Stage Door News

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Government funding for Shaw Festival to help boost surrounding community

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Music can bring people together, and maybe support an entire community.

That’s the hope as the Shaw Festival prepares for outdoor performances with the $400,000 funding the theatre company received last week from the Canadian government through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

Also, a part of the government announcement was $500,000 funding to the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which small-and-medium sized businesses will be able to apply for up to $20,000. 

Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw, said receiving the funds was exciting but also left mixed feelings as the company announced the cancellation of its remaining 2020 performances of Charley’s Aunt and Flush due to the indoor restrictions put in place due to COVID-19.

Indoor acts for the Shaw remain up in the air this year due to the pandemic and the limited capacity of 50 people inside, but with the money from FedDev the plan for the theatre company is to help the surrounding town community.

“Basically, the hope of this is, like we often do in a normal period of time, that we act as an instigator for a longer and more invested tourist in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Jennings said.

The outdoor performance — which will take place on site at the Shaw, potentially in partnership with the town at local parks and wineries — will include small musical performances that can be attended for free or for a very low fee. 

“We’re trying to make this a very accessible project and our pitch was to do free or low cost performances, so that we can be open to the widest group of people who want to come down here, and so that they spend their money with other local activities and not really on us,” Jennings said.

The FedDev funds will be used by the Shaw for capital equipment to use for outdoor performances, as well as to pay the staff involved in making the productions possible. 

Jennings added that Tim Carroll, artistic director, and the Shaw team have a few other surprises up their sleeves beyond the musical performances.

Eduardo Lafforgue, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, called the Shaw one of two main engines to the town’s tourism. The other being the local wineries. 

“It’s a company that sells around one million tickets per year,” Lafforgue said of the Shaw. “Just saying that is more than enough to see the importance that they have.”

Lafforgue wouldn’t say the Shaw doing outdoor performances would restart tourism in the town but he is hopeful the musical draw will attract people to other parts of the town.

“Reopen doesn’t mean recovered. And that is the key message,” Lafforgue said.

What these performances will mean, Jennings said, is the hope that people visiting will want to stay longer.

“The reason FedDev gave us the money was to drive more overnight stays, more shopping, more restaurant attendance.”

The importance is to help drive the tourism and economic impact in the town and in the region to help rebuild what has been lost for hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, shops, wineries and also have people visit sites like Fort George and Parks Canada locations.

“We do a really good job of keeping people around and having them stay for multiple days and spend a lot of money in the area when they come down, which is fantastic,” Jennings said.

And while having people spend more time in town is important, it’s also about helping consumers regain the confidence to feel safe when participating in events that involve gatherings. 

“This period of time is proving that there is a greater need than ever to gather but safely,” Jennings said. “If we can do it so can other small theatres around Ontario because we can show them what we have done, and they can use that as a way to help engage in their own communities.” 

The Shaw is hopeful to launch their outdoor performances very soon, while keeping it to the government recommended 100-person maximum. Guests will be required to wear face coverings, distance will be kept between guests and a system for contact tracing will be in place. 

The outdoor shows will operate through September and October, and by then the hope is the Shaw will have a clear understanding if they can proceed with their indoor acts of A Christmas Carol. This will depend on how much the government eases restrictions for indoor gatherings.

By Satbir Singh for

Photo: Tim Jennings outside the Royal George Theatre. © 2020 Jordan Snobelen.