The Stratford Festival has just announced its seventh straight surplus, but rather than the usual celebratory occasion such good financial news would engender, Saturday’s virtual annual general meeting (the first not held at the Festival Theatre in its history) had a sombre tone.
News of a small surplus of $ 138,297 came just over a week after the festival postponed 2020 performances through the end of May and laid off 470 employees, including actors, technicians and box office workers.
It’s a sign of the industry-wide times as the realities of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing measures take effect on Canada’s performing arts industry.
“The (annual general meeting) is a moment for us to look back on the previous year and it is generally a celebration of the previous year, when we get to remember the highlights and the moments that made us feel and moved us,” executive director Anita Gaffney told the Star.
“It has been gut-wrenching over the last few weeks, having to shift gears and break news to people who are friends and colleagues. We’re putting so much energy and imagination to think what the path forward could be, while recognizing the responsibility that we have to the artists and the community that’s around us,” she said.
“At the same time, there has been a real outpouring of support.”
“There’s this sense of grieving over what has been taken away, even if it’s only temporarily. It’s hard,” added artistic director Antoni Cimolino. “We haven’t had this situation. Even during the Second World War, the West End (in London, England) kept going. And so the closing of the theatres … it’s a sacred space in some way.”
Gaffney and Cimolino are monitoring updates from health officials to determine when the 2020 season will begin. They expect to have an update in mid-April. In the meantime, they’re looking back at simpler times.
The 2019 festival took in a total of $ 63.8 million in revenue.
The surplus is the seventh in a row since Cimolino took over as artistic director in 2013, although lower than the $ 1.9-million surplus announced last year.
Highlights included the season opener of “Othello,” directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, the first time the play had been helmed by a Black director on the Stratford stage; Cimolino’s uproarious “The Merry Wives of Windsor”; the world premiere of Michael Healey’s adaptation of “The Front Page”; and two musicals directed by Donna Feore, “Billy Elliot” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The musicals in particular were successful in attracting ticket buyers. “Billy Elliot” was the highest attended musical since 2009’s acclaimed production of “West Side Story,” directed by Gary Griffin.
The 2019 festival also featured a nine per cent rise in youth and student tickets sold.
In general, attendance was down from 2018’s strong showing when “The Rocky Horror Show,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Martha Henry-starring “The Tempest” packed the theatres. That was the festival’s longest season on record and featured its highest ticket revenue in a decade.
In both 2018 and 2019, only three of the festival’s four theatres were in operation, as the Tom Patterson Theatre underwent a historic $ 100-million rebuild. The capital campaign for that project is nearing completion but has yet to reach its final goal.
In fact, the festival gained access to the new building last week as the final stage of construction continues. But the economic instability caused by the coronavirus pandemic is putting all arts organizations on alert for potential dips in donations.
“Over the years we’ve found that when people make pledges, through the ups and downs, they generally really come through because they love the festival and it just means you have to dig deeper,” Cimolino said.
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“But the markets are a challenge, especially since we’ve gone out to these people and asked them for help on the Patterson. It’s hard to go back immediately again.”
He noted that more than 70 per cent of the festival’s income comes from earned revenue, with only five per cent of operating funds coming from the government.
“And for 67 years, that worked relatively well. We’ve been able to only hire thousands and thousands of artists. We’re also able to train people and do education programs. And, you know, all of that was possible based on a model that was very much about selling tickets and very little government support. But in a situation like this, it makes us extremely exposed to what really is a disaster in our society,” Cimolino said.
When the 2020 festival season does open, it will include Colm Feore in “Richard III”; three musical productions, “Chicago,” “Spamalot” and the new “Here’s What It Takes” by Steven Page and Daniel MacIvor; and an all-Indigenous production of Tomson Highway’s “The Rez Sisters.”
Stay tuned for updates.
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