Theatres across the country have been open without interruption for many months now. Are Canadian audiences going out to see live plays and musicals again at the same level they were pre-pandemic yet?
The answer is that it depends on the show, who it’s aimed at and where it is taking place.
In some cases, attendance does seem to be as strong as it ever has been. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is essentially selling out every performance right now in Toronto, as you can tell by checking ticket availability online, while the Charlottetown Festival is reporting that Tell Tale Harbour, its new musical adaptation of the film The Grand Seduction, is the fastest-selling show in the PEI theatre company’s history.
For the most part, however, theatre companies are only at the beginning of what they anticipate to be a multi-year recovery – and have been getting the smaller-than-usual audiences that they’ve been expecting and planning for.
The Stratford Festival, for instance, has set a (quite ambitious really!) target of 320,000 attendance for 2022 – and executive director Anita Gaffney tells me that the not-for-profit repertory theatre company is, at about the halfway point in the season, currently on track to hit that goal. That is about two-thirds of the 500,000 attendance the destination theatre used to attempt to draw in a pre-pandemic year.
The challenge for larger companies like Stratford, which depend heavily on earned revenue, is how to afford to operate at partial attendance as they rebuild.
This year, Stratford is running the usual length of time (April to October) and with only a couple fewer productions than it did pre-pandemic (10 vs 2019′s 12). According to Gaffney, the board approved a $8.2-million deficit for 2022, seeing a full season of programming as an investment in the destination theatre’s long-term health.
Earlier this month, however, the federal government announced that Stratford would be receiving $10-million through its Major Events and Festivals Support Initiative (MFESI). The festival got a head’s up about the pandemic recovery money in March, Gaffney says. So Stratford is now hoping to break even in 2022.
While I applaud this government investment in Stratford, it was strange to hear this news announced at the time that the theatre company is actually planning its 2023 season, which should be revealed in the next few weeks.
Indeed, Stratford applied for this MFESI money last summer – and $2-million of what has now received was, in fact, earmarked for the festival’s 2021 shortened, mostly outdoors season (on which the books closed long ago) with the remainder going to support this year’s ten-play season (which was announced last fall).
The government press release on July 5 stated that: “As a result of this investment, the Stratford Festival will operate at four indoor venues, extend its season and produce a total of 10 plays, five of which are funded through this investment.” I think it would be more accurate to say that, as a result of the MFESI investment, Stratford will not go deep into debt producing this season as it might have otherwise.
If governments really want to help theatres build back amid all the ongoing uncertainty, they need to craft programs that assure them of support during the season-planning stage – which can be a year or more in advance of production. I continue to admire the simple, proactive program that is Quebec government’s Mesure particulière à la diffusion de spectacles Québécois. That pandemic subsidy financially compensates theatre companies for (most of) any reduced attendance, based on their pre-pandemic box-office numbers. The measure was renewed again this spring through March 2023 – allowing theatre companies to plan regularly-sized 2022-2023 seasons knowing they have a safety net. (And, neatly, the more attendance levels return to regular level, 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 theatres currently trying to chart a course for 2023 and beyond maximize their activity (and the economic spinoffs of their industry). Having to gambling on grants to come is less than ideal.
What’s opening in Toronto this week – and into August.
I’m headed on holiday soon and so this newsletter will be going on planned hiatus for a couple of weeks. (It went on unplanned hiatus the past two weeks due to illness.)
I’m sorry to be missing Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival (Aug. 4 to 14) – which is always a highlight of summer in the city.
Also opening in Toronto this week and next: As You Like It, as part of Canadian Stage’s summer programming in High Park (July 28 to Sept. 4); and Trojan Girls and the Outhouse of Atreus, an immersive riff on Greek tragedy from Outside the March playing on two stages at Factory Theatre at once (Aug. 3 to 28).
… and elsewhere in Ontario.
– The Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario, and the Broadway district in New York have this in common: Both were planning a production of The Music Man when the pandemic hit in 2020 – and both have now picked it back up. David Leyshon is the Canadian theatre company’s answer to Hugh Jackman; he’s starring as conman Harold Hill in the TIP production of Meredith Wilson’s classic that’s running to August 20, directed and choreographed by Stephanie Graham.
– The Blyth Festival 2022 season is continuing with Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians, a comedic two-hander that’s been produced all over the place since its critically acclaimed debut production at the Tarragon Theatre in 2018. This new production is directed by Deneh’Cho Thompson and stars James Dallas Smith and Kelly McIntosh.
… and elsewhere in the country.
– Fringe Festival season continues apace – with local editions of these anarchic, fun and affordable theatre fests next hitting Charlottetown (July 27 to 31), Saskatoon (July 28 to Aug. 6) and Calgary (July 29 to Aug. 6). The oldest and biggest North American Fringe is in Edmonton, of course, and this year’s edition is on from Aug. 11 to 21, featuring more than 160 shows in 27 venues.
– The Charlottetown Festival is getting ready to open Hey Viola! (Aug. 3 to 13) on its second stage – a cabaret that tells the story of Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond, alongside songs from her lifetime. Will a piece of musical theatre about a historical figure on a ten-dollar bill attract any interest, though? (Wink!)
– Bard on the Beach’s next show is Romeo and Juliet (Aug. 3 to Sept. 24) with Daniel Fong and Ghazal Azarbad in the lead roles. I wish I’d read about director Anita Rochon’s Vancouver production when I wrote the other week about renewed interest in Juliet’s and alternate endings to Shakespeare’s play. According to her director’s note, Rochon is beginning her production of the play at the end: “We find Juliet in the tomb, awakening from a poisoned stupor, only to discover that her secret plan has gone horribly awry. She then reassembles the events that led her to this moment, so we are seeing all the action through her eyes – moments she remembers and incidents she would have 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 to August 21.
See you in a few weeks. I’ll be back in time to review the next round of openings at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.