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The Shaw Festival, one of Canada’s largest theatre companies, ran the biggest single-season deficit in its history in 2023, spending $5.7-million more than it brought in.

The repertory theatre company, based in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., reported at its annual general meeting on Friday that cost escalations and attendance shortfalls led to it ending the fiscal year in the red, despite bringing in record operating revenues of $36.7-million thanks to its best fundraising efforts ever.

Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw Festival, situated his theatre company’s financial woes amid wider ones in the industry that have led to show cancellations and staff reductions at a number of performing arts organizations in the country.

“I think if you were to ask, and I have asked, the large theatres of Canada how they’re doing, they would tell you almost to a man not well,” Jennings said. “We’re all in deep trouble.”

Indeed, the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and the Association des théâtres francophones du Canada issued an urgent call to Canadians earlier this week, asking them to support theatres. PACT members have reported an average increase of 35 to 41 per cent in operating expenses from 2019, while national audience participation still remains well below prepandemic levels.

At the Shaw Festival, Jennings said costs went up by about 20 per cent in 2023, and there were many unexpected expenses as well. It had, for instance, budgeted $2-million for understudies (to prevent sickness from spreading through casts) and ended up spending almost $1-million more on that line item – and still had to cancel and refund four performances when not enough understudies were available to go on.

A long-standing issue with the clay foundation of the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre, meanwhile, led to flooding and the cancellation of four performances.

In terms of attendance, the festival, which focuses on classic plays and musicals, has specific challenges related to being a destination theatre aiming to draw people from across Southern Ontario and up from the United States.

Ticket sales continued to climb back in 2023, with 210,310 people attending 849 of the festival’s 857 scheduled performances for 18 production and concerts. But while that was an increase of approximately 40,000 from 2022, the festival was aiming to sell closer to 230,000 tickets, Jennings said.

The executive director said unforeseen situations such as wildfire smoke affected cross-border tourism to the Niagara region and led to attendance from the United States accounting for just 20 per cent instead of the usual 34 per cent.

In terms of Canadian theatregoers, the Shaw’s long-time supporters showed up in force, but single-ticket sales were lower than expected with main stage productions of Gypsy, Blythe Spirit and The Amen Corner all underperforming. Even the holiday musical was a disappointment, with Brigadoon at just 70 per cent of capacity compared with 90 per cent a year earlier for White Christmas.

Other Southern Ontario theatre companies that run through summer did hit their audience goals for 2023. Drayton Entertainment said it sold 207,392 tickets and will post a modest surplus at its upcoming annual general meeting, while the Stratford Festival, which will hold its AGM later this month, tipped its hand in the fall that it would exceed its target of 420,000 and is expected to be on budget. (Stratford, however, already experienced the biggest single-season deficit in its history in 2020 – and is still working at eliminating the accumulated deficit dating to that initial pandemic shutdown.)

Jennings said the Shaw Festival’s plan was always to run a small deficit and invest in a larger and longer than usual season under the theory that doing so would speed up recovery in the long run.

That strategy may yet pay off: He reports that the coming 2024 season – centred around a production of My Fair Lady that will also double as the holiday musical – is already selling at a pace 30 per cent ahead of last year.

The Shaw Festival has also started to bring costs down. Last year, the organization employed around 620 people; this year’s figure will be closer to 540. That includes a smaller company of actors. While 115 performers took to the stage in 2023, only 70 will do so over the course of 2024.

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