Matthew Jocelyn is set to step down as artistic and general director at Canadian Stage after nine years at its helm.
This week, the Toronto not-for-profit multidisciplinary company will announce that Jocelyn will program a final season before departing from his position in June of 2018, and that the board of directors is launching an international search for a new leader.
"I've always felt strongly in my heart that artistic directors in charge of public institutions owe it to themselves and owe it to the public to respect a limit to their mandate," Jocelyn said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in his office. "Canadian Stage is not my company – I was hired as a caretaker … There's a responsibility to not personalize the institution."
Canadian Stage has, however, radically transformed in focus and size since Jocelyn returned to the city of his birth, after three decades in Europe, to run the company in 2009.
At the time, CanStage – as the brand was then abbreviated – was simply a theatre company that operated not all that differently from regional theatres in smaller cities across Canada. It produced a subscription series that included local productions of recent Broadway and West End hits in its A-house, Canadian plays (mostly in the B-house) and the occasional musical.
Jocelyn, who had previously run the Atelier du Rhin in Alsace, France, immediately broadened the company's mandate to present dance and circus in addition to theatre, running some shows for weeks, others for just days. His selection of scripts was international and idiosyncratic – and he questioned the standard definition of a "Canadian play," considering, as is the norm in continental Europe, the director or choreographer as much of an author of a stage production as a playwright.
Creating a necessary home in Toronto for Canadian performance superstars such as Robert Lepage and Crystal Pite, Jocelyn has also welcomed major international artists such as choreographer Akram Khan to Canada's biggest city – and has endeavoured to produce large-scale work to send out into the world as well. The signature production of his tenure remains Helen Lawrence, a film/theatre/animation hybrid by visual artist Stan Douglas and TV writer Chris Haddock that played Toronto in 2014 and has continued to tour off and on.
Jocelyn, who returned this weekend from Helen Lawrence's most recent engagement in Los Angeles, expects that the company will continue on a similar path under its next artistic director. "Nobody wants this to have been an experiment," says Jocelyn. "The notion of a multidisciplinary, art-based, highly contemporary institution – the board has certainly expressed that they believe in this orientation."
Not everyone has been as supportive of that orientation, and there have been lively debates about Jocelyn since he took over Canadian Stage. In a city where the commercial Mirvish Productions has grown to operate out of four theatres and the number of independent not-for-profit theatre companies keeps growing, the middlebrow, one-size-fits-all mandate of CanStage was out of date. Attendance had been dropping at the theatre company for a decade when Jocelyn took over – and he inherited an accumulated deficit from predecessor Martin Bragg of almost $1.7-million.
Ticket sales continued to fall in the early years of Jocelyn's artistic leadership, dropping below the 100,000 mark; in 2011, Toronto Life called his programming choices "undeniably arrogant" – and Canadian Stage eventually ceded the title of the most-attended not-for-profit in town to Soulpepper.
The company's attendance has since stabilized in the 80,000 to 90,000 range. Jocelyn (and his former managing director Su Hutchinson) made the case that they had "right-sized" the organization around a new, more artistically ambitious vision. Canadian Stage fell back into the red last season after five years of surpluses, but the accumulated deficit still sits at around where it was when Jocelyn began.
Jocelyn, who turns 60 in January, says his decision to step down is "totally a personal choice" and that he has nothing else lined up professionally. While he's kept a profile as a librettist and director in Europe – his opera Hamlet premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival this summer – he expects to stick around Toronto for "some time."
"I have a new life in Toronto that I'm extremely committed to – but borders have never meant that much to me," he says. "I'm scared, but I love the fact of not knowing."