For theater companies, the Quebec pandemic grant could be the answer to the public’s lingering hesitation


The Tom Patterson Theater in Stratford, Ontario. The Stratford Festival has set a target of 320,000 spectators for 2022.SCOTT NORSWORTHY

Theaters across the country have been open non-stop for several months now. Will Canadian audiences see plays and musicals at the same level as before the pandemic?

The answer is that it depends on the show, who it is for and where it takes place.

In some cases attendance seems to be as strong as it has ever been. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child basically sells out every show right now in Toronto, as you can see by checking ticket availability online, while the Charlottetown Festival is reporting that Tell Tale Harborhis new musical adaptation of the film The great seductionis the best-selling show in the history of the PEI theater company.

For the most part, however, theater companies are only at the start of what they expect to be a multi-year revival – and have gotten the smaller-than-usual audiences they were expecting and planning for. .

The Stratford Festival, for example, has set a (quite ambitious, really!) target of 320,000 attendances for 2022 – and executive director Anita Gaffney tells me the non-profit repertory theater company is, at about halfway through the season, currently on track to achieve that goal. That’s about two-thirds of the 500,000 moviegoers the destination theater used to try to attract in a pre-pandemic year.

The challenge for big businesses like Stratford, which rely heavily on earned income, is how to afford to operate at partial attendance as they rebuild.

This year, Stratford runs the usual length (April to October) and with only a few fewer productions than before the pandemic (10 compared to 12 in 2019). According to Gaffney, the board approved an $8.2 million shortfall for 2022, viewing a full season of programming as an investment in the destination theater’s long-term health.

Earlier this month, however, the Federal Government announced that Stratford would receive $10 million under its Major Events and Festivals Support Initiative (MFESI). The festival got a feel for pandemic recovery money in March, Gaffney says. Stratford therefore now hopes to break even in 2022.

While I applaud this government investment in Stratford, it was strange to hear this news being announced at a time when the theater company is actually planning its 2023 season, which is expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Indeed, Stratford requested this MFESI money last summer – and $2 million of what has now been received was, in fact, earmarked for the festival’s shortened, mostly outdoor 2021 season (on which the books have closed a long time ago), with the remainder going to support this year’s ten-game season (which was announced last fall).

The July 5 government press release stated that: “With this investment, the Stratford Festival will operate in four venues, extend its season and produce a total of 10 plays, five of which are funded through this investment. I think it would be fairer to say that as a result of MFESI’s investment, Stratford will not go deep into debt production this season as it might have otherwise.

If governments are serious about helping theaters rebuild amid all the current uncertainty, they need to develop programs that provide them with support during the planning phase of the season – which can be a year or more before production. I continue to admire the simple and proactive program that is the Government of Quebec Special measure for the broadcast of Quebec shows. This pandemic grant financially compensates theater companies for (most of) any reduction in attendance, based on their pre-pandemic box office numbers. The measure was renewed again this spring until March 2023 – allowing theater companies to plan regular-sized 2022-2023 seasons knowing they have a safety net. (And, of course, the more attendance levels return to regular levels, the less the program costs the provincial government.)

It’s not too late for other provincial governments, and/or the federal government, to come up with similar programs to help theaters currently trying to chart a course for 2023 and beyond to maximize their business (and the economic benefits of their industry). Having to gamble on upcoming grants is not ideal.

What’s opening in Toronto this week – and in August.

I am going on vacation soon and this newsletter will therefore be interrupted on a planned basis for a few weeks. (He took an unscheduled hiatus for the past two weeks due to illness.)

I’m sorry to miss Toronto’s SummerWorks festival (August 4-14) – which is always a highlight of summer in the city.

Also opening in Toronto this week and next: As you like it, part of Canadian Stage’s summer program at High Park (July 28 to September 4); and The Daughters of Troy and the Dependencies of Atreusan immersive riff on the Greek tragedy of Outside the March performed on two stages at once at the Factory Theater (August 3-28).

… and elsewhere in Ontario.

– The Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario, and the Broadway neighborhood in New York City have this in common: Both were planning a production of The music man when the pandemic hit in 2020 – and the two have now recovered. David Leyshon is the Canadian theater company’s answer to Hugh Jackman; he stars as con man Harold Hill in the TIP production of the Meredith Wilson classic which runs until August 20, directed and choreographed by Stephanie Graham.

– The 2022 Blyth Festival season continues with Drew Hayden Taylor Vacationers and Indiansa two-handed comedy that has been produced everywhere since its critically acclaimed first production at the Tarragon Theater in 2018. This new production is directed by Deneh’Cho Thompson and stars James Dallas Smith and Kelly McIntosh.

… and elsewhere in the country.

– The Fringe Festival season continues at a brisk pace – with local editions of these anarchic, fun and affordable theater festivals taking place next in Charlottetown (July 27-31), Saskatoon (July 28-August 6 ) and Calgary (July 29 to August 6). The oldest and largest North American Fringe is in Edmonton, of course, and this year’s edition runs August 11-21, with more than 160 shows in 27 venues.

– The Charlottetown Festival is preparing to open Hello Violet! (August 3-13) on its second stage – a cabaret that tells the story of Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond, accompanied by songs from her life. Will a musical theater piece about a historical figure on a ten dollar bill spark any interest? (Wink!)

– Bard on the Beach’s next show is Romeo and Juliet (August 3 to September 24) with Daniel Fong and Ghazal Azarbad in the lead roles. I wish I had read about director Anita Rochon’s Vancouver production when I wrote last week about the renewed interest in Juliet and the alternate endings to Shakespeare’s play. According to his director’s note, Rochon begins his production of the play at the end: “We find Juliet in the tomb, waking from a poisoned stupor, to find that her secret plan has gone horribly wrong. She then puts together the events leading up to this moment, so we see all the action through her eyes – moments she remembers and incidents she supposedly heard about.

– Farren Timoteo’s coming of age tale Made in Italy is “back by popular demand” on stage at the Arts Club in Vancouver, July 28-August 21.

See you in a few weeks. I’ll be back in time to review the next set of Stratford and Shaw festival openings.

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