Court membership was revoked Nov. 14, following a vote at the annual general meeting. She died two weeks later — “suddenly,” according to her obituary.

Treloar’s case and subsequent death rattled the local theatre community, but the conversation did not end there. The Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival addressed Langham Court in a letter of “apology and support” posted to its own Facebook page on Wednesday, referencing “ongoing racist practices” at Langham Court. “We offer our heartfelt apologies for taking so long to publicly stand in this solidarity.”

The Treloar case is cited by some as a misunderstanding; four people who spoke to the Times Colonist about the incident broke down in tears at the mere mention of it. But internal documents show Langham Court had spent years addressing issues around discrimination, harassment and conflict resolution, with ombudspersons put in place to specifically deal with such matters.

A community outreach committee was formed in April as part of a push to recruit new board members in advance of the November election. According to documents posted on the theatre’s website, they wanted to attract members who would be “committed to opening up the theatre to marginalized and underrepresented voices.”

Paulina Grainger of Victoria’s Inter-Cultural Association has been hired for a series of in-depth equity and inclusion workshops made available to all management, volunteers, staff and members, which begin next month and run for about three months. ”They are moving in the right direction, for sure,” Grainger said. “This is the first part of the journey.”

The five-hour meeting and election in November — which was a heated, emotional affair — resulted in sweeping changes to the board. Vice-president Kathy Macovichuk, whose position was carried over, president Janine Longy and member-at-large John Crickman, who were elected to their positions, all resigned shortly thereafter.

McGimpsey believes that Crickman, Macovichuk, and Longy were being bullied, and were seen as roadblocks by the new members. “You would not have believed the disrespect that went on [Nov. 14]. They weren’t being listened to, and wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

Several key board positions are still not filled and the theatre is without a general manager. Michelle Buck, who held the position for four years, and is well-liked within the Langham Court and Greater Victoria performing arts communities, departed in June. The position is currently vacant, which, in addition to the impact of COVID-19, was cited as one of the reasons for the cancellation of the season.

Petty admits the board at Langham Court has been met with resistance on many fronts during its two months together. Some of the newly elected members have limited experience with Langham Court, which has been criticized, but others are experienced theatre professionals and were well aware of the problems, which is what spurred their decision to get involved, Petty said.

“When the [attempts] at trying to create change and have [our] voices heard weren’t getting anywhere, that’s when we organized and volunteered ourselves to work on the board.”

Petty said many longtime supporters are unwilling to have constructive conversations about the future of Langham Court, but they are welcome at the table. “Will this board make mistakes? Yes. But we are dedicating ourselves to affecting change and moving this society forward. We’d like the whole community to participate in affecting that change with us.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com