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Tim Carroll, artistic director for the Shaw Festival, is photographed at the theatre located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on April 17, 2018.

Fred Lum

A sure sign that the Shaw Festival is tired of discussions about its mandate is the new line at the bottom of all its press releases under “About the Shaw Festival.”

In the past, the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., repertory theatre, founded in 1962, has sold itself as being a place to see the work of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, then plays written and/or set in Shaw’s era, then, fairly recently, all those plays plus any others that shared a puckish sensibility deemed “Shavian.”

But, as the Shaw Festival opens its second season with artistic director Tim Carroll in charge, that “About the Shaw Festival” line now reads: “Inspired by the spirit of George Bernard Shaw, the Shaw Festival creates unforgettable theatrical encounters in any way we want.”

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That “any way we want” may seem defiant to long-time Shaw attendees, given what Carroll has lined up for 2018,

At a theatre company much-lauded for the strength of its Canadian ensemble, Carroll has given pride of place on the main stage to a series of three solo shows – written and performed by the just-visiting British comedian and Twitter smarty-pants Stephen Fry.

At a theatre once viewed as the savvy Southern Ontario theatregoer’s alternative to the Stratford Festival, Carroll has programmed the festival’s very first Shakespeare production: Henry V.

And, for the second season in a row, while the Shaw’s new artistic director has kept Bernard Shaw around, he hasn’t programmed a single play by one of the Irish playwright’s dramatic contemporaries (quite the feat, really, given that Shaw lived all the way from 1856 to 1950).

Meeting up at a café near High Park in Toronto before spring had quite yet sprung, Carroll – whose family-oriented production of a new adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew officially opened the season on April 4 – explains his unorthodox choices with cheery candour.

Carroll’s friend Fry, who played Malvolio in his Broadway production of Twelfth Night in 2013, approached him with the idea of Mythos – a trilogy of performances based on his book of the same name and planned future ones – and the British director felt it was “too interesting an opportunity to turn down.” In the shows, which have no set script and will be semi-improvised, Fry will tell stories about the gods, demi-gods and humans of Greek mythology.

As for the Henry V, Carroll had an idea to set the play in the trenches of the Great War – and thought he should time it to the 100th anniversary of the armistice. “That’s slightly whimsical, of course, to do a Shakespeare – but I enjoyed the raised eyebrows when I mentioned it,” he says.

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Both shows, Carroll says for anyone concerned, are not representative of the Shaw’s future direction, but “one-offs.” “I’m very aware that we’re in a situation where theatre attendance has been declining throughout the English-speaking world, so for me, the priority is: Here is something that’s going to bring in a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise come to us, and then if we can persuade them to come and see something else as well, then we might have some new devotees,” Carroll says.

But what of the old devotees of the Shaw Festival under Carroll’s predecessors – the sizeable audience that came from far and wide to see classics by Chekhov, Wilde and Coward, and also to discover rarely staged late 19th-century and early 20th-century gems by W.S. Gilbert or Terence Rattigan or the unjustly obscure Githa Sowerby and Lennox Robinson?

Instead of feeding that appetite, the adult-oriented programming of Carroll’s second season kicks off next week with a recent play that actually parodies plays from the 1930s – American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s metatheatrical comedy, Stage Kiss.

That almost seems like trolling, but the artistic director insists it is not. “I don’t feel that I’ve been terrifically consciously trying to push away from anything,” he says. “I feel more like these are the plays that I was attracted to this year, and in another year, there might well be a lot more of the old mandate stuff and, I guess, when that happens, people might think, ‘He’s changed his tune.’

“But actually it wouldn’t be the case: It would just be me going, ’And I also love these plays.’”

If that sounds a tad arrogant on the page – as if Carroll has altered a major Canadian institution with a history to suit his personal whims and fancies – it comes across as simply honest in person.

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It is true that the Shaw could not continue to run exactly the way it had been, and that its mandate had started to feel like a colonial throwback: Attendance has been on a general decline since highs at the start of the millennium, and it had run sizable deficits in 2015 and 2016. (The 2017 financial picture is unclear owing to a change in the company’s year end.)

There is strategy to the season: The Magician’s Nephew is indeed an attempt to lure those who flocked to Carroll’s hit, held-over 2016 production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Stratford Festival; while Henry V capitalizes on the reputation that Carroll has based on his work with Shakespeare’s Globe and especially his productions that played in repertory on Broadway in 2013.

As for the Fry shows, Tim Jennings, the Shaw Festival’s executive director, says they are having a trickle-down effect – thanks to targeted ticket deals. “People like the idea of adding another show, especially one of the comedies,” he says. “We’re literally ahead of budget on every show in the season.”

If Mythos is designed to bring in a new tourist audience – and a $150,000 grant from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund (OCAF) has allowed the festival to advertise Fry’s shows in Condé Nast publications such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair – the Shaw Festival is also courting locals in a way it hasn’t before.

Why hadn’t the company ever done a holiday show, Carroll wondered when he arrived – and so he programmed his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol in December. It sold out before it opened, with people who had never been to the Shaw Festival making up 44 per cent of ticket-buyers.

But without the sale of 12,000 or so tickets to A Christmas Carol, Carroll’s initial season – which was also heavy on contemporary plays and adaptations rather than plays by Shaw’s contemporaries – would have ended in the Shaw Festival’s lowest annual attendance in decades. Instead, it stayed stable at 236,824.

Of course, attendance is just a number. You’ll find a sold-out Christmas Carol in every city in December – and you’re always a stone’s throw away from Shakespeare in the summer. Will Carroll save the Shaw Festival with the direction he’s taking it – or replace it with something new and less unique? That pesky debate about the mandate will continue.

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