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Matt Alfano (centre) in the Stratford Festival’s 2013 production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Cylla von Tiedemann

After a 60th-anniversary season where attendance fell to dangerous lows and deficits hit a record high, the Stratford Festival began to turn itself around under renewed leadership in 2013.

On Wednesday morning, the Southern Ontario theatre company's artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney will announce that, at the end of their first full season in their respective jobs, attendance is up 11 per cent year-over-year and the festival will end the year with a surplus. But they will also stress that Stratford is not out of the woods yet. "This was an important year for us to get a turnaround," Cimolino said in advance of the announcement. "I feel like that's started, but I also feel like we've got a ways to go."

At the end of the 2012 season – the final year when Des McAnuff was artistic director and Cimolino held the head administrative position – the Stratford, Ont., festival announced its lowest attendance figures since 1986 and a deficit of $3.4-million, the biggest in its history, even adjusting for inflation.

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This year, 50,000 more tickets were sold – even though the season was shorter and offered fewer productions – leading total attendance to surpass 480,000. Ticket revenue was also up, to $29.7-million. (The exact amount of the season surplus will not be available until the end of the year.)

Cimolino says that the growth in attendance was registered at both the festival's core classical fare and its musical-theatre offerings. His own production of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 drama Mary Stuart was extended four times in the 480-seat Tom Patterson Theatre, while director/choreographer Donna Feore's vigorous take on Fiddler on the Roof did robust business in the 1,826-seat Festival Theatre. "This was a tide that lifted all boats," Cimolino says.

Other theatres in Canada also saw a tide of patrons return in 2013 after years of decline. For instance, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., also recently reported a 10-per-cent year-over-year increase in attendance.

But at Stratford, new initiatives such as two-for-one Tuesdays and a $20 round-trip bus from Toronto are among the factors credited with the turnaround. The success of these Gaffney-led projects has encouraged the festival to expand those plans – there will be two-for-one Thursdays and a $40 return-fare bus to Detroit in 2014.

Meanwhile, Cimolino's Forum program – which enriches audience experience with talks and round tables – also appears to be serving its purpose. The festival's data show that it not only attracted new patrons to Stratford, but encouraged those visitors who came to lengthen their stays and see more plays.

While the 2013 results are significant and encouraging, Stratford attendance is still lower than ideal for the current size of the four-theatre festival; 2011 was the first time attendance had dipped below half-a-million in almost 20 years. Says Gaffney, "I'd like to see that get well over 500,000."

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