Stage Door News

Stratford: The Stratford Festival AGM reflects on 2020 while looking forward to 2021

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Exactly 11 months ago today, the Stratford Festival cancelled its entire 2020 season. It was to have been a massive celebration with 15 glorious productions and the grand opening of the stunning new Tom Patterson Theatre on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Festival’s founder. 

Today the Festival held its Annual General Meeting virtually, and revealed the impact of the pandemic on 2020 financial results. It announced a deficit of $4.3 million, based on $23.3 million in revenue and expenses of $27.6 million.

The impact of the public health crisis on the Festival’s financial condition has been severe and will reverberate into the future. The Festival took immediate steps to stem losses, shutting down most aspects of its business and, sadly, laying off the vast majority of its staff and artists. The result is the largest deficit in the Festival’s history, but because of the quick action taken and the great generosity of its supporters, the Festival is in a position it can recover from. 

“The pandemic closure, coming as it did just weeks before the beginning of what was to have been our most ambitious season ever, hit the Festival extremely hard,” said Executive Director Anita Gaffney. “Fortunately, we were able to avoid disaster, in large part thanks to the enormous support we received from our donors, sponsors and patrons, as well as the federal and provincial governments. Had they not all stepped up – and we needed them all – we would have been looking at a loss closer to $10 million or more.”

With the cancellation of performances, earned revenue plummeted to $1 million, from more than $39 million in 2019.

Contributed revenue (from donors, government and the Festival’s Endowment Foundation) totaled $22.4 million, or 96% of revenues for the year, compared to 39% in 2019.

At $27.6 million, expenses were down 57% from the previous year. Between January and early March, the Festival had spent $13 million on preparations for the 2020 season before it was suspended. This investment is considered a sunk cost, with the majority spent on labour.

Also crucial to the Festival’s financial stability in 2020 was the generosity of patrons who agreed to keep the value of their 2020 tickets on their Festival accounts for use in future seasons. The $8 million now held on account – rather than refunded – and a further $2 million in ticket sales generously donated back to the Festival prevented a major financial setback.

“Thousands of our wonderful and dedicated patrons agreed to keep their tickets on hold for future use. Others donated the value of their tickets to the Festival’s recovery efforts,” said Gaffney. “We could not have managed the stability we maintained last year without their commitment to the Festival’s future.”

As people are free to use their credit in any future season and for any purpose at the Festival (donations, retail purchases, digital subscriptions, and the like), there is a future impact to the bottom line that must be recognized: $8 million in unused ticket vouchers will need to be fulfilled, without providing new cash flow to support coming seasons. It is one of many ways in which this pandemic will have a multi-year effect on the Festival.

Essential focus on anti-racism will reshape Festival’s culture

While the Festival wrestled with the new reality imposed by COVID-19, another fateful day shifted the world again: May 25, the day George Floyd was murdered. In the weeks and months that followed a reckoning swept through the theatre industry and through society, prompting the Festival to look deeply at its culture, to begin to make amends for past harm and to create new systems that will build a place of true belonging for everyone. 

Although the Festival had first made diversity a priority back in 2004 – when it hired a diversity consultant to help shape policy and guide change – it realized in 2019 that there was a need to re-visit its practices and develop a new inclusion policy so it re-engaged the consulting firm and began a process of self-examination, seeking to identify and remedy shortcomings in the areas of equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. These efforts were accelerated over the past nine months.

“The killing of George Floyd, and the wave of protests that followed it, acted like a gravitational slingshot on that process, vastly accelerating the work already under way,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “The formation of an internal anti-racism committee at the Festival has been central to this, and we are indebted to its members and to all IBPOC artists and staff for helping us enlarge our understanding of the challenges they have faced for so long.”

As IBPOC people and allies raised their voices against anti-racism [sic], the Stratford Festival handed their social media channels over to Black artists and staff to help open up the conversation within the Canadian theatre industry. Later in June, Indigenous artists were given a similar platform to mark National Indigenous People’s Day. These small acts of solidarity propelled the Festival deeper into self-evaluation, a process which has already begun to shape the Festival’s future. 

A central concern voiced by IBPOC actors during these events was the Festival’s “As Cast” system, which allowed directors to assign roles during rehearsal, a practice which in some circumstances had proven harmful to actors of colour. The Festival has now replaced this system with “Casting by Consent,” which gives agency to actors and creates greater transparency in the casting process. Other immediate changes to create a true sense of inclusion and belonging at the Festival are being rolled out for the 2021 season, including the recruitment of a Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

“The hiatus of 2020 gave us a much-needed opportunity to re-examine all of our practices: how we program; how we hire; how we rehearse; how we train actors, directors and designers; how we coach; how we work together in the room; how we market ourselves. Changes prompted by this comprehensive evaluation will become part of the Festival’s culture beginning immediately,” says Cimolino.

