If you were on a search committee for a new artistic director for the Shaw Festival – North America's second-largest repertory theatre company, with an annual budget of around $28-million – what would your checklist of qualifications look like? I would expect you'd be looking at candidates with one or more of the following on her or his curriculum vitae:
Experience at the head of a major theatre company.
A demonstrated passion for Bernard Shaw, his contemporaries and/or his Shavian successors.
An in-depth knowledge of Canadian actors, directors and playwrights.
Hands-on experience with the Shaw Festival and the Canadian and American audiences that visit it each summer.
It was a bit of a surprise, then, that the Shaw Festival's actual search for artistic director Jackie Maxwell's successor ended last week in the selection of British director Tim Carroll, a freelance director who checks none of these boxes.
Carroll's work has largely been in opera and with the plays of William Shakespeare – and the international reputation he has is based almost entirely on a very particular approach to Shakespeare called "original practices."
The most major company Carroll has ever run is the Kent Opera, which produced maybe one opera a year and folded in 2005 while he was at the helm, and he has never directed a play by Bernard Shaw.
As for his knowledge of Canadian theatre artists from whom he will be hiring and commissioning plays, Carroll has directed a few plays at the Stratford Festival, but he put it this way in an interview with The Globe and Mail: "I think I'm going to be racking up the air miles to go and see what's out there."
As Holger Syme, chair of the department of English and drama at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, posted on Facebook: "This may be the weirdest and most inexplicable AD appointment I've come across."
Indeed, it is. I wish Carroll all the luck in the world as he accumulates the Aeroplan points and knowledge in preparation to take over at the Shaw, but his appointment is the latest sign that something has gone seriously wrong with the ways leaders are being hired at many of Ontario's major artistic institutions.
You can't help but feel that search committees – such as Shaw's, headed by lawyer Peter Jewett – want to land far-flung candidates in order to justify the time and expense they put into the hunt, and that the mostly non-artists on them are more impressed by irrelevant international credits than relevant local ones. (Carroll is coming off a hit double bill in New York, but his highest-profile production at a Canadian rep company – Romeo and Juliet at Stratford – was widely considered a serious misfire.)
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to make a nationalist argument here, although the recent trend of hiring outsiders for high-profile and high-salary positions is a slap in face to the Canadian artists, equally or more qualified, who are overlooked. (The Shaw's AD currently earns more than $250,000.)
The real problem is that this trend is resulting in institutions that are disconnected from local audiences and the artistic environment they are a part of.
When Canadian Stage's board hired long-time expatriate Matthew Jocelyn to take over the company, he, too, announced that he was going to go on a listening tour across the country and accumulate Aeroplan points. Five years into his tenure with the Toronto company, however, Jocelyn still seems more passionate about international work than Canadian work – he just dropped a local production for an Irish import in his 2015-16 season – and his lack of interest in our playwrights remains a serious blind spot. Under his watch, Soulpepper has leapfrogged over Canadian Stage in attendance to become the largest not-for-profit theatre in the city.
Likewise, at the Stratford Festival, long-time expat Des McAnuff's tenure as artistic director was often exciting – but the theatre company suffered by his absences and lack of in-depth knowledge of local actors. When he imported Americans for lead Shakespearean roles and they disappointed, it hurt the company's reputation with its core audience. He got the festival more international media coverage than it had in years, but left it with attendance at the lowest it had been in a quarter-century (and in a less-than-ideal financial condition).
Then there's Germany's Jorn Weisbrodt, the outgoing director of Toronto's Luminato Festival, who has come under fire for a lack of major Canadian commissions. His track record in that department looks even less impressive in light of what Don Shipley, a Canadian with experience running theatre companies and festivals in this country back to 1976, managed as creative director of the one-shot Panamania this summer. Whether it was Annabel Soutar's The Watershed or the bluemouth inc's It Comes in Waves or Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite's Bettroffenheit, Shipley commissioned an astonishing number of major new works by Canadian artists that will be talked about for years.
My issue isn't with any of the international individuals named above who have plenty of talent and passion, but with the boards and search committees in Ontario who think "world-class" is something you ship in rather than grow and don't recognize that, yes, the world is global but theatre is primarily local.
Jewett and the rest of the Shaw's search committee – Andy Pringle, Michele Darling, Ken Friedman, Martha Burns, John Warwick, Tom Hyde, Mary Hofstetter, Chris Lorway and Patrick Galligan – should know that they have failed in their larger responsibilities with their selection of Carroll (and that's without even noting that he's white, male and, like every Shaw Festival artistic director before him, born in Britain).
They have reinforced a message to young Canadian directors that the best way to get ahead at home is to move abroad, and that what audiences think of you in New York matters more to boards than what audiences think of you here. Even minor experience in your field outside this country will trump major experience at home.