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Stratford Festival celebrates surplus at AGM
As published in The Stratford Beacon Herald. By Laura Cudworth, The Beacon Herald | Monday, March 31, 2014 3:47:24 EDT PM

New Stratford Festival board of directors chair Chip Vallis (left) thanks outgoing board chair David Goldbloom
for his two years of service Saturday at the Festival's AGM. LAURA CUDWORTH / BEACON HERALD

The mood at the Stratford Festival's annual general meeting was jubilant as administrators announced a $1.4 million surplus.

It's a remarkable turn around considering, at this time last year, the Festival was announcing a $3.4 million deficit.

This was a big year. Perhaps artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney felt they had something to prove as they made their debuts in the top spots in the organization. Or, maybe, the Festival veterans are simply invested in the place.

“Antoni and Anita have earned the acclaim and respect of the board of governors, and indeed of many people who know and love the Festival, for their intelligence, passion, artistry, vigilance to detail, and ultimately their success,” said David Goldbloom, during his final address as chair of the board.

Cimolino and Gaffney have shown themselves to be a formidable team. They approached the 2013 season with a unique combination of calculated risk and restraint.

The risks came in the form of a $20 return bus service from Toronto and The Forum—events to compliment the plays and theme of “communities divided.” The risk paid off. The bus service isn't a money maker, it wasn't expected to be, but it brought in 15,000 patrons, half of them new.

The 150 Forum events which included high profile speakers like humanitarian and former diplomat Stephen Lewis, National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, and a mock appeal for Shylock with Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin presiding attracted 30,000 patrons. It was budgeted to break even but generated $340,000 in revenue.

The restraint came in the form of spending cuts of about 3.5%.

“It was across every part of the organization. Many people took a wage freeze, we reduced the number of pages in our house program... we looked at everything we could do,” Gaffney said.

The Festival will take more calculated risks this season and take on some aggressive marketing.

“Given the shortfall of the previous year we're not out of the woods. We still have work to do,” Gaffney said. “I think we're heading in the right direction, evidence shows we have the right initiatives in place.”

The $20 return bus service from Toronto will continue and it will be expanded to Detroit for $40.

The Festival's education department will be partnering with the Stratford YMCA to offer daycare during matinees. There will be a cost but it will be affordable much like the buses. The Festival will also market the theatre, heavily, in Chicago where potential patrons will be encouraged to take advantage of the Waterloo Region Airport. The Festival expects to welcome its 26-millionth patron sometime in May. That person will receive a lifetime pass to the Festival.

Two for one Tuesdays will continue and the Festival is looking at ways to market mid-week packages to increase attendance.

An ambitious project called Stratford@Play will turn stage performances into movies. The Festival has filmed some of its productions in the past but the goal now is to film as many as three a season until Shakespeare's canon is complete. The films will be used to market the Festival around the globe and as an educational tool.

“Students need to see that Shakespeare doesn't live in the daunting pages of a great thick book but in the very same media they use to navigate and explore the world around them,” Cimolino said.

Seven of 12 shows are in rehearsal now and the 2014 season is closing in quickly. Optimism is running high. Ticket sales are on par with last season and additional shows have already been added to A Midsummer Night's Dream, a chamber play and Antony and Cleopatra due to demand. These could be the golden years for the Festival.

By the numbers:
  • Five productions extended in 2013—Fiddler on the Roof, Measure for Measure, Waiting for Godot, Taking Shakespeare and Mary Stuart—which generated an additional $1 million.
  • Biggest increase in attendance since 1999.
  • Attendance was up 11% over 2012 with 480,232 patrons in 2013 compared to 432,240 in 2012.
  • Twenty per cent of visitors were from the U.S.
  • The under-18 demographic increased by 20% to 70,000 visitors.
  • The Festival sold 200,000 tickets online.
  • Stratford residents bought about 34,000 tickets.
  • Fundraising accounted for 22% of revenue at $12.4 million.
  • The Forum generated $340,000 in revenue.
  • All three levels of government contributed $5 million combined.
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