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Stratford lays off six staff amid weaker than expected ticket sales

John Vickery as Belarius with members of the company in Cymbeline.

In the face of weaker than expected ticket sales for its 60th anniversary season, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has laid off six members of its maintenance staff – and there may be more cuts to come.

Executive director designate Anita Gaffney said the layoffs of facilities workers are an attempt by the Southern Ontario repertory theatre company to reduce expenditures without affecting the art on the stages.

"Sales have been a little softer than anticipated, which seems to be a universal trend and largely linked to the challenges of the economy," she said. "We are hoping that these layoffs are temporary."

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Fewer Americans are crossing the border this year – a familiar story for Stratford in recent seasons – but sales to Canadians are also down for artistic director Des McAnuff's final season in charge of the festival.

Theatregoers who do make the trip to Stratford, Ont., are purchasing tickets to fewer shows than in previous seasons – a clear sign that the continuing international financial crisis is a factor, Gaffney said.

And yet this season's ticket troubles are also part of a worrying long-term trend. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has experienced a gradual decline in box office returns since filling a record 672,924 seats during its 50th anniversary season in

2002. Last year, attendance dropped below the half-million mark for the first time in the past decade.

Gaffney said it was too early to speculate on overall attendance for the 2012 season, which runs until Oct. 28, or whether the festival will run a deficit. "We're continuing to examine the situation and we'll keep monitoring it for the next few months," she said.

Down in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Shaw Festival, the other large theatre festival in Southern Ontario, is expected to hit its sales targets and arrive at the end of the season within budget, public relations director Odette Yazbeck said. Last year, it ran a deficit of $1.5-million.

Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell's production of Ragtime is leading the charge – and will be one of the top-selling shows in the festival's history.

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Stratford also has a hit in incoming artistic director Antoni Cimolino's production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. On Wednesday, the festival announced it was adding three extra performances to the schedule to meet demand.

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