The decision was made during a board meeting held Wednesday night, and came as a surprise to Gass, who co-founded the theatre in 1970, and has held the position of artistic director since 1996.
Gass broke the news of his ousting early Thursday morning with an email sent to the Toronto Star, stating: "Last night, the Board of Directors of Factory Theatre informed me that my position as artistic director was terminated, effective immediately. No ‘cause' has been given for the action, but simply that they have decided it is time for the Theatre to move forward in a different direction. For me the termination was a surprise and unexpected.
"I am not happy about this, as this is not the way I would have planned my exit after more than 15 years working at the Factory and at this point in my artistic career, but the Board has made its decision and I am looking forward to the next chapter of my creative life."
Thursday afternoon, Factory Theatre issued a press release formally announcing "a national search for a full-time artistic director" as part of what they called a "re-visioning for Factory Theatre's future". The release also indicated that at the meeting Gass was offered the symbolic position of "Artistic Director Emeritus", but that he refused the offer.
The release acknowledged Gass's critical contributions to both Factory Theatre, and Canadian theatre as a whole, stating, "Ken has played a major role in defining and
transforming theatre in Canada and helping to foster the Canadian theatrical voice." Toronto-based entertainment lawyer and theatre producer Derrick Chua says that Factory's Board of directors, headed by Ron Struys, is "absolutely" within their rights to terminate Gass without cause, so long as they provide adequate notice, or payment in lieu of notice. Since Gass's removal is said to be "effective immediately", and since he does not stand accused of any wrong-doing, Chua speculates that, "by terminating him effective immediately, [the Factory board] would have to pay him out a certain number of weeks or months pay in lieu of notice, which is probably set out in his employment agreement with Factory."
Chua also notes that the board is bound by a "fiduciary duty" to "to consider what is in the best interest of Factory Theatre when making such a decision to terminate its Artistic Director."
With Daniel Brooks recently resigning from Necessary Angel (effective June 30) two of Toronto's biggest indie theatre institutions are suddenly without leadership, leading to speculation that the moves are connected, and that Brooks could wind up a prime candidate in the search for a new Factory boss.
After initially resigning as artistic director in 1977 over fallout from his controversial play Winter Offensive, Gass returned to the helm in 1996 amid a financial crisis that threatened to close the theatre. Gass ponied up $5000 of his own cash, and relied on productions of long-time Factory affiliate George F. Walker to get Factory out of the red, and back to a relevancy and fiscal solvency that culminated in the purchase of their iconic Bathurst Street home in 1999.
On Twitter, the rapid-fire reaction to his firing from the Toronto and Canadian arts community ranged from sadness to bewilderment: "Shock doesn't even begin to describe it" wrote @ucfollies, while @brian_pat called the move "unreal." "Shame on the factory board", chimed @_CJWalker, while @brandonm5 summed the reaction up as "Toronto['s] theatre community simultaneously going WTF?"