Sunday, February 2, 2014

Things are looking up for our two major theatre festivals

Okay, it is February, and my self-imposed exile is now officially over.  Thanks for your patience, and rest assured I have lots of subjects lined up in the weeks ahead as we get the new year underway covering the arts world and beyond.

Two items crossed my desk in the past little while showing our two major theatre festivals in Ontario, Stratford and Shaw, are both on the comeback trail and on an upswing.  We'll look at both today and where they go from here.

Late last year, the Stratford Festival reported ticket sales for 2013 increased 11% - the largest increase since 1999 - and the Festival regained valuable ground last season, exceeding the season's goals.  Attendance reached more than 480,000 with ticket revenue pegged at $ 29.7 million.  Already, 2014 ticket sales are already up over last year by about 11%, which is very good news indeed.

Last year was the first with Antoni Cimolino at the helm as Artistic Director, and by all accounts it proved to be both a financial and critical success.  No less than five of the season's 12 productions had to be extended to meet demand for tickets, including Cimolino's exceptional production of Mary Stuart, extended an unprecedented four times.

The Forum, a new initiative introduced last year, attracted nearly 30,000 people to the 150 events held throughout the season and apparently succeeded in making the Festival a more immersive experience, as noted by Executive Director Anita Gaffney.  The Forum events resulted in patrons buying more performance tickets than the previous year as well as increasing overall attendance at the Festival by 13%.

Growth was seen across the board, with lapsed patrons, those who had not attended in five years, up by 76%; new customers up by 46%; school sales up by 20%; Canadian attendance up 13% and the all-important U.S, attendance also up by 8%.  That's the first increase in at least 10 years.

There will be new initiatives in 2014, including the expansion of the Toronto bus service to now service Detroit three times a week as well.  The bus service is clearly bringing new patrons to the Festival, and that is one of those ideas clearly right for the times.  In Toronto, for example, not everyone owns a car and those that do might not wish to make the trip on a weekday evening knowing they have to drive back after the theatre when they'll be tired.  The bus works perfectly for these people.

Also on tap in the new year will be Playcare, a weekend afternoon babysitting service for children 4 to 10 years of age, offered in conjunction with the Stratford Y.

There are already lots of package deals available, so check out the Stratford Festival website at for more details, or call 1-800-567-1600.

Over at the Shaw Festival, the Annual General Meeting was held this past Friday, and the good news is the Festival achieved an operating surplus of $1.2 million for the 2013 season.  That's up significantly from the modest surplus of $19,000 posted the previous year.  But keep in mind, the surplus came at a price:  the restructuring of the Festival's operations at the end of the 2011 season resulted in a smaller acting ensemble among other things.

But of course, tough times demand tough love, and that is what the board and management undertook to right the ship two seasons ago.  It was a tough go for staff the last two seasons, but the payoff now is they are on a much better financial footing as they look to the future.

With revenues up over 2012 by 8% due largely to a $2 million increase in ticket sales, and expenses only increasing by 3% over the previous year, the surplus was achieved as a result of both growth in revenues and tight control of costs.  With Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell and Executive Director Elaine Calder feeling optimistic they have turned the corner, we can hopefully look forward to more good news at the end of the 2014 season.

The Annual General Meeting also reported the company was able to negotiate a new contract with its unionized employees, with modest increases in each of the three years from 2013 to 2015.  In addition, bonuses were paid to the 461 artists and employees who all contributed to the success of the 2013 season.

For more on the packages being offered to tempt theatre-goers at Shaw this season, go to or call 1-800-657-1106.

So overall, both festivals are on a sound financial footing going forward, and both will have to capitalize on those gains in attendance and revenue in order to secure the future of both festivals from this point forward.  Programming has to be carefully considered at both festivals, balancing daring and conservatism again to ensure the financial health of both.

The new seasons for both Stratford and Shaw look promising, with Stratford featuring two versions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the musical Man of La Mancha among the offerings; Shaw meantime forges ahead with dynamic musicals with Cabaret and other interesting offerings such as The Philadelphia Story and Shaw's Arms and The Man.

When you think about it, like baseball spring training, the new season is not far off.  The previews for both festivals will begin in April, so rehearsals are really not that far off at this point.  So as we continue to trudge through a very cold winter, there are very encouraging signs of a rebirth at both Shaw and Stratford in the spring, on many levels.

Let the theatre seasons begin!

February 2nd, 2014.

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