Stage Door News

Prescott: The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival cancels its 2021 season

Thursday, June 17, 2021

We have been hopeful all year for a St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival 2021 season. From the day we were forced to cancel our 2020 season, we have looked forward to this year.

We managed to steer our way through 2020 thanks to tremendous support from the Town of Prescott, the Ontario Arts Council, and especially you, our loyal supporters. In 2020 we used the time to concentrate on valuable backroom tasks and upgrades overlooked for years at the Festival.

Back in April 2020, following the cancellation of our season, Canadian Actors Equity asked us to pay our season's stage manager and actors a termination fee (two weeks' wages). However, we negotiated that their 2020 contracts be held over until this year, with the understanding that if any actors had to withdraw, they would be paid the fee.

Throughout 2020 we remained optimistic that the 2021 season could occur, but at the beginning of this year, we laid out a list of options to react to the possibility of changing circumstances.

Our first option was our 2020 season, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Fantasticks. In February it became apparent that presenting a musical with possible singing restrictions might be problematic. Keeping one eye on housing and safety protocols, we reduced our cast size down from nine to five and considered non-musical alternatives to The Fantasticks. 

Our second option was to present A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Richard Sheridan Willis with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Kerry Ann Doherty.

With a permitted capacity of 100 at the amphitheatre in April, we were confident enough to go ahead with Option 2. We had already earmarked Shakespeare's birthday -- April 23rd -- as the day for our season announcement. We made video trailers of The Importance of Being Earnest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we prepared a video walkthrough of our new online box office system in anticipation of opening tickets for purchase. 

Then, on the weekend of April 16th, just as we were preparing to film the announcement video, new provincial restrictions came into force.

We cancelled the announcement and waited for the restrictions to be lifted at the end of May. Hopeful that the outdoor theatre capacity number would remain at 100, we stayed with our two-show option. But when the plan was unveiled for the lifting of restrictions -- two weeks later than initially stated, and without precise capacity numbers -- our plans were thrown into doubt once more. Our board and staff decided at that point to go with our next option: mounting A Midsummer Night's Dream on its own.

Our original 2020 cast had now been reduced to two actors, as the other seven withdrew. Our problem was that in preparing to mount the show, we would have to cast new actors and employ the services of our creative team -- but once we did that, we would be liable to pay the termination fees if the show did not go ahead. As time went on, we were looking at cramming what usually took us months of preparation into a matter of weeks.

Watching the approach of our June 11th deadline to make our season's decision, we discussed all the variables and debated the potential benefits alongside the risks and challenges of carrying on. When June 11th arrived, we agreed that it would be difficult artistically and risky financially to move forward with our own production. Not without regret, we concluded that the Festival could not mount a show this season.

Some of the challenges of holding a 2021 season include but are not limited to:

  • The uncertainty and safety of billeting

  • The uncertainty of audience size in the Roadmap to Reopening

  • The logistics of implementing the COVID protocols in rehearsals and performances

  • Staffing, including the need for a trained COVID Protocol Officer and the difficulty of finding willing workers under the Canada Jobs Program when we are now so late in the game

  • The trajectory of the virus and variants and the possibility of further shut-downs

  • The risk of running a large deficit, thereby threatening a 2022 season

No one wants to invest time and money on a project that may get yanked at a moment's notice -- and through no fault of their own. And though we would have a shorter season than in the past, expenses may not necessarily reflect that, and we would have less time to recoup those expenses.

If we went ahead with putting on a show, it would be under incredible stress with very little time to look after both the artistic and administrative tasks.

In a nutshell, we are sad to announce the cancellation of our proposed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream due to time constraints, uncertainty surrounding audience limits, and in the interest of financial prudence. 

We have been fortunate that we could apply for and receive a number of grants at the local, provincial and federal levels during the pandemic. These, in combination with cost-cutting measures, will prevent us from ending this year in a severe deficit -- something that could have been a very real possibility if we proceeded with any of the above options and had to cancel partway through or limit our audience to a number not financially viable.

All this being said, we still remain positive. We are currently looking at hosting shows and events that we could bring into Prescott in August when, hopefully, the restrictions allow. Still, our primary focus will be towards coming back strong for our 20th anniversary in 2022.

The bottom line throughout this last year has been the safety of our theatre artists, our audience, and our community. We remain above all committed to the Festival's long-term survival so we can be here for our community in the future.

Of course, we are deeply saddened to come to this decision. We would love to bring theatre artists to our town this summer. We feel part of the job of theatre (and art) is to be optimistic -- to meet our audience and community where they are, and invite them in -- to make them think, feel, wonder, dream, debate, laugh, resist, roam, and imagine.

We will continue forward optimistically in these challenging times for theatre everywhere. Outdoor theatre has and will continue to have a resurgence in the next few years, and the Festival has a unique chance to benefit from this in the future. 

Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to once again thank you, our supporters, for all the help and support you've given to our Festival over this last year.

We gratefully appreciate it, and we hope to see you at the amphitheatre in August if everything falls into place for us to bring in guest shows. In any event, we look forward to sharing an exciting 20th anniversary season with you in 2022.

We wish you a happy and healthy summer.

from all of us at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival