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A chorus of critics have been calling Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll’s leadership into question – but the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre company that he runs is in good financial health and attracting new audiences, according to results from the 2018 season released on Friday afternoon.

The 57th edition of the Shaw Festival – featuring British comedian Stephen Fry in a trio of solo shows, and an adaptation of the The Hound of the Baskervilles – ended with a surplus of $573,000, longstanding operating and capital deficits retired, and 251,321 tickets sold.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have erased $10-million of debt in three years,” Tim Jennings, executive director, told The Globe and Mail in advance of the company’s annual general meeting. “We’re really happy, and to see people responding so positively to the shows this year was really heartwarming.”

The AGM provides a counternarrative to one that emerged in year-end commentary from several longtime Shaw-going critics who questioned Carroll’s leadership in uncommonly harsh terms.

In January, John Law, who has reviewed 22 Shaw seasons for the Niagara Falls Review, wrote that Carroll’s sophomore season was the worst he could remember.

Lynn Slotkin, a former CBC Radio critic who now runs theatre review website The Slotkin Letter, accused Carroll of outright “incompetence,” while Christopher Hoile, a longtime freelance critic who runs the Stage Door website, went furthest, suggesting the Shaw board “should consider looking for a replacement soon before Carroll does irreparable damage.”

The substance behind the criticisms was that Carroll has cast out too many talented members of the ensemble, veered too far away from the old unique Bernard-Shaw-and-friends mandate toward unexceptional fare, and that his “two-way theatre” aesthetic is empty and, at times, downright irritating.

Open this photo in gallery:

Tim Carroll, artistic director for the Shaw Festival, is photographed at a theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on April 17, 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Jennings says some of the Shaw Festival’s usual audience – perhaps up to 10 per cent of them – have shared their own concerns with Carroll’s direction. “There were definitely people who … have noted that it is a significant change in programming and it’s not to their tastes,” he said. “That’s okay, we don’t have a problem with that; 70,000 new people showed up that said it was.”

The idea behind inviting Fry with his Mythos shows was to attract a new audience, as the old one had been trending down over the course of a decade. Jennings says the 2018 numbers demonstrated that Fry did, indeed, bring in first-time ticket buyers – but so did Baskervilles, a new adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s comedy Stage Kiss and, oddly enough, Of Marriage and Men, a double-bill of plays by the festival’s namesake, Bernard Shaw.

All told, around 28 per cent of tickets were sold to people purchasing them for the first time. (The best-selling show was director Eda Holmes’s production of the musical Grand Hotel, which had an attendance of around 55,000.)

The big question, from purely an attendance standpoint, is whether these new Shaw spectators enjoyed what they saw and will return. Jennings is optimistic they did and will; he says that 2018 was the theatre company’s best-ever year for individual donations, a sign of patron satisfaction, and that tickets sales for 2019 are currently on track with last season despite the lack of a television star such as Fry.

The reality behind the AGM numbers is that it’s still too early, just two season into Carroll’s tenure, to tell all that much. While a press release notes that 251,321 is the highest annual attendance the Shaw Festival has seen since 2013, it’s an apples and oranges comparison; the company’s theatres used to go dark for the winter in October, while Carroll has been opening the Royal George Theatre in November and December for A Christmas Carol, which sold 13,571 tickets in 2018. That means regular April-to-October attendance is roughly the same as that of former artistic director Jackie Maxwell’s final years in 2015 and 2016.

It is Shaw’s financial picture that has clearly become rosier, but as for the complaints about Carroll’s artistic direction, that picture does not reverse the fact that the 2018 season, unusually, lacked a clear critical hit.

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From this critic’s point of view, however, it is unsurprising that Carroll was unable to program a show with the right creative chemistry to fully hit it out of the park – and not entirely his fault.

I’ve never made any secret of my belief that the Shaw Festival board made a real leap of faith in hiring the British director, given that his resume did not seem well-matched to the job or company, and that, as an outsider, he would face a steep learning curve in terms of knowing Canadian theatrical talent well enough to convincingly execute a new artistic vision.

The playbill he announced for 2019 shows glimmers of progress on that front, however, and 2018′s results have bought him at least another plate appearance. Bringing in a new artistic director before seeing if this one can find his feet would be foolhardy.

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