Digital Stratford takes a great leap forward in 2020

The 2020 season may have been cancelled, but the Festival was not devoid of creative output this past year. In fact, thanks to a pandemic pivot, it found a way to thrive digitally. Using the productions captured for Stratford Festival On Film, it launched a 12-week Shakespeare film festival on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, with weekly viewing parties, interviews and special features.

It was a massive success – with more than 1.3 million views from more than 65 countries – leading to the creation of the Festival’s own $10-a-month digital subscription platform, Stratfest@Home. After a brief hiatus, during which the Festival secured the rights to some of its legacy films and created a variety of new content, weekly viewing parties resumed in October and have continued since, with the number of views swelling to more than two million from 103 countries. 

The rich mine of theatrical content on Stratfest@Home features Stratford Festival On Film productions, along with legacy films, interviews, documentaries and brand new original content shot under COVID protocols during the summer and fall. Almost 3,500 people have signed up for Stratfest@Home since its launch at the end of October, creating an excellent fan base for such productions as Up Close and Musical featuring some of the Festival’s finest musical performers, Dan Chameroy’s Leer Estates, Beck Lloyd’s And Introducing…, Rebecca Northan’s Undiscovered Sonnets, Roy Lewis’s Stratford Festival Ghost Tours and Qasim Khan and Kendrick Prins’s The Early Modern Cooking Show.

The Festival’s Education department quickly adapted to digital delivery of its programming as students, teachers, parents and families faced the challenges of remote learning. Virtual summer camps and youth programs, career-learning events, professional development sessions, free-of-charge teaching resources, and customized workshops and Q&As for schools were extremely popular, as were the workshops for all ages, which included sessions on dance and prop-building. The success of these programs has inspired the Festival to continue to support virtual learning alongside in-person programming in the years to come.

Work continued apace in the Festival’s Laboratory and New Play Development department, with a number of virtual workshops, and more than a dozen commissions and co-commissions, some of which were specially created for Stratfest@Home and other digital platforms. With an emphasis on supporting racialized and other equity-seeking artists, the Lab and New Play Development department are investing in works and artistic processes representing a rich spectrum of stories and storytellers. 

“Despite the challenges, the outlook for the Festival is positive,” said Gaffney, “thanks in large part to the support of our many stakeholders. Antoni and I are grateful to our staff and artists for their careful work and boundless goodwill; to our donors, sponsors and audiences for their generosity and faith; to the volunteers for their commitment; to the local community for their patience and advocacy; and to the provincial and federal governments for their continued support.”

It’s back to the future for 2021 as Stratford moves outdoors

The Festival marks the one-year anniversary of its pandemic shutdown with hope in sight, but with the impact of COVID-19 continuing. In just a few months, the Festival will unveil two new outdoor performance venues, covered by canopies, at the Festival and Tom Patterson theatres, echoing the great tent first erected in 1953. In these, it will present a season of about a dozen plays and cabarets. Each venue will seat 100 people in socially distanced pods, with performances at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., allowing for daily capacity of 600 people, compared with roughly 7,000 when all four indoor theatres are in use.

The adaptation to the new COVID-19 reality requires a great deal of work in every aspect of the Festival’s operations. The Festival has earned the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Safe Travels designation, in recognition of the strict COVID protocols that will be in place throughout the Festival experience. These include Plexiglas barriers between audience and performers, as well as between musicians and performers, as required, and the masking of all other staff and audience members.  

The Festival is grateful to the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Resilient Communities Fund for $150,000 to support its public health protection measures, including contactless washroom door openers, UV washroom sanitation units, portable sanitization foggers, crowd control stanchions and Plexiglass barriers at all customer contact locations.

“As we return to making and enjoying theatre together, this season will be a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Cimolino. “It will harken back to our early pioneer days under canvas and yet point to the future. Featuring some fantastic new talent and infused with energy and new points of view, the season will be both adventurous and appropriate to the moment.”

With vaccinations paving the way, the Festival eagerly anticipates a return to large-scale programming in its four venues in 2022.

“The closure of our doors marked the start of a period not of stasis but of transformation,” said Cimolino: “a time of rapid and fundamental change; a time of growth and planning for the future. And that process will continue throughout the 2021 season and beyond, as we work to make the Festival even stronger than it was before the pandemic hit. Our long-term goal is a Festival that is financially resilient, inclusive, artistically more wide-ranging and more adventurous.

“In short, our Festival has not been dormant this past year. Think of it, rather, as having entered a new phase of its life. It is as if we have been in a cocoon, shedding the skin of our past life as we undergo the transformation that will enable us, when we emerge, to spread our wings as never before.”