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Antoni Cimolino as AD at the Stratford fest? 'I would be delighted'

Antoni Cimolino

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Refreshingly, Antoni Cimolino does not beat around the bush when asked if he'd like to be the next artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"The festival is the great love of my theatrical life," says Cimolino, who currently serves in a more administrative role as the Ontario organization's general director. "I would be delighted to make a contribution in that way."

Cimolino makes these personal ambitions clear over the phone from Calgary, where he is directing the Canadian premiere of a work that's about the dark side of ambition: Lucy Prebble's Enron.

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A surprise hit on the West End in 2009, the British play tracks the rise and fall of the Houston, Tex.-based energy company that has become synonymous with corporate corruption.

The Border's Graham Abbey, who Cimolino has directed numerous times in Shakespeare, takes on the juicy role of Enron's former president Jeffrey Skilling in the Theatre Calgary production that opens Jan. 31.

"It's just a fantastic story about aspiration," says Cimolino. "In this case, for these people at Enron, aspiration eventually turns into self-delusion and, for some people, into criminality."

Hopefully, criminal acts, at least, will be avoided in the heated race to replace Des McAnuff after the 2013 season as the head of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the most high-profile position in Canadian theatre.

Cimolino is the first candidate to publicly signal that he wants the job, though he has long been considered a contender.

In charge of the administrative side at Stratford since 1998, Cimolino has kept up a career as a theatre director – though he rarely takes work at outside organizations, due to his responsibilities as general director.

To celebrate his impending 25th season at the Stratford, Ont., festival, however – his tenure represents fully half of the 50-year-old's life – Cimolino decided to accept a long-standing offer from Theatre Calgary's artistic director Dennis Garnhum to come direct on his turf.

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Cimolino chose the adventurous Enron – in which Prebble combines documentary fact with fantasy sequences involving dinosaurs and light sabres – because it seemed like perfect subject matter for a city where many people either worked for the company or one of it competitors.

With the facility with financial numbers that comes from running a theatre festival with an annual budget near $60-million, Cimolino seems perfectly placed to direct a show that delves into such murky matters as mark-to-market accounting and special-purpose entities.

But Cimolino is eager to brush aside the idea that it is somehow rare for an artist to understand facts and figures – a Romantic notion he says only emerged in the 19th century.

"Michelangelo knew exactly how much to overcharge the Pope for the Sistine Chapel," he says. "Shakespeare held stock in a joint stock company."

It makes sense that Cimolino would dislike the myth that business and art are antithetical, given that the notion has, in some ways, framed how his directing career has been viewed and may play into his chances of convincing Stratford's board of governors he's the right person to be artistic director.

Cimolino began at Stratford in 1988 as an actor – notably as a young and handsome Romeo to Megan Follows's Juliet. It was only in 1998 that he moved into an administrative role as executive director during the long, financially successful artistic reign of Richard Monette.

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In 2007, Cimolino's title changed to general director with the idea that he would oversee a team of three artistic directors to replace Monette – McAnuff, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley. That ill-advised compromise didn't even last a whole season, however, and soon McAnuff was fully in charge.

Getting things back on track after that disaster was no small accomplishment, but Cimolino's efforts as a director of plays haven't always received the same enthusiastic response.

Looking through the archives at The Globe, there aren't many outright pans of Cimolino shows, but no raves either. Past critics refer to him as an "actor-turned-director" or a person who has "emerged from Stratford's administrative offices to direct." One word that keeps popping up in assessments of his productions – from Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana to Shakespeare's King John – is "competent."

At the moment, however, Cimolino is coming off what may be his best-received production at Stratford to date – an adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. And Enron gives him a chance to make a strong artistic impression at what may be a turning point in his career.

"I hope they don't underestimate me as an artist," Cimolino says, having put all his cards on the table.

"It's unconventional to have a person who both heads the administrative and financial responsibilities of the festival as well as being a person who continues to be an artist. It's where I started and, at day's end, the place I'm happiest is in the rehearsal hall."

Enron runs at Theatre Calgary Jan. 31 to Feb. 19.

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