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Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, along with executive director Anita Gaffney, announced Monday that the company's entire 2020 season is on hold.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival, Canada’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, is putting its entire 2020 season on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and will be seeking $40-million from public and private sources to help recover from the blow to its box-office revenue.

On Monday, artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney held a pair of meetings – one with staff and artists; the other with community stakeholders in Stratford, Ont. – to deliver the news that the season, which was postponed last month, would not take place as planned.

“It’s devastating – it’s just devastating,” Cimolino said in an interview. “There’s just under 1,000 people that are employed at the festival in the course of a season, but there’s many thousands more that have jobs in related activities in Stratford.”

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Originally started in 1953 to revive the fortunes of the city of Stratford, Ont., the festival is estimated to drive $135-million in economic activity each year – with local hotels, restaurants and shops reliant on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to see theatre from April to November.

Three hundred and thirty artists were employed or set to be employed by the Stratford Festival this season – a number that does not include the many other artists who take part in residencies and workshops.

The exact number of other staff and workers affected is still unclear – 340 of the staff laid off last month have been offered a return to employment with support from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, but only to the beginning of June.

With so much uncertain about the future, Stratford’s administration and its board have not ruled out the possibility of a special fall or holiday season should public health conditions allow. However, originally planned programming is now on ice.

The timing of the pandemic is particularly cruel for the Stratford Festival, which was set to open the brand-new Tom Patterson Theatre this month and celebrate with its largest season in more than a decade.

With 15 shows, the 2020 season was budgeted at $76-million – and 62 to 65 per cent of that was expected to be covered by earned revenue through ticket sales and ancillaries. Only 5 per cent of Stratford’s annual budget comes from government funding.

Stratford will need “in the realm of $20-million” from provincial and federal governments to help it deal with the cancellation of the 2020 season, Gaffney says. The company will need to raise an additional $20-million from its donors as well. “We are looking to our patrons for help donate the value of the tickets for a tax receipt,” she said, regarding cancelled shows.

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Cimolino said he was committed to the artists and the productions originally planned for 2020, but could not say for certain whether all of them would be able to be staged in 2021, should the theatre company be up and running again by then.

“As soon as we can be back, we will be on stage,” he said. “There’s an important responsibility for the arts in the medium and longer term. The rebuilding will have a lot to do with healing our hearts and our souls."

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