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The Stratford Festival intended to celebrate the opening of its new Tom Patterson Theatre during the 2020 season before COVID-19 shut down the performing arts.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival ran a $4.3-million deficit, the biggest in its history, in 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the destination theatre company is expecting its accumulated deficit to be nearly double that size by the end of 2021.

But executive director Anita Gaffney nevertheless says she is “very optimistic” about a multiyear plan in place to get North America’s biggest theatrical not-for-profit back on track.

“I characterize 2020 as a pretty amazing accomplishment – that the loss is only $4.3-million – given the conditions that were thrown at us,” Gaffney said. “The situation at the festival is delicate but stable.”

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At its AGM on Saturday, the Stratford Festival publicly revealed the full extent of the damage the coronavirus caused its finances in 2020: Expenses of $27.6-million against revenues of just $23.3-million, 96 per cent of which came from government, donors or the festival’s endowment.

Earned revenue nosedived from $39-million in 2019 to $1-million with the company’s four theatre spaces closed to in-person audiences for the entire calendar year.

A further future liability reported but not reflected in the bottom line is $8-million that Stratford patrons now have “on account” because of cancelled programming. This is revenue that will not be earned in future seasons as vouchers are redeemed.

The Stratford Festival has undoubtedly been among the hardest hit of Canadian not-for-profits because of how reliant its business model is on box office – and the precise timing of the pandemic’s arrival in this country.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino had a larger-than-normal playbill of 15 productions on a budget of $76-million programmed for 2020 to celebrate the opening of the festival’s new Tom Patterson Theatre.

Preview performances were set to begin in April of last year, but the first wave of COVID-19 shut down stages just weeks before that.

Though the Festival acted quickly to reduce costs and payroll, it had already spent $13-million – rehearsing actors, building sets, selling tickets – by that point in the year.

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The way out of the current situation for Stratford begins by going further into the red with a relatively small 2021 season that is viewed as an investment in maintaining ties with its artists, its audiences and the local community, but will lose money.

Cimolino plans to produce six plays and a series of cabarets performed by eight-actor casts in two open-sided tents to audiences capped at 100 this summer. These shows will also be filmed for the $10-a-month streaming service Stratfest at Home, which launched late in 2020 and currently has just under 3,500 subscribers.

The budget for this 2021 season, tickets for which are expected to go on sale next month, is just under $37-million, with a planned deficit of $4-million.

The theatre company is then hoping to return to something resembling normal activities in 2022. But it’s hard to see that far into the future and gauge the willingness of audiences to return even if the pandemic is under control at that point.

As we move into summer, a new wave of the virus fuelled by more contagious variants hitting Ontario has begun just as the vaccination campaign has ramped up.

How much is Gaffney right to be optimistic about Stratford’s future, then, and how much of her confidence is a performance?

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That the Stratford Festival is genuinely not in panic mode is perhaps most apparent in how it is approaching its endowment, which currently controls about $87-million.

In 2020, the theatre company only used $2-million of the $4-million draw to which it was entitled. This is part of a forward-thinking plan that will see Stratford take its full $4-million draw in 2021 and then use $6-million from the endowment to produce the 2022 season.

“We’re trying to harness our resources to be ready to come back in 2022,” says Gaffney

Other not-for-profit organizations repurposed endowment money earmarked for art or artists in 2020, and a number in the United States have even panicked and drawn down on the principal.

But the Stratford Festival has good reason to expect that it can pull itself out of a big deficit without stealing from its future. By the end of its 1984 season, for instance, it had an accumulated deficit of $3,330,339 – which isn’t all that far from the $8-million in today’s dollars.

A more recent relevant comparison would be Stratford’s 2012 season, which ended in a $3.4-million deficit and was followed by seven consecutive seasons of surpluses under the current leadership of Gaffney and Cimolino, which also included a $100-million fundraising campaign for the Tom Patterson Theatre that currently sits closed.

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If the unexpected phase of the pandemic is behind us, Stratford should be all right in the long run. But a certain nervousness remains, as the times defy augury.

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