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The Antagonist

The Antagonist

Eccentric actor-activist Donovan King has waged a decade-long campaign against the Montreal Fringe Festival. He’s caused plenty of headaches—and divided the city’s tiny anglophone theatre scene.

Photograph by Patrick Alonso.

DONOVAN KING cuts an imposing figure as he parades the streets of Old Montreal on summer nights. Six feet tall and dressed in a top hat and long black overcoat, his booming baritone inflected by a mock-Transylvanian accent, he mesmerizes tourists with tales of murder, riots and ghosts from the seamy side of Montreal history: Bloated bodies found floating in the sewer. Angry mobs burning buildings. Plague victims buried alive.  

Yet there are those who say Professor Beeblebock—a character King created for the tour group Les Fantômes Montréal Ghosts—is tame stuff compared to the man himself. Depending on whom you ask, the actor-writer-agitator is either the vanguard of twenty-first-century theatre or a menace to peace, order and show business. He’s the central player in anglo Montreal’s longest-running cultural feud, a vicious back-and-forth that has driven one person to leave the city, another to file a police report about him and many more to howl at the mere mention of his name.

It all started some ten years ago with a shouting match over a $9 theatre ticket. In June 2001, King’s Optative Theatrical Laboratories premiered Car Stories, an innovative piece of interactive theatre, at the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. Three actors in the front seat of a car performed to three audience members in the back, with scenes taking place in vehicles located around the Plateau neighbourhood. When the local alt-weekly Hour put Car Stories on its cover, the first week of performances sold out.    

“It was hot,” Hour’s Gaëtan Charlebois wrote at the time. “We were led away—far away, it seemed—from the Beer Tent. I was scared. But then Car Stories began and because I could not reach for my notebook (so crammed into the seats were we) I had to be a pure spectator and I was indeed, fascinated: both from an intellectual point of view and from that of a Spectator in Wonderland.” 

But this success turned sour when Montreal Gazette theatre critic Pat Donnelly arrived expecting a press pass—and was told she had to pay, like everybody else. She refused. King arrived on the scene, responding, he says, “in character” as the hard-nosed producer. Donnelly stormed off, declaring she would not review the show. Rumours soon flew that the Gazette was dropping coverage of the entire festival. OTL split over the issue, and member Lisa Levack wrote a wrenching public apology, resigning from the group and begging the Gazette to resume coverage. Jeremy Hechtman, Fringe’s producer at the time, says he considered the letter an official withdrawal from the festival; King maintains that OTL was simply kicked out. Car Stories’ $200 in box-office proceeds went to Levack. 

King retaliated, denouncing Levack in a letter that he sent to the newspaper and posted on the beer-tent wall—Fringe’s central hub. His jokey missive offered Donnelly a free ticket if she agreed to perform in Car Stories. Meanwhile, the Gazette hauled in other reporters to cover both the Fringe and the ticket incident, which had taken over as the main story of the festival. On the final weekend, King claims, he was arrested for creating a disturbance and ordered to stay away from the beer tent.

Initially, King felt personally slighted—he says he lost $1,000 on the aborted Fringe run—but he soon began to analyze the incident’s political implications. At the time, he was struggling to finish his master’s thesis, which he’d started in the late 1990s at the University of Calgary. The Fringe incident and its aftermath worked its way into his 250-page analysis of Brecht, Artaud, Augusto Boal and other radical thinkers, which culminated in a manifesto on his vision of activist theatre. King decided to file a complaint with the Quebec Press Council; he believed that Donnelly’s sense of entitlement and the festival’s fear of getting on the Gazette’s bad side represented a kind of collusion. As King saw it, the Fringe—once at the forefront of alternative theatre—was now handcuffed to the establishment press. 

King discovered that even the word “Fringe” had become intellectual property. Launched in 1947 by UK artists who opposed the corporate domination of the Edinburgh International Festival, the original Fringe spawned a global movement; Edmonton’s version, founded in 1982, was the first in Canada, and remains the largest. In 1998, former Toronto Fringe producer Nancy Webster had “Fringe” trademarked, and the brand is now monitored by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals. Sponsorship had become so important to the Montreal Fringe that the festival had even been renamed after the St. Ambroise beer brand. King was convinced that the whole Fringe system reeked of commerce and profit.

Meanwhile, OTL and Car Stories prospered. By the following summer, Donnelly had been taken off the Gazette’s theatre beat and moved to books. Her replacement, Matt Radz, soon proved to be a friend of the underdog, with a particular fondness for plays put on by people who weren’t trying to earn a living in theatre. Until Radz left in late 2007, OTL enjoyed a stream of positive coverage. The group got a Canada Council grant to take Car Stories on tour, and was nominated for the prestigious Siminovitch Prize. Car Stories has since been staged dozens of times in Montreal and other cities.

OTL’s aim is to take theatre out of the playhouses and into the streets—to do away with the middlemen who, King says, are sucking the life out of a once-powerful medium for change. The group’s goal is to re-invent theatre as a tool for transforming passive spectators into thinking, feeling, protesting citizens. In the last decade, the collective has staged numerous “revolutionary theatre projects” throughout Europe and North America, including during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. It has also become involved in the fight for the preservation of heritage buildings in Montreal.

In 2004, King and his new partners, Jason C. McLean and Gary St. Laurent, launched a festival they called the Infringement—a sly bid to take back the trademarked brand—and held it at roughly the same time as the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe. Whereas Fringe participants are chosen by lottery and pay a fee—plus a percentage of their box-office take—the Infringement is free. It’s open to all artistic genres—film, music, visual art. Participants find their own performance space and handle sales. “Facilitators,” as King calls the OTL leadership, do what they can to garner publicity, but word mostly gets out via social media. Initially launched with the involvement of twenty-five groups, the Montreal Infringement has grown each year, inspiring like-minded festivals in Buffalo, Manhattan, Ottawa, Toronto, Regina, Hamilton, Bordeaux and Brooklyn. 

King’s ten-year campaign against the Fringe has two goals: he wants payment for his lost revenues on Car Stories and the word “Fringe” released from trademark protection. During festival time, there are still periodic clashes around the beer tent between the two sides. Then, last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the Montreal Fringe Festival’s founding, the whole dispute blew up once again. 

ON THE CUSP OF TURNING FORTY, King decided to make up with the Fringe. Amy Blackmore, a young choreographer who started volunteering for the festival when she was seventeen, had just taken over as director from Hechtman, who now runs the Mainline Theatre and shares office space with the Fringe on St. Laurent Boulevard. Not surprisingly, King’s peace offering was delivered with a dose of his signature provocative theatricality. OTL announced a “grassroots arts leadership award” and promptly named Blackmore the winner. A delegation showed up at the beer tent with an oversized cheque for an all-expenses-paid trip to the Buffalo Infringement, complete with a limousine ride to the bus station. Fringe security called the police, a scuffle ensued and King and his crew were thrown off the premises. Blackmore filed a police report about the incident. 

Around this time, Shawn Katz, a writer for the arts website Rover (full disclosure: I am the site’s publisher), attended the Infringement’s Night of Cultural Resistance. Although he wrote approvingly of the festival’s focus on progressive politics, he also condemned OTL for perpetuating its feud with the Fringe. “With so much important work that they are and can be doing, Infringement would be far more effective at furthering its social justice initiatives if the festival didn’t look and feel like OTL’s personal communications arm,” he wrote. “So long as Infringement persists in its decade-old grudge, the festival will continue to alienate vast swaths of its potential audience, and to drive a thick wedge through Montreal’s tight-knit Anglo arts scene.”

The Rover’s comment section erupted, with King and his Infringement colleagues leaping on the opportunity to revisit the initial incident and its long shadow. “Listening to all these Fringe apologists is like listening to a broken record,” King wrote. “Again, it is time for critical thinking, and not the sort of watery ‘why can’t they just be nice and get along’ waffling.”

Several people refused to comment when I contacted them for this story. Hechtman warned me that, over the years, many journalists have tried to write about the feud; all have given up, because, he thundered, “There is no story!” 

At first, Blackmore stonewalled too. But when Hechtman started talking, she met me for coffee at the Main diner, bringing her own tape recorder. We got nowhere. “If this were a schoolyard fight and the teacher called us in and made us make up, I would,” she sniffed. “But it isn’t. And I won’t.” 

When I tracked down Lisa Levack, she sobbed over the phone, “I thought all this was behind me.” After years of anxiety, never knowing when King would lash out, she finally moved to Toronto. “And the saddest part is,” she said, “he was once one of my best friends.” 

WHO IS DONOVAN KING? Why do one-time friends cross the street to avoid greeting him? Over the past few months, I met with King half a dozen times, plowed through press coverage of his antics and read his thesis. I served him homemade soup in my kitchen, even though people warned me he sticks like a burr. I got to know him well enough to ask whether he had ever (as his detractors claim) been prescribed medication to calm down. He confirmed he had a breakdown in Calgary, where he earned the ire of the dean of graduate studies over “culture jams” staged by the nascent OTL. He was banned from campus, and his thesis defence had to be held at his advisor’s home. 

When I told him about Lisa Levack breaking down in tears, he was unimpressed. “That’s what people do when they’re called on their own bullshit,” he snorted. In retrospect, he said, it was a mistake to have worked with people who wanted to build a career in theatre. “It’s important that everybody involved know why we’re doing what we do.” 

