Stratford and Shaw cautiously optimistic

Canada’s two heavyweight summer theater festivals — Stratford and Shaw — can be viewed as a solid indicator of how much disposable income is out there in North America. So with both orgs predicting break-even budgets for 2009, the current season echoes the cautious optimism being felt throughout the economy.

With the cost of gas, meals on the road and overnight accommodation factoring into the equation, on top of hefty ticket prices, it was easy to predict both fests would take a hit from the recession. Damage, however, appears to be fairly contained.

Shaw, buffered by substantial advance sales on the strength of artistic director Jackie Maxwell’s recent seasons, was able to finish out 2008 with a C$222,000 ($204,000) surplus, while Stratford — with early audiences taking a wait-and-see approach to the new regime headed by Des McAnuff and Antoni Cimolino — took it on the chin with a $2.8 million deficit, the fest’s first in 15 seasons.

This year, both orgs are on a more level playing field, offering crowdpleasers like Shaw’s remounting of all 10 plays from Noel Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30″ cycle, while Stratford led with a pair of hit musicals in “West Side Story” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (both extended through Nov. 8).

Neither fest took many artistic chances, although Stratford did mount a trio of Canadian plays on its Studio Stage, and Shaw turned a rehearsal hall into a fourth performance venue for a well-attended production of John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

So far this year, Stratford’s box office is running 3.6% behind in revenue from 2008, while Shaw is 5% in arrears from last season.

Both orgs admit they started the year with depressingly low advance sales, but as generally positive reviews for most shows began appearing and the world financial picture improved slightly, things began brightening up.

Stratford’s sales have increased 75% since previews started in May, with both Canadian and American numbers on the upswing, although the Canuck figures remain higher.

Over at Shaw, audiences have continued along their traditional divide of 60% Canadian to 40% American, although reps admit that in the last two months alone, sales from the Toronto market for the fest’s major hit, a revival of Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday,” have risen by 40%.

Credit for this can be attributed in major part to an initiative from the federal government’s Ministry of Tourism, which gave both orgs a substantial financial injection this season, conditional on it being used exclusively for marketing.

Shaw poured a large chunk of its $1.9 million grant into tubthumping “Born Yesterday” on buses, billboards and radio ads throughout the Toronto area, while Stratford pumped much of its $2.8 million into trumpeting the lauded remount of “West Side Story.”

Industry insiders have noted that both organizations chose to take the money and push the proven hits further, rather than trying to swell attendance at their less-popular shows.

There are also specific factors contributing to each fest’s economic challenges. Most of Stratford’s American numbers come from the Detroit area, where the trials of the auto industry have had a disastrous effect on the event’s traditional Yank audience base.

And Shaw is suffering traffic headaches from two directions: Lengthy border lines at Niagara Falls have impacted American playgoers, while congestion on the Queen Elizabeth Way from Toronto has hindered local auds from making the journey.

While Shaw has not yet unveiled its season for next year, Stratford has announced that Christopher Plummer will return to the fest as Prospero