The leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival

(August 2008) From a distance, Emsworth has followed the shenanigans at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) over the last year with more than his customary irritation. Let us review the chain of events:

Richard Monette

Richard Monette

     1. In late 2006, Richard Monette retires as the Festival’s Artistic Director after 14 extraordinarily successful years, leaving the Festival in solid shape.

     2. Incredibly, the Festival’s board of directors, under no particular pressure to do so, decides to replace Monette not with one person, but with three: a triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Don Shipley, and Des McAnuff. The three are supposed to have “equal” responsibility for programming and the hiring of talent. Decisions are to be made by “consensus.” Antoni Cimolino is made General Director of the Festival on the understanding that he will keep his fingers out of artistic decisions.

     3. The three co-artistic directors plan a 2008 season with five Shakespeare plays instead of the usual four.  They also include a play by Euripedes, an obscure Spanish play from the late 1500s, and an adaptation of Moby Dick that has essentially no dialogue. They put four of of the five Shakespeare plays in the 1838-seat Festival Theater.  They program two popular musicals (The Music Man and Cabaret), but put them both in the smaller, 1083-seat Avon Theater.  They give the Festival a cumbersome new name, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Marti Maraden

     4. Throughout the fall and winter of 2007-08, the three co-directors can’t agree on much of anything.  More often than not, Des McAnuff is off in London and New York on other projects, making it difficult for Shipley and Maraden to collaborate with him.  Cimolino interferes and makes artistic decisions that Shipley and Maraden think belong to the co-artistic directors.

Antoni Cimolino

     5. On March 8, 2008, Shipley and Maraden quit as artistic directors, citing Cimolino’s interference.  The finger-pointing begins. In an interview, the frustrated Maraden complains there was “no protocol for decision-making.” Cimolino claims he intervened only when the three couldn’t agree on major points. To her credit, Maraden keeps her commitment to direct All’s Well That Ends Well and The Trojan Women during the 2008 Stratford season. (See the Emsworth review of All’s Well at this post.)

Des McAnuff

     6. Des McAnuff — the member of the triumvirate who apparently had the least time to devote to the job, and whose resume is thinnest in classical theater — is installed as sole Artistic Director. In July, Dean Gabourie is appointed as assistant artistic director.

     7. Predictably, tickets for The Music Man and Cabaret are are scarce. Meanwhile, the Shakespeare plays are performed before hundreds of empty seats in the Festival Theater.

     8. In mid-July, Cimolino and McAnuff warn Stratford personnel that the Festival is on track to lose as much as $5 million during the 2008 season. They blame gas prices, the U.S.-Canadian currency exchange rate (currently disadvantageous to us Americans), and a general decline in Ontario tourism — everything but the directors’ programming decisions. Personnel cutbacks and a less ambitious season are forecast for 2009.

Any fool who has spent any time with artistic types would know that appointing three experienced, strong-willed directors who don’t know each other very well to be co-artistic directors of a major repertory theater company, with all major decisions to be made by “consensus,” is a recipe for disaster. What was the Board of Directors thinking?

Anyone could also have predicted that feelings would be hurt and relationships damaged upon the inevitable collapse of the triumvirate. One can only hope that Don Shipley and Marti Maraden will not be so soured by their leading roles in this debacle that Stratford audiences will be deprived of their talents in future years.

Stratford's Festival Theatre

Stratford's Festival Theatre

But the Board’s decision to place the Festival’s artistic direction in the hands of a three-person committee can also be blamed for the programming decisions that will apparently cost the Festival millions of dollars this year. (Emsworth gloomily predicts that it will not be long until he and other members of the Stratford Festival are called upon to to help narrow the deficit.)  Not one of the three, I would wager, if the responsibility had been his or hers alone, would have gambled the 2008 season on the proposition that large audiences would fill the Festival Theater to see The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well That Ends Well, or that audiences would buy tickets for a lesser-known Shakespeare play (Love’s Labours Lost) as readily as they would for (say) a popular work by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, or Tennessee Williams.  But responsibility was diluted.  When you bargain for decision-making by committee (“the buck stops nowhere”), that’s what you get.

Robin Phillips

Most irritating of all is that the Stratford Festival has been through this before.  A friend recently lent Emsworth a copy of A Stratford Tempest, a 1982 book by the Toronto journalist Martin Knelman about the leadership debacle that followed in the wake of the 1980 resignation of another highly successful artistic director, Robin Phillips. Amazingly, the book relates, the Board of Directors chose to replace Phillips with a committee of nine co-artistic directors!

In short order, most of this unwieldy committee resigned.  The remaining four put together a promising 1981 season — but then the Board of Directors panicked, fired the four, revamped the season, and hired a single artistic director, John Hirsch.  The Festival lost a lot of money that year, too. Many of the survivors of the 1981 debacle are still associated with the Stratford Festival, including Brian Bedford, Marti Maraden, Martha Henry, and others.  Why can’t an organization like the Stratford Festival learn from its own mistakes?

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is the first write up that I have seen that calls it like it is (or was) with that disastrous season in 2008. Before the season started I remember thinking that they were overdosing on Shakespeare and ignoring the fact that for 30 + years the musicals have subsidized the other shows. Saying that the musicals are designed for proscenium stage is true, but lets face it, that made Stratford musicals on the Festival Stage unique, I can see a broadway musical on a proscenium stage in almost any major city in North America, but not on a thrust stage. Cimolino, who started at the festival as an actor, should have known that it would be a disaster to put 4 Shakespeare plays on the Festival stage – with a title like General Director he should have said something about that programming decision.

  2. The issue actually went back to the Robin Phillips years before Stratford and the London (Ontario) Grand Theatre season after. The productions were exceptional, in a much more far-reaching sense than simply “interior decorator.” 1983-4 was probably the most artistically exceptional season the Grand Theatre has ever had.

    However, the bean-counters hated him with a passion and wanted him gone asap. You should have seen the vitriol sprayed all over the local media at the time. Apparently a few of the run-of-the-mill actors weren’t thrilled with Phillips’ directing style either, which pushed really hard and kept trying to do new things which didn’t fit tried and true canon. The combination shoved Phillips out of the Grand Theatre after just one year.

    Since that magic year, the Grand Theatre has been blacklining the bottom line consistently, but its productions have been very average crowd-pleasers and the acting quality has gone way down, to the point where I’m trying to avoid writing reviews on Grand plays. I’ve seen too many amateur and small-town productions with much higher standards.

    I wonder if the bottom line’s the real reason behind Stratford regularly choosing triumvirates to follow strong artistic directors? If they’re all looking over each other’s shoulders, no one dares to risk too much money by being too innovative.

  3. That would not be the first inaccuracy from a Toronto Star writer (although Mr. Knelman does happen to be a fine columnist and a very nice person).

  4. Just reporting what the Knelman book said! I appreciate your perspective as somebody who was actually there at the time.

  5. “Nine co -artistic directors”??!!!! That is absolute nonsense. I was in the company hius last season. He was replaced by an unqualified triumvirate of three, but, then, the hicky Board changed its feeble Upper Canadian mind, and the ousted co-directors (one of whom was a VILE director I knew) sued.

    I worked as an actor under Phillips, and, as far as I am concerned, ONE-THIRD of an artistic director would have been sufficient to replace him. I always thought him more of an interior decorator than a director; he certainly was no intellectual.

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