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Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino walks onto the stage following a dress rehearsal. The theatre company announced 495 layoffs on Friday due to the coronavirus outbreak.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival has postponed the opening of its 2020 season another month due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the immediate impact on those who work for North America’s largest not-for-profit theatre company is major.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney had to deliver the bad news on Friday: 495 layoffs – affecting 35 full-time staff, 300 seasonal workers and 160 artists. A further 300 seasonal workers and 140 artists will have their contracts delayed.

“This past week, we sold virtually no tickets,” Gaffney said in an interview on Friday. “Today, we process a payroll of $1.8-million [...] so that is not sustainable.”

Stratford’s layoffs – in the case of artists, who are independent contractors, contracts are being terminated – are being called temporary. The hope now is to restart rehearsals (with new contracts) at the end of April or early May and open shows to audiences in June.

But everybody in Stratford, Ont., knows the situation is fluid. Just last Friday, the festival had announced it would be pushing its first public performances to early May, but would keep rehearsals going. “We tried promoting hygiene and social distancing during rehearsals but it is kind of antithetical to the purpose,” Cimolino says. “We had to stop this past week.”

Like all other performing-arts companies, Stratford will be constantly monitoring the situation and consulting with local public-health authorities to see if their plans remain plausible. “We’re working on a number of scenarios so we’re prepared for any eventuality,” says Gaffney, who has also been working behind the scenes urging government to extend Employment Insurance benefits to independent contractors, which it did this week.

With a season that begins rather than ends in the spring, Stratford is the canary – or perhaps swan is more apt – in the coal mine of how COVID-19 will devastate the performing arts in North America, where government support is minimal and earned revenue and private donations make up most of the budget.

The budget for Stratford’s 2020 season was set at $76.2 million – and it is still planning to open 15 productions in repertory, the most in Cimolino’s tenure as artistic director, and its brand-new $70-million theatre complex on the bank of the Avon River.

But 62 per cent of the theatre company’s revenue is earned through ticket sales (and ancillaries like concessions and gift-shop purchases) and that will be hard to achieve this season. A further 23 per cent of the theatre’s revenue comes from private fundraising, which will be more difficult than usual with the stock market in free fall and the company’s major donors having just gone above and beyond for a $100-million campaign to build Stratford’s new theatre and boost its endowment fund. (An additional potential cause for future concern: some of the financial commitments to that nearly completed campaign are pledges.)

Only 5 per cent of Stratford’s annual budget comes from government funding bodies such as the Canada Council or the Ontario Arts Council.

This is not how theatre companies of the size and stature and seriousness of Stratford work in countries outside of North America. As Cimolino notes, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in Great Britain both get around 50 per cent of their budgets from the government. In continental Europe, meanwhile, theatre companies are even more highly subsidized than that.

Cimolino is not really mincing words about how Stratford’s funding model is holding up in this time of crisis. “At this moment in time, that model is amplifying an already devastating problem and therefore we need the help of everyone who loves and values this place, especially the government of Ontario and Canada," he says.

If the country’s performing-arts companies fall like dominoes, is it perhaps time to revisit that model? The economic impact of the Stratford Festival alone is estimated to be $135-million annually – and the local restaurant and hotel industries suffer any time the festival even has an off-year in terms of attendance.

Let’s not forget the artists and the art. I reached Mike Shara, an actor in his ninth year at Stratford who is set to perform in three shows this season, while he was on a brief trip out of the home shopping for essential groceries. His wife, Carla Bennett, is also an actor in the Stratford company this season and they had just rented a house for the season – which they are now moving out of to head back to Toronto.

“We had a nice year lined up; we were going to be in the same place, which, as you know, for self-employed artists is not always the case,” he said. “It’s a kick in the teeth for sure."

Despite both incomes in Shara’s household being in peril, when I reached him, he was first and foremost upset about the creative and exciting work he had been crafting with his colleagues on productions of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well being “yanked away” from him. “It’s hard on the soul,” he said. It is.

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