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Stratford Festival General Director Antoni Cimolino at the theatre in Stratford, Ont., on April 22, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Stratford Festival General Director Antoni Cimolino at the theatre in Stratford, Ont., on April 22, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Theatre

The betting's on Antoni Cimolino to take Stratford Festival reins Add to ...

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s search for Des McAnuff’s successor may effectively be over.

A series of interviews with insiders close to the process suggests that Antoni Cimolino, currently the festival’s general director, is heavily favoured to assume the coveted artistic director’s job after McAnuff leaves at the end of the 2013 season.

“It’s fair to say it’s Antoni’s job to lose,” conceded one well-placed source.

A seven-member board of directors’ panel will soon interview a short list of possible successors (other rumoured contenders include Peter Hinton, due to leave the artistic-director post at the National Arts Centre this summer) for the most important job in Canadian theatre. Cimolino – whose production of Enron opening this week in Calgary has been seen by many as an effort to blunt objections to his Stratford-heavy resumé – is the first on their list. The board hopes to announce the winner before the opening of the 2012 season in May.

McAnuff himself has no vote and has so far maintained a discreet public silence about the succession. But his shoes will not be easily filled. Although his hectic international schedule has made for frequent travelling, there is no doubt his productions raised the festival’s game and restored an international lustre that had been lost under his predecessor, the late Richard Monette.

McAnuff’s critically acclaimed 2011 revival of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, for example, is due to open on Broadway later this year – a rare honour for Stratford-originated material.

The board’s challenge, then, is to find a replacement who can maintain something of the McAnuff magic and momentum, while also being more present and, in a tough economic environment, vigilant about costs.

Indeed, whoever wins this race must confront the continuing erosion of the festival’s American market (said to be down 50 per cent over the past three years), increased summer competition from theatres in Toronto, the aging of its core audience and the fickle economy.

“It also, obviously, needs someone who has some fluency with Shakespeare and the canon,” says director and writer Morris Panych. “It is a bit of a corporation, so the safety-first principle applies. It’s all well and fine to talk about experimentation, but you have to do that carefully. You have to sell tickets.”

Cimolino is considered to have the inside track for several reasons.

First, he knows the festival organization – everything from budgets to costume buttons – and its history better than anyone.

Now 50, he’s been at Stratford 24 consecutive years – serving, respectively, as a member of the acting company, as a stage director (more than a dozen productions over the last decade) and, for the past 12 years, as its senior administrator, overseeing more than 1,000 employees and an annual budget of about $60-million.

In his most recent role, he is credited with devising tactics to help Stratford weather the fiscal storms that followed the 2008 economic downtown. These included both serious cost-cutting and aggressive fundraising.

He also carries a Canadian passport – not a mandatory qualification but, given the outcry that might follow appointment of a foreigner, highly desirable.

Of course, Cimolino’s virtues may also be liabilities – making him a potential victim of the familiarity-breeds-contempt syndrome. As one insider put it, “Antoni’s like the person you’ve been in a relationship with for 25 years.”

Still, if less flamboyant than McAnuff, the board believes that Cimolino understands the complex recipe needed to draft a playbill that can, on average, fill 75 per cent of the festival’s four theatres over a six-month season.

The necessary programming balance is delicate – commercial enough to lure patrons who enjoy musicals and lighter dramatic fare, but without abandoning the Shakespearian canon that constitutes Stratford’s raison d’être.

“Cimolino is such an obvious choice,” says Montreal theatre critic Gaëtan Charlebois. “[He has the]art chops and definitely the business chops. He seems to have the sense of balance needed for the job. Beyond him, it might have to be someone from another arts machine, like Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company or its National Theatre, and it is likely all sorts of nationalistic hell would break loose.”

Cimolino’s coronation, however, will not be automatic. “He must also win the job,” said a source close to the Festival. “He has to show that there’s some elasticity, some growth, some vision.”

Another insider familiar with the thinking of the seven-member search committee confirmed that assessment. “Is it a done deal? No. Does Antoni have a good chance? He does. I think a lot will depend on his artistic vision and whether it is sufficiently compelling.”

Cimolino is said to have scored high on a set of criteria drafted by Searchlight Recruitment, the Toronto consulting firm that is co-ordinating the process.

In his years as administrator, Cimolino has worked with two dramatically different artistic directors. Under the late Richard Monette, the festival was often run like a closed shop – its stages largely off limits to big-name foreign actors and directors.

“I think what Des has shown is that it’s okay to bring in Americans and stars,” says one source. “For Antoni, being with Des was like playing tennis with a better opponent. It’s raised his game, opened Antoni’s eyes in terms of what can be done. Combine that with his sense of the place and his devotion to it, and I think he becomes the leading candidate.”

“The festival is the great love of my theatrical life,” Cimolino told The Globe in January. “I would be delighted to make a contribution in that way.”

By all accounts, that rare foray into public lobbying does not seem to have impaired his candidacy.

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