Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star theatre critic
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival will end the 2012 season with an operating deficit that may reach as high as $4 million, the Star has learned.
Generally sluggish attendance and the lack of a major box office hit (like Jesus Christ Superstar in 2011) left the festival with a considerable revenue shortfall. But festival management is already taking an aggressive new approach to programming that it feels will help turn audience numbers around.
Incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino and newly appointed general manager Anita Gaffney agreed there would be a substantial deficit but were unwilling to commit to a specific figure.
Reliable sources confirmed that attendance for the year was 12 per cent under budget, which would be enough to account for a $4 million loss. With an operating budget of nearly $60 million, that number would represent a deficit of about 6.5 per cent, but there have been times in Stratford’s history where deficits reached as high as 15 per cent for several years running.
“The festival is going into its 61st season,” said Cimolino. “There have times when attendance has been up and down, but the quality and excitement of the festival endures and will grow.”
The shortfall did not come as a surprise. Cimolino and Gaffney trimmed $1.5 million from the budget while the season was in progress, once they saw a pattern of softer sales emerging.
“When we saw things were going bad, we immediately did a lot of research,” says Gaffney. “We heard about economic issues and currency exchange rates, but there isn’t a great deal we can do about those factors.
“But people were also complaining about not enough choice in the plays that were available, or difficulty in getting here, so we’re dealing with that.”
Next year’s season of 12 plays, for example, features many more easily recognizable titles and will see eight of them opened by the middle of June, providing more choice, while scheduling will allow visitors to see more shows in a shorter period of time.
“We’re taking a leaf from the movies and putting two-for-one Tuesdays on the bill, giving our historically weakest day a chance for new strength,” adds Gaffney.
There are also bold plans for low-price, easily accessible transportation between Toronto and Stratford that the festival plans to announce soon and other programming initiatives to bring more people to Stratford more frequently.
The festival does have an endowment fund of $56 million, but Cimolino made it clear they would not draw funds from that principal to retire the deficit.
“I have no immediate worries about the financial future of the festival,” he said. “This is certainly something that we can sustain in the short term,”
“I think the festival is strong, artistically and financially,” departing artistic director Des McAnuff said. “This is not the kind of crisis that Stratford has gone through in the past. This has to do with the ebb and flow of financial times in the world outside our walls.
“I’m confident there are blue skies ahead for Antoni’s first season.”