In person, King is tough and intense but not humourless. An actor to the core, he relishes stunts and takes great joy in annoying people whose motives and positions he opposes. Underneath his honed social conscience lies an aesthetic stance: he wants to rescue theatre from terminal irrelevance. “Art has to attack, has to have conviction,” he maintains, saying that people don’t go to live theatre anymore because it’s boring. He laments the passing of more radical times; Refus global, the 1948 manifesto that shot Quebec arts into the Quiet Revolution, is his touchstone. “Quebec culture is so completely liberal these days that it’s almost impossible to get conflict going,” he says. “We need to push the envelope further.”

Pushing the envelope is a raison d’être that King discovered in his late twenties, after growing up in a Montreal suburb in a family plagued by alcoholism. He says he was never comfortable with how the world works. His mother was an early supporter of the Morgentaler abortion clinics, leading to arguments with her Catholic husband and, ultimately, divorce. After dabbling in theatre as an adolescent, King traveled the world looking for a way to fit in. He found it at the University of Calgary, where he started reading literature about radical theatre and revolt, and founded OTL. 

But the Infringement targeting the Fringe is hardly a case of David taking on Goliath; it’s more like David taking on a slightly larger David. By the standards of corporate entertainment operations like Cirque du Soleil ($1 billion in annual revenues) or the Montreal Jazz Festival ($28 million), the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival ($400,000) is a shoestring operation, a neighbourhood event kept afloat by grants and sponsorships. 

Nor are Blackmore and her colleagues ripping off starving artists. Last year’s Fringe attracted nearly sixty-three thousand people and put $123,000 into participating artists’ pockets. Very few people are employed full-time in Montreal anglo theatre; Blackmore is aware that her job is fragile. She says she didn’t take OTL’s offer of a free ride to Buffalo seriously because “they don’t have the money.” 

Maybe the real reason so many players in Montreal’s tiny anglophone theatre scene can’t stand Donovan King is that he’s breaking some kind of code of the desperate. With five English-language theatre schools turning out hundreds of graduates each year, everybody is locked in a struggle to survive, chasing a tiny pool of playgoers and competing for the same grants. They resent one of their own who doesn’t join the chorus of hard times, who dares to criticize. Maybe healthy scenes are inherently competitive; unhealthy ones are prone to complicity. 

In tangling with the Gazette’s Pat Donnelly, a veteran critic and former actress, King landed on a succès de scandale that has brought his cause a great deal of free publicity. But he pricked a sensitive beast. Donnelly’s anger at a professional perk withdrawn fits a pattern of response I’ve observed many times in my thirty-year association with Montreal’s only English-language daily newspaper. (I was the Gazette’s theatre critic in the mid-eighties, and a freelancer before and since.) The paper’s management culture often presents a classic case of what literary critic Northrop Frye called the “garrison mentality,” a tendency of colonial outposts to look with suspicion on anyone who opposes their airless existence. Fear, insecurity and distance from cultural capitals cause the garrison to hoard power and defend its privilege with venom. Much has changed since I was a member of the newsroom: the staff is smaller, more writers are bilingual and, in many ways, the Gazette is a better paper now than it was then. But the tendency to lash out at any challenge still occasionally manifests itself. 

The passing of time, though, can have a mellowing effect. Lucinda Chodan was the Gazette’s assistant managing editor during the Fringe fiasco of 2001. She dealt with King’s subsequent complaint to the Quebec Press Council. (It ruled the paper had not acted improperly.) When I contacted her at the Edmonton Journal, where she is now the editor-in-chief, she could instantly recall precise memories of the incident. The Gazette never considered halting its coverage, she said. But with her typical cool irony, she conceded that the situation did get out of hand, thanks largely to King and Donnelly, the “two eminently reasonable personalities at the centre.” The Gazette, she added, “would of course have paid for our critic’s ticket.” 

She also defended King’s larger point about the growing trivialization of populist theatre. “Car Stories was one of the most innovative pieces of theatre we saw in a long time,” she told me. “I was here in Edmonton when the first Fringe was launched. I’ve followed it through the years, and frankly, the Fringe in general has become more mainstream, sometimes just plain silly. The edge isn’t there anymore.”

As for King himself, Chodan admits that the battle he waged against the Gazette was trying, but she bears no grudge. “People often have a violent reaction to individuals like Donovan,” she said. “It’s the nature of the beast. You know, Steve Jobs was a difficult person too. But we all benefit from Donovan’s kind of virulent questioning of the status quo. Do reasonable middle-class people subscribe to his beliefs? No. Do we need him to make us all less sheep-like? Yes. It is so important to keep questioning.”