Stratford’s Torch Has Been Passed
Regular readers know that my wife and I are long time patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a landmark institution in the history of classical theatre and a key vehicle for the continuation of the classical tradition. Stratford just announced that Antoni Cimolino – the ultimate insider, having grown up professionally at Stratford from actor, to director, to Executive Director, to General Director – will be taking over next season as the new Artistic Director. It’s not exactly a surprise decision and it’s one that I’m pretty happy about – I like and admire Mr. Cimolino a great deal. But there are risks as well as opportunities to any choice, and I thought I’d articulate both what I’m nervous about and what I’m excited about with this one.
I’m nervous basically for the same reasons that I was excited about Des McAnuff’s appointment (and, before his sole tenure, the short-lived triumvirate). At the end of Richard Monette’s celebrated tenure at Stratford (the Festival’s longest-serving Artistic Director, and also a long-time insider who started as a member of the company), the Festival was in about as good shape as it had ever been financially, and had become an important institution for the training of not only a new generation of actors but also the whole panoply of artists and artisans that make theatre on Stratford’s scale possible. And yet, the Festival was feeling increasingly provincial. In particular, the same directors seemed to come around year after year, and there was a feeling in too many productions of “oh, is it my turn?” to doTwelfth NightorA Midsummer Night’s Dreamor another classical warhorse. I hoped that new leadership would bring Stratford more into the international theatrical “conversation” as it were. And to some extent that’s happened, but I fear that to too great an extent that’s been a function of Des McAnuff’s personal network, rather than something that has changed the perception of the institution. I worry, particularly with an insider in charge, of a reversion to some of the bad habits (along with the good habits) of the Monette years. Moreover, much of the “electricity” that I talked about from the McAnuff years accrued to his own productions – flying refrigerators and all that. Inasmuch as I think there’s something positive about that electricity (and I do), where will the funds come from in Mr. McAnuff’s absence to pay the electric bill?
But I don’t worry that much. Cimolino has invested much of his life in the Festival. I don’t think he’s going to be complacent now that he’s in charge. He wanted this job very badly, and I believe he wanted it to do something with it, and not merely to have it.
When I last opined on the subject of succession, I articulated a hope that the next AD pay particular attention to, on the one hand, stretching the canon geographically and temporally and, on the other hand, doing interesting (and not condescending) things on the “family experience” side. Given Mr. Cimolino’s history as a director, I think he’s a promising choice on both fronts. (Among other things, he’s got teenage children himself.) Now I’d like to add two more hopes to the list – both hopes that I think Cimolino is well-positioned to make real.
First, Stratford has experienced a dramatic decline in total attendance in the past decade. The drop from 2010 to 2011 was steep (13%) and took ticket sales below 500,000 for the first time in a long time – but most of the drop actually took place in the latter half of the Monette years. (The peak was in 2002, the 50th anniversary season; ticket sales have declined by nearly a third since then.) I’m inclined mostly to blame external factors for this decline rather than “mistakes” the Festival has made – but I don’t think those external factors are going away any time soon. Paradoxically, I think a key path to rebuilding that audience requires doing things to involve that audience outside of the central theatre experience. The Metropolitan Opera’s HD simulcasts are a controversial example of how to grow an audience, but a company of Stratford’s size has to be thinking about other media as a way of extending the audience (and thinking about how to extend it without cannibalizing it). Extending Stratford into new media is a very thorny minefield for intellectual property and labor-relations reasons. But Cimolino has, I believe, been an advocate for moving in this direction in the past.
Second, and going in the opposite – or, rather, complimentary – direction, there is a new generation of directors interested in classical texts who have an intensely visceral relationship with those texts and to the unique nature of the theatrical experience. Stratford already has a budding relationship with New York’s Jesse Berger – that’s a relationship I’d like to see grow. Another director with similarly grand ambitions and the confidence to absorb classical texts and make them his own is Chicago’s Sean Graney. These are directors who don’t have to work to make old texts relevant to new and young theatre-goers – because they already know why those texts are relevant to them, why they are passionate about them. They aren’t antiquarians and they aren’t popularizers; they are directors for whom classic works are still alive, and that vitality pours out onto the stage. These are the kinds of people Stratford needs to bring in to keep their own blood feeling young. And while Cimolino’s own theatrical sensibility is rather more restrained than directors like Berger and Graney, I believe theirs is the kind of work that excites him when he goes to the theatre – and based on the work Cimolino’s done on odd texts likeBartholomew Fair and his evident interest in nurturing young talent, I think he’d be very excited to see sensibilities like theirs play out on Stratford’s stages.