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Members of the company in Stratford's production of Spamalot.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Thanks to extra support from its donors and strong interest from audiences, the Stratford Festival emerged from a challenging year for many performing arts organizations with exceptional results.

At its annual general meeting on Wednesday, the Ontario repertory theatre reported that its 2023 season saw total attendance of more than 443,000 – an over-target increase of 35 per cent year over year – and ended with a financial surplus of $404,000.

“We are steadily building back audiences and introducing new ones,” says Anita Gaffney, Stratford’s executive director. “In 2023, more than 30 per cent of tickets were sold to first-time patrons.”

Musical productions Spamalot and Rent attracted enough ticket-buyers that both shows were extended – with the latter, in particular, attracting those spectators new to Stratford.

Shakespeare was also a strong draw. A King Lear starring Paul Gross and a Much Ado About Nothing fine-tuned by playwright Erin Shields had “great sales,” according to Gaffney, while playwright Brad Fraser’s adaptation of Richard II at the Tom Patterson Theatre did “really well,” too.

New and contemporary Canadian plays in the Studio Theatre such as Casey and Diana and Women of the Fur Trade, meanwhile, sold out their runs.

The Stratford Festival, which is Canada’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, was not somehow immune to the financial challenges other arts groups have been experiencing, however – those which led the Shaw Festival, southern Ontario’s other major destination theatre, to recently report a record single-season deficit of $5.7-million and the comedy giant Just For Laughs to cancel its Montreal and Toronto festivals this summer.

Inflation made the cost of Stratford putting on 13 theatre productions in four venues in 2023 balloon to an incredible $79.7-million, an increase of 25 per cent over what it spent mounting its last prepandemic season.

What kept the company from going into the red was a special $10-million fundraising drive that ran in parallel with the company’s regular annual campaign, which pulled in another $16.8-million in donations.

An additional million dollars that Gaffney called “a small hold back” from support received via the federal government’s Major Festivals and Events Support Initiative in 2022 helped push the festival over its final financial hurdles and land in the black. The theatre company, regularly, receives approximately $4-million in funding from the public arts councils – a very small proportion of its budget compared to, say, similarly sized repertory theatres in Europe.

While Stratford has a sea of supporters that is the envy of many other Canadian arts organizations, its 2023 level of fundraising will be hard to maintain on a recurring basis. And so, Gaffney says, the festival is hoping to increase ticket revenue going forward and will endeavour to cut costs.

Its goal for the upcoming 2024 season – which officially begins on April 16 with the first preview performance of returning director Donna Feore’s production of the Broadway musical comedy Something Rotten!, set in Shakespeare’s London – is to sell 462,000 tickets, while the longer-term goal is to get attendance back up to 500,000.

That half-a-million benchmark was one Stratford aimed to hit before the pandemic – but didn’t always; its 2019 attendance was 463,838, for example, while just 432,240 showed up in 2012, numbers that make the achievement of attracting 440,000 in a time when inflation has also hit individuals’ discretionary spending budgets seem even more impressive.

Gaffney says Stratford is looking to trim about 5 per cent off what it spent in 2023 – but that the economies will be mostly coming in terms of reducing administrative costs and won’t affect what audiences will see on stage.

While the upcoming season has one less show than 2023, the 13 productions on tap – including directors Seana McKenna, Sam White and Esther Jun’s takes on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline, respectively – will run for roughly the same number of total performances.

Likewise, the upcoming 2024 season will employ 128 actors – which is 11 fewer than were hired in 2023, and 17 more than were in 2019.

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