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The Festival Theatre in Stratford, photographed in May, 2018.

Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

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In an alternative universe, the Stratford Festival is just about to wrap up the opening week of its 2020 season with a Saturday night performance of Richard III starring Colm Feore. The show would officially open its brand-new, paid-off $70-million Tom Patterson Theatre on the banks of the Avon River.

In our actual reality, alas, that impressive, yet intimate 500-seat theatre sits empty this weekend – and supporters are tweeting at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford with the hashtag #StratfordMatters in hopes the festival will get $8-million in grants and loans it says is needed to make it to 2021.

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So, why does #StratfordMatter?

Its audiences – and it has multiple, overlapping ones – would say it is the art, of course.

For one group, comprised especially of Globe and Mail readers and those making the pilgrimage from the United States, it is the chance to see Shakespeare and other classics on a scale and with a skill not found elsewhere in North America. For another, which some years outnumbers the Bardolators almost two to one, it is the opportunity to see big-budget productions of well-known musicals with larger casts and orchestras than Broadway. For a smaller, but highly dedicated crowd, it is the ability to see high-quality Canadian plays with a bigger vision than most of the country’s new-work theatres can afford.

Add in the students who come with varying levels of enthusiasm as part of school groups – around 50,000 each year – and you reach a cumulative audience of about 500,000, and the accompanying box-office revenue needed to keep the $65-million ship afloat with just 6 per cent of the budget coming from government grants.

The Stratford Festival is in a scary situation right now, as all those different audiences will take different amounts of time to want to or be able to afford come back. In the past, even a dip too close to 400,000 in overall attendance has plunged the company into the red.

So, it was a little surprising to find Carol Stephenson, chair of Stratford’s board of governors, making the case for Stratford mattering not in and of itself, but for economic reasons, in her appearance in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance last week.

In her opening remarks, Stephenson, who was accompanied by the Stratford Festival’s executive director, Anita Gaffney, asked MPs to “think of the Stratford Festival as a business – because it’s the way we see ourselves.”

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Stephenson went on to tout the $135-million the festival contributes to the local economy annually, and proudly reiterated that the festival was founded in 1952 to “save the town from economic disaster when it lost its major industry.”

The festival’s “unique ability to be 94 per cent self-funding” had turned into a “unique vulnerability,” Stephenson went on. “It pains all of us to be in this position,” she said of asking for money. “It is not our usual manner and one we will not become accustomed to.”

I found this apologetic tone to be dreadfully out of tune with the times, when even many for-profit businesses are having the salaries of their employees subsidized to 75 per cent by the government, and millions of Canadians are accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

There’s no shame in anyone asking for help during an unprecedented crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic – and certainly less high-minded entertainment giants have been shameless in asking for it. (The CFL’s ask: $150-million.)

But, also, there is no shame in theatres asking to be well funded by governments – as Stratford, if it truly matters in the way it purports to matter, is not.

Now is the time to make the case that Stratford could matter more, not less, and to more people across the country if it received an extra $8-million not just this year, but every year – a level of funding that would bring it somewhat closer to British and European repertory companies of comparable size and stature.

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It’s definitely time that Stratford Festival moved on from its foundational myth, of Shakespeare keeping a town afloat single-handedly. This has, ultimately, been harmful to Canadian theatre in the long term.

The attractiveness of the well-known, if-you-build-it-they-will-come story is in no small way responsible for why Canadians (outside of Quebec, at least) continue to not financially support the performing arts in the way that the British, let alone the Europeans do. We seem to want theatres to somehow support Canadians financially through the taxes they generate and restaurants they support.

The attempt to recreate the “miracle” of Stratford has failed, notably in terms of postpandemic renewal with the Luminato festival in Toronto, which never generated the tourism it was designed to after SARS and struggled to find its artistic compass.

If the case is that #StrafordMatters because its audiences stay in hotels and eat out, then it actually does not matter right now – and will matter less than usual in the years ahead.

But the importance of Canada having at least one large not-for-profit arts institution with major resources, such as Stratford, has been really brought home during the pandemic. While myriad international theatres have flooded the internet with impressive streaming productions, Stratford is the only Canadian theatre to have a vault of high-quality filmed content to offer the housebound and keep our stage artists in the public eye. They have been embraced enthusiastically online, attracting hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube already.

More than 65,000 people around the world watched director Robert Lepage’s 2018 production of Coriolanus during the three weeks it was online for free, significantly more than were able to see it during its original run; among its new fans, a New York Times writer who called the staging “stunning” and a Guardian critic who raved about veteran company member Lucy Peacock’s “magnificent” performance.

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I choose this example for a reason: It is not simply an accident or Lepage’s genius that made and makes this Coriolanus “matter” so much. The production’s “build and run” budget was almost $1-million more than a usual Shakespeare show at Stratford – that extra money going into years of research and extra workshops to develop the show in Quebec City and Stratford. A New Chapter grant, a special funding program by the Canada Council timed to the 150th Anniversary of Confederation, provided $400,000 of the funds necessary to create a show of this calibre and depth.

Ever since I saw that show, I’ve dreamed of a Stratford that would be able to invest in work at that level every season. What if the Stratford Festival, instead of going tail-between-legs for a one-time $8-million, said the massive audiences that made its model work were not likely to return in the near future – and made the argument that, to better reflect its cultural importance, its regular funding should double, or triple, or quadruple?

I had the opportunity to ask artistic director Antoni Cimolino what he would do with more funding this week. He spoke about more Coriolanus-style R&D; more filming of shows, especially of the high-calibre Canadian plays it has been premiering; and more physical touring across the country. He talked about being able to explore less well-known plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – as British companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company have increasingly done to place the Bard into an actual context – along with theatrical stories from Asia, South American and Africa with the necessary rigour.

Can we emerge from COVID-19 with Canada’s flagship theatre company mattering more and to more Canadians? Stratford should drop the small-town-that-could narrative and flex its muscles at a time when a paradigm shift on how we fund the arts is not just possible but necessary.

Editor’s note: (June 2, 2020): A previous version of this column misstated the current level of government funding that the Royal Shakespeare Company receives. In 2018-2019, the RSC received an Arts Council of England grant of £14.98-million (approximately C$25.4-million), which accounted for 17.3 per cent of its income that financial year.
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