Stage Door News

Stratford: Antoni Cimolino and Anita Gaffney to stay on as the Stratford Festival’s leadership team

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and Executive Director Anita Gaffney have agreed to stay on as the Stratford Festival’s leadership team at the request of the Board of Governors.

“The Stratford Festival’s success is built on talent,” says Carol Stephenson, Chair of the Board of Governors. “It is because of the talent and expertise of Antoni Cimolino and Anita Gaffney that the Festival has emerged from the past two years as soundly as it has. But their success must be lauded beyond this most immediate crisis. This exceptional leadership team has delivered season after season of spectacular artistry hand in hand with significant surpluses. They have encouraged growth and innovation, introducing the Forum, expanding the development of new work, and taking digital theatre production to new heights. While the pandemic stopped their planned trajectory, it did not stop the vitality of their work. We as a Board are extremely grateful for the resourcefulness with which they faced what often felt like insurmountable challenges to create a soft landing for this most important cultural institution.”

Cimolino has agreed to stay until the end of 2026, a two-year extension, and Gaffney to the end of 2027. They will develop a new five-year strategic plan, examining major needs – including capital projects and the growth of the Endowment for the support of future creative work – as well as artist development and training; EDI and culture change; new play development; national and international reputation and connections; digital innovation; and audience growth, including the crucial development of more diverse attendance.

The pandemic had a major impact on the Festival, its artists and its staff, causing a significant deficit in 2020. In 2021, Cimolino and Gaffney programmed a largely outdoor season of six plays and five cabarets, with parallel digital offerings. While delivering shorter contracts and a fraction of the typical annual attendance of 500,000, the season was able to bring short-term employment to almost 900 artists and arts workers and an influx of 34,000 visitors to the city of Stratford at a time when tourism dollars were urgently needed.

The past two years also highlighted the need for greater efforts to be made to confront issues of racism, equity, diversity and inclusion and provided an opportunity to begin to put in place measures for meaningful culture change. To date, these measures have included adding diversified artistic voices to the Director’s Office, artistic training and new play development department; the diversification of the playbill; the creation of an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) department; the establishment of an Anti-Racism Committee; and the introduction of Pre-Rehearsal Orientation days, based upon the ARC’s recommendations.

The vast majority of opportunities for creative growth and development were hampered over the past two years, while the Festival focused on creating innovative solutions for day-to-day operations and for dealing with the constant spectre of pandemic resurgence. Creative work continued through digital projects, Zoom workshops and the outdoor season, but larger projects and longer term goals had to be set aside.

“The only way that we are all going to feel inspired, energized and able to rebuild in a better way is to look to the horizon and set ourselves very ambitious goals,” says Cimolino. “By putting together aspirational goals for the future of Stratford, building on excellence, we will come out of this.”

“The next five years won’t be easy,” says Gaffney, “but we are up for the challenge the Board has asked us to take on and grateful for the opportunity to secure the future of the theatre that means so much to us. Even at the lowest points of the past two years, I was able to look at the spectacular new Tom Patterson Theatre and be reminded of the enduring power of the Stratford Festival. It will be energizing to be able to plan for the future again.”

When Cimolino and Gaffney took the helm in 2013, the Festival had a $3.4-million deficit. Within five years they had delivered enough surpluses to eliminate it and bring attendance back over the 500,000 mark. The success stemmed from the rich variety of programming on stage, as well as from the newly introduced Forum, which further engaged theatregoers.

Simultaneously Cimolino and Gaffney launched an initiative to vastly expand the Festival’s digital offerings. This Stratford Festival On Film project proved enormously fortuitous with the onslaught of the pandemic. Weekly YouTube viewing parties entertained millions of fans new and old around the world. Their success spawned a further expansion of digital production and the launch of the Stratfest@Home subscription platform, which offers subscribers rich arts content from the Stratford Festival and other Canadian arts organizations.

As their crowning achievement, the pair undertook the most ambitious project since the Festival’s founding: the building of the new Tom Patterson Theatre and its $100-million campaign, which was supported by the Board, the federal and provincial governments and thousands of donors. The new theatre, which will open officially this season, has already been recognized with international architecture awards and promises to be the best theatre room in North America.

“The coming years are about more than stability,” says Cimolino. “They are about leaving behind the difficulties of the past two years and setting our sights on vibrant growth. What we have been through has been earthshaking, and only by focusing on the long term can we guarantee a strong foundation that will enable future artistic directors the flexibility and the strength to continue to evolve the Stratford Festival.”

Photo: Antoni Cimolino. © 2022 David Hou.