Stratford, Shaw auds plateau despite coin

TORONTO — Audiences are flatlining at Canada’s two major classical theater festivals — Stratford and Shaw — but fund-raising is picking up the slack. While both orgs have seen ticket sales dip, differences in the way the downward trends have played out make the Shaw fest seem the more resilient of the two.

For the 2006 season, Shaw was able to post a solid C$714,000 ($605,000) surplus on a $19.9 million budget, largely thanks to a 15% increase in returns from the fest’s fund-raising department.

Stratford, on the other hand, squeaked by with a $16,723 surplus on a budget of nearly $45 million, a result also credited to an increase in fund-raising.

Both orgs saw their audiences declining almost imperceptibly this season.

Stratford’s attendance fell from 540,000 in 2005 to 528,373 in 2006, while Shaw slipped marginally from 295,642 in 2005 to 295,016.

After a series of increasingly successful seasons that climaxed with record attendance in 2002 for its 50th anniversary (672,924), Stratford has experienced gradual erosion each year.

While the decline in American tourism has been held largely to blame by the org, the fact remains that Stratford’s artistic output has been wildly mixed in the last four seasons.

Many attribute the inconsistency to artistic director Richard Monette remaining in the job too long (he began in 1994), charging that the org is ripe for revitalization.

That’s due to come in 2008, when a new management structure takes over. Stratford veteran Antoni Cimolino will serve as general director, with Des McAnuff, Marti Maraden and Don Shipley under him as a triumvirate of artistic directors.

Before that, however, there’s one more year of Monette programming to go in 2007, and pundits will be watching to see if his farewell season generates any box office excitement.

The Shaw Festival has faced a different set of problems. That org also reached an attendance high in 2002 with 320,890 visitors. That season was the final one for artistic director Christopher Newton, who had been at the helm since 1980.

Jackie Maxwell took over the following year, and the audience plunged sharply to 269,406 in 2003, inching up slightly to 279,129 in 2004. Maxwell’s programming was largely held to blame, with an emphasis on Canadian works, and the elimination of Newton’s popular cash cow, the annual murder mystery.

After Maxwell’s first two seasons, the fest faced a staggering deficit of $5.6 million, which the board reduced to $3.7 million by the use of a “rainy day” fund. After the last two black-ink seasons, the accumulated deficit has been trimmed to $2.8 million.

In 2005, Maxwell changed her programming drastically and introduced a musical (“Gypsy”) onto the main festival theater stage for the first time. She also consigned Canadian work to the tinier venues. The result was an impressive 6% increase in attendance and a small operating surplus of $44,000.This year, Maxwell again programmed a mainstage musical, “High Society,” and though it received almost universally negative reviews, the show also drew auds, but overall attendance stayed virtually the same.

The question is if the festival has hit an attendance plateau, or if Maxwell can still increase the number of people coming to the Shaw. Her big musical this year is “Mack and Mabel,” which usually has not proved a giant draw elsewhere.

For many years, American auds provided huge infusions of cash for both fests, but that seems to be a thing of the past, perhaps pointing to a decline in this kind of cultural tourism. Whether or not more attractive programming might turn the tide is a problem both orgs will have to address over the next few seasons.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more