Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theatre Is Not a Democracy

The attempt to run the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival by sharing the duties between three artistic directors — Marti Maraden, Don Shipley, and Des McAnuff — has failed.

When first announced, the triple directorate seemed like a good idea. Stratford is big — the largest nonprofit performing arts organization in Canada — and has always been a complicated place to run, a true repertory theater in which actors often play in two or three productions a season on the festival’s four stages. But it has become much larger and more complicated in the past decade and a half.

The budget more than doubled under the fiscally robust leadership of its previous artistic director, Richard Monette, who had the job for 14 years, the longest tenure in the festival’s 55-year history. Under his watch a conservatory for classical acting was added, a new theater was built, and what was essentially a $1 million rainy-day fund became a $55 million endowment. Despite critical griping that the festival was becoming too commercial, the addition of more musicals and family fare hewed to Mr. Monette’s idea that a festival, especially one in a small town of 30,000 people about an hour and a half west of Toronto, needed to have something for everyone.


The problem seemed to come down to decision-making, who had the final say about any one of a million things, from marketing to casting. Simple choices took a long time, with endless phone calls and discussions.

“I think, in this case, it turned out being too many hands on the wheel,” Mr. McAnuff said.


Reached on Friday in Miami Beach, where he was on vacation, Mr. Monette said he had hoped the new system would work but seemed less than astonished at how it all played out.

“Things are always risky,” he said. “It has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with ego, it has to do with money. If you just have one jerk at the helm, you know who that jerk is.” He concluded: “Finally, the theater is not a democracy.”

Having run my own small theatre company and worked in everything from community theatres to nationally recognized festivals (the Colorado Shakespeare Festival), I remember thinking that when this troika was announced that it would be interesting to see what happened, and I am pretty sure that I said at the time that it wouldn’t work for the exact reasons stated by the parties, including Mr. Monette.

Perhaps they should have watched a few episodes of Slings and Arrows.