Thus far, the available coverage on the retirement of Theatre Aquarius’ Artistic Director Ron Ulrich has been generally positive. After twelve years in the role, it is difficult to not honour or acknowledge the work that he has done as Artistic Director of Hamilton’s largest professional theatre company, and the growth that the company has seen in that time. There is likely several more months of this type of coverage ahead.
What is not being said is how isolated Theatre Aquarius has made itself within the artistic community, including a focus on an older theatre-model style, and the subsequent opportunities for change and a shift away from these attitudes that the role provides to any incoming Artistic Director. Presumably, this is because the focus now- and for all of the 2020-2021 season- will be in honouring the current Artistic Director as he says his farewells.
This template was played out just a few years ago in the Toronto theatre community, where a number of companies simultaneously searched for new artistic leadership. The result was massive, overdue, welcome and irrevocable change as the template of white, all-male leadership shifted to include more diverse voices and experiences, ultimately creating a more inclusive, responsive community. In bringing new looks, sounds and subjects to their theatres, these new Artistic Directors had the opportunity to expand possibilities and audiences, particularly if they also keep an eye on ticket prices. While many of these new Artistic Directors are still in their early days, the results so far are highly encouraging, with increased collaboration and greater representation from diverse voices being integrated into their traditional season.
Could a new Artistic Director at Theatre Aquarius produce a similar result in Hamilton? Whereas art becomes the centre of the conversation, and enough trust is built into the subscriber and ticket-buying base that they are eager to go along for the ride, even if the work is unfamiliar. Whereas diverse voices from marginalized communities, artists and performers are able to see themselves reflected on the Theatre Aquarius stage, and whereas the artistic product actually represents the community at large. Whereas the largest theatre is also the unifying and collaborative force that brings local artists together to build up and enhance the community. Will any of this be searched for by the hiring committee?
In the same way that no one takes a rental car through a car wash, if audiences, staff and the general public are to genuinely care about Theatre Aquarius and its future, an inherent knowledge needs to be built that the theatre belongs to them. Right now, it does not.
The next eight months will be a celebration of Ron Ulrich’s successes as Artistic Director. Twelve years in any leadership role deserves accolades. But behind the scenes, it is the role of everyone- those who may leave or shift as a result of this dramatic change, those who will be responsible for the transition, and those who will be the caretakers in the meantime to remember that it is still their responsibility to make Theatre Aquarius all it can be- not any less while waiting for a new visionary to arrive. That this time can be used to avoid a cult of personality and instead start building the foundation for stakeholders that care so deeply about theatre that they would walk through fire to ensure it is the most important theatre it can be.
The job posting for a new Artistic Director is already posted with a deadline of October 31, 2020. In their cover letter, candidates are being asked to address What are the stories you want Theatre Aquarius to tell?, and the posting notes that the company is positioned to be “a catalyst for embedding the performing arts more deeply in the community.” Who this community is, is never addressed, and the criteria to become the Artistic Director is more administrative in nature than it is artistic. Within the conditions of hiring, will there be opportunity for a creative leader who is capable of producing wide-spread change (assuming this is part of the cataclysmic shift) to excel in this work? The shift that the organization announces it is interested in starts with the job description and identifying who they are looking for- but is it really so different than what they already have? Only time will tell if Theatre Aquarius has really seized the opportunity in front of them- perhaps a once in twelve-years opportunity- to (in their words) be on the “cusp of creating an exciting, culturally vibrant arts-oriented hotbed in Canada.”