Franco Boni is practically synonymous with the Theatre Centre, the arts institution he ran for the past 16 years — in fact, we’re speaking inside the Parkdale venue’s main performance space, the Franco Boni Theatre.

The cavernous, adaptable black room received that name courtesy of donor Margaret Norrie McCain, as part of the company’s $6.2-million capital campaign in 2016 to create its permanent home at 1115 Queen Street W., the former Carnegie Library which originally opened in 1909. The Theatre Centre’s landmark move from a nomadic company (since its foundation in 1979) to one with a permanent home is Boni’s biggest legacy with the company, so it’s fitting that his last few weeks as artistic director — before the Toronto-born-and-raised Boni moves to Vancouver to lead the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which he begins on June 1 — were largely spent in this space, working on Prophecy Fog, a new play by Indigenous artist and director Jani Lauzon. What’s less fitting is that Boni is directing, a rarity for this prolific administrator.

Franco Boni at The Theatre Centre. He's been artistic director of the company for 16 years, hugely influential in the Toronto theatre community, and he's leaving for Vancouver in two weeks.
Franco Boni at The Theatre Centre. He’s been artistic director of the company for 16 years, hugely influential in the Toronto theatre community, and he’s leaving for Vancouver in two weeks.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

“It’s certainly an odd way to end, because it’s not what I’ve done over the last however many years,” he says, in front of the play’s circular set placed right in the middle of the Franco Boni Theatre. “I’m here to support Jani and the vision of the work and the ideas in the piece. I’m not an auteur director. That’s not really my thing, it never has been … The part of it for me is getting to know your colleagues better.”

The soft-spoken Boni has never been one to easily accept praise or labels like “visionary,” which was used in the announcement of the theatre’s naming in 2016, but he has been a leader from an early age — in his late twenties, Boni saved the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre from near-extinction by reconfiguring the performance spaces and schedule, turning it from a weakly attended event into a highly-buzzed sold-out FOMO attraction in his first year.

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After three years at Rhubarb, Boni moved to another festival, running the SummerWorks Performance Festival from 2000 to 2004, taking over from its founders who “handed (him) a bag of receipts.” His first move was to change the festival, which began as a second resort for productions not picked for the Toronto Fringe Festival, from lottery-based curation to including 10 invited productions. After those comprised of most of the festival’s most successful shows, he changed the format to a completely juried festival the next year.

“I got a lot of flak for changing it. I got some really angry phone calls from actors and an agent,” he says. “I was taking away an opportunity for them. I suppose that’s true, because there are certain works that I was never going to program. I always had a jury of different people with different backgrounds to select the work and argue with me, but there’s certain work that I’m just not interested in.”

Boni won’t say out loud what that work is, but looking at the work that has cycled through his life at the Theatre Centre, which he took over in 2003 immediately after being treated for testicular cancer — “I had just been released from hospital on the Friday, and I came into work on the Monday,” he says — one can see a thread of non-traditional, multi-genre, politically motivated work by a cross-section of individual artists and companies. From his earlier professional experiences, Boni brought an appreciation of artists with him to the Theatre Centre.

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“I think both Rhubarb and SummerWorks can’t exist without the generosity of the artists making work in them. These are not opportunities to make lots of money, and so they exist because the artists are willing to take a chance on an idea and put some money forward and share resources. It all exists because of the generosity of the artists.”

That word “generosity” is now a key word that the Theatre Centre uses to guide all of its actions, from its residency program (which chooses a small number of projects and allows them ample resources and time before an official production — the recent and acclaimed Secret Life of a Mother by Hannah Moscovitch, Maev Beaty, Ann-Marie Kerr and Marinda de Beer, took over five years of development before it premiered in the fall of 2018); to its lobby café which is open regular working hours for community members to use as a workspace; to its Condo Project, which developed programming with and for residents of neighbouring condo buildings; to its Newcomer Program giving training and work in the café and administrative offices to recent immigrants; to the monthly Community Meals, which provide a free homemade lunch for anyone who drops by, made by a staff member or artist. For Boni, this “reckless generosity” began with the staff in his early days at the Theatre Centre, when the company was operating out of a fire-hazardous, improperly soundproofed space in The Great Hall.

“The first thing I did, actually, was I moved the administrative offices from the basement to the main floor. First thing. It was like, ‘Who can work down here?’ Suddenly, there was sunlight,” he says.

Despite the space’s shortcomings, Boni took on increased rental costs to fix it up in order to make a commitment to staying in Parkdale, which he followed through with by becoming an active member of the neighbourhood, participating in community meetings, becoming a local activist against the condo boom, and joining the Active 18 group. By the time money was put aside to renovate the Carnegie Library, it was already decided that the Theatre Centre would be its new inhabitant.

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“I didn’t really have to work too hard to convince the community that we were a community, we were worthy of a community benefit,” he says. “But the Theatre Centre had been doing a really good job of supporting artists and seeding work. What changed when we moved into this building, was the responsibility that we now felt to the audience and the community and to building that audience for the work.”

Now, the Theatre Centre is inspiring other companies like Why Not Theatre and the RISER development project to follow their resource-sharing philosophy. In fact, during our conversation there were only two moments when the slow-and-steady Boni let his emotions come through — once was talking about the “poverty mentality” of our current arts-funding models and the other was when he spoke about the people he will miss when he moves across the country.

“The staff here, we have a very strong bond,” he says. “Somebody once asked me, ‘When are you at your best?’ I thought about the team, and the answer came right away. When there’s an unconditional kind of belief in you, as a human being, that’s when I’m at my best. I’ve really felt that from this team. We’ve been able to do some amazing things together.”

Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga



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