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Anita Gaffney began her career with the festival as a publicity assistant.

Canada's largest theatre festival is once again relying on its long-time bench strength to staff the highest levels of its organization. On Tuesday, the board of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced it was appointing Anita Gaffney as its executive director, effective Nov. 1.

A Stratford native, Gaffney, 43, has been a festival employee since 1991, most recently as its administrative director, a position she's held since 2008. She succeeds another Stratford veteran, Antoni Cimolino, 50, who, after serving as executive director 1998-2007, then general director starting in 2007, was named the festival's artistic director in March. Cimolino officially assumes that role in November, succeeding the departing Des McAnuff to oversee Stratford's 2013 season, its 61st.

In a statement announcing Gaffney's appointment, Stratford chair David Goldbloom said the festival is "very lucky to have in our midst such an accomplished leader [with] impressive professional qualifications … and an unparalleled understanding of [its] operations."

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"I was so eager to take on this position that I made it well-known far in advance that this is something I'd be interested in," Gaffney said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday. An English graduate from the University of Western Ontario, London, she began her professional career at the festival as a publicity assistant, having previously worked summer jobs there as a teen as an ice cream vendor, bookstore clerk and waitress. She obtained an executive MBA in 2002 from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

With an operating budget for 2012 of almost $60-million, the festival has faced considerable challenges in the last five years, including declines in attendance and ticket sales, especially among U.S. audiences, fractious labour relations and debates over direction and control. Gaffney sees her priority in the next five years – what Stratford calls "this period of economic difficulty" – as "drawing in people from far and wide and making really meaningful connections with the people who come here." She cited next year's Forum initiative – a new, interactive program of talks, discussions, music and dance – as one way of making Stratford "even more of an immersive experience for visitors."

Unlike Cimolino, who began his Stratford stint as an actor, only to veer into management for many years before succeeding McAnuff, Gaffney harbours no ambitions to direct plays or assume the artistic directorship. "I've worked with [previous artistic directors] David William (1990-1993) , Richard Monette (1994-2007) , Des McAnuff and the team of Don Shipley and Marti Maraden; I'm in great awe of what they do . . . What I really want to do support Antoni, see his artistic vision happen, bring people to witness that and find the resources to make that happen."

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