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Andrew Broderick at the Shaw Festival Fall Concert Series, 2020.

Peter Andrew Lusztyk/Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival carved a unique course through a difficult 2020 – keeping the vast majority of its artists and artisans employed without going into the red.

At its annual general meeting on Friday, the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre reported gross revenues of $24.1-million for the year – and an operating surplus of $185,000.

More than 90 per cent of the festival’s expenditures were payroll, going directly into the pockets of actors and directors as well as administrators and other staff, according to executive director Tim Jennings.

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How did the Shaw Festival pull off this feat? While the AGM is usually a chance to learn how its program of plays and musicals fared with audiences, this year it offered an opportunity to take a closer look at the clever and compassionate ways the theatre company survived an annus horribilis with priorities intact.

“We talked about being a rep ensemble company for a long time and we put a huge emphasis on those artists and artisans and craftspeople,” Jennings says. “What this year shows is that actually they are the most important thing about [the Shaw Festival].”

As he put it: “Anything can be replaced, but people can’t be replaced.”

The COVID-19 pandemic immediately exposed a huge problem at the heart of how not-for-profit performing arts companies are structured in Canada – which is that, when push comes to shove, they are simply not built to support the artists who create the onstage work that is their main raison d’être.

The vast majority of the actors, directors and designers who work at theatre companies are employed as independent contractors – and so were left to get by on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit when venues shuttered and seasons were cancelled across the country last spring.

The Shaw Festival was one of the few exceptions: It found a way to pay artists, not just administrative and support staff, with the help of the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy.

Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane with Andrew Broderick. The Shaw Festival found a way to pay artists with the help of CERB.

Peter Andrew Lusztyk/Shaw Festival

The company quickly offered all the artists who had been contracted as temporary summer employees for the 2020 season the opportunity to be hired under a program for education and community outreach specialists – roles that would allow them, in most cases, to keep rehearsing and creating in a different context.

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While a few of the Shaw Festival’s established stars – such as married actors Tom McCamus and Chick Reid – passed on the offer, around 80 contracted artists were eventually employed in this way through the summer. They were moved over to payroll, with CEWS then covering 75 cents on the dollar of their wages. Later in the fall, a dozen more artists were hired in a similar fashion to perform a series of concerts – outdoors and then indoors – to in-person audiences. (The festival normally employs 100 to 120 artists as independent contractors in a season.)

But CEWS and other COVID-19 relief programs ultimately only accounted for 33 per cent of the Shaw Festival’s revenues in 2020.

A major key to the theatre company’s success was that it had conducted a risk analysis a few years ago and taken out a rare form of pandemic insurance, giving it a financial cushion to plan a pivot. According to Jennings, the payout from the insurance accounted for 27 per cent of the company’s income in 2020.

Last but far from least, the Shaw Festival’s donor community – rightly impressed by the company’s foresight and support of its artists – stepped up. Donations and fundraising contributed 31 per cent of 2020′s revenue.

In its last prepandemic season, the Shaw Festival ran on a budget of around $34-million – with about 62 per cent of that being covered by earned revenue (i.e. ticket sales). In 2020, earned revenue shrank to 1 per cent, so it was necessary to find additional cost savings of about $10-million to make it through in the black.

For 2021, the Shaw Festival is again an outlier, planning a reduced, indoor, six-play version of what it had originally programmed for 2020. In line with projected government restrictions, it is currently selling just 50 seats a performance for May, and is optimistically hoping to fill its three venues to at least 30 per cent of capacity for the rest of the summer season (set to run to October).

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James Daly performing at the fall concert series. For 2021, the Shaw Festival is planning a reduced, indoor, six-play version of what it had originally programmed for 2020.

Peter Andrew Lusztyk/Shaw Festival

Despite presenting fewer shows, the festival has offered contracts to all the artists it did back in 2020 (except those in Mahabharata, a postponed co-production with Toronto’s Why Not Theatre). It will be using the extra actors as additional understudies (so there will be no hesitation for anyone to call in sick), and to create a series of outdoor performances.

Rehearsals begin over Zoom on March 28, with the acting companies then slowly moving into the buildings in April.

With vaccinations and a third wave of COVID-19 on the rise in Ontario, the picture for 2021 is far from clear. Jennings says he is “in conversation” with the festival’s insurer about how they will treat the season if there are more cancellations. “So far we’ve been happy,” he says.

Also happy should be the community of artists and audiences that surround this theatre with the way Jennings and his team have shepherded the Shaw Festival through crisis.

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