The Shaw Festival is bringing in a turnaround artist in an attempt to stem recent losses.
Veteran Canadian arts administrator Elaine Calder is returning to Canada from the United States to take over the job of executive director, the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., theatre company said on Thursday. She replaces Colleen Blake, who announced her retirement in September after 17 years in the post.
Calder, who filled the same role at the Shaw in the 1990s, is returning at a difficult time. The festival ran a $1.5-million deficit on its 50th-anniversary season last year and posted a $1.3-million deficit in 2010. It also ran deficits in the 2000s, but retired them in 2009.
“My brief from the board is very clear. This has got to stop,” said Calder, who starts work on Sept. 4. “I have gone into various organizations and stabilized them and helped them grow.”
In her most recent job, as president of the Oregon Symphony in Portland, she is credited with balancing the budget and overseeing the retirement of a $7-million debt.
During a decade when artistic director Jackie Maxwell has brought a new sensibility to the Shaw festival’s programming, expanding the mandate beyond plays by Bernard Shaw or about his period, the company has had to market a less familiar playbill in the midst of economic uncertainty, compounded by other blows to tourism. In particular, the U.S. requirement that travellers carry passports to cross the border has dampened American enthusiasm for trips to the festival.
“It’s about helping Jackie’s vision resonate and finding an audience for the Shaw in greater numbers,” Calder said of her role.
Before joining the Oregon Symphony in 2006, she worked at the Edmonton Symphony, the Hartford Stage in Connecticut and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. She was also interim executive director of the National Arts Centre during a period of crisis at that institution in 1999.
Calder previously managed the Shaw Festival under artistic director Christopher Newton from 1990 to 1994. “The world has changed since then and the festival has changed,” she said. “Jackie’s vision is different. She definitely has a feminist, social sensibility. She’s strongly intellectual … and she’s greatly diversified the acting company.”
Another file Calder will address is the fate of the Anchorage Motel and Restaurant, a property overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. To mark the 50th season, Blake negotiated a deal whereby the festival has until 2016 to buy the prime site, which it might then develop as a new theatre or additional programming space.
“They have a real opportunity – if they can seize it,” Calder said.