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Des McAnuff (left) and Antoni Cimolino

Saturday's announcement that Antoni Cimolino had been appointed to succeed Des McAnuff as artistic director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was greeted with all the surprise of Vladimir Putin's re-election as President of Russia.

Putin's recent campaign slogan was: "If not Putin, who?" And the question in Stratford was similar: If not Cimolino, who?

Now, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is not as huge and difficult to run as Russia – but it may come a close second.

The search committee was looking for a Canadian who has experience with a large $60-million institution like Stratford; with a history of directing the classics (preferably Shakespeare, and preferably at Stratford); and with a proven ability to fundraise.

No one fits the bill like current general director Cimolino, who has worked at Stratford as an actor and director for almost a quarter century and been the top administrator there for 13 years.

The 50-year-old is the obvious, safe, unexciting choice.

But that does not mean that Cimolino is not a good choice, or even an excellent one.

As a stage director, he is a collaborator – generous to his actors and, importantly for a person working in a classical environment, with great respect for the text. My favourite recent productions of his have been of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair and Lucy Prebble's Enron, British plays written 400 years apart that both take place in byzantine worlds that need to be clearly rendered if they're not to confuse and alienate audiences.

Cimolino's main appeal as Stratford artistic director, however, is his sense of continuity after the glamorous, but unsettling tenure of the jet-setting McAnuff - who will pass the baton at the end of 2012, a year earlier than expected.

If Stratford ever needed a steady hand who knows the place inside and out, it is now.

On the surface, the Festival may look in good shape as it prepares for its 60th anniversary season. After all, McAnuff's production of Jesus Christ Superstar opens in New York this month and the board of governors just announced a small surplus of $52,995 for the 2011 season.

But smart budgeting (hat tip to Cimolino) and Broadway buzz (take a bow, McAnuff) can't mask the fact that Stratford is in serious trouble. On the same day Cimolino's appointment was announced, the festival revealed that attendance had fallen to 455,044 in 2011 – a shocking drop of 13 per cent from the previous year.

This the first time attendance has dipped below half a million in recent memory. A decade ago, under Richard Monette, Stratford was regularly selling more than 600,000 tickets a season.

Since then it's been blow after blow – September 11, SARS, the new passport requirements at the American-Canadian border, the recession and the introduction of the HST in Ontario.

On a personal level too, Stratford has been hit hard in recent years.

First, Monette died – just a year after he ended his 14-season tenure as artistic director. Then former artistic directors David William, Michael Langham and John Neville all passed on, one after another.

While the festival's past is vanishing, its future is up in the air. Can Cimolino lure 150,000 people back to Stratford? Or should he embrace a smaller season that, perhaps, could be more dynamic?

Most importantly, can Cimolino grow the next generation of talent at the festival so that in six years time there will be half a dozen worthwhile, qualified contenders fighting to follow him? A sense of inevitability at an artistic institution can be as dispiriting as it is in a dictatorship. But next time, the succession question might be even more depressing – simply: who?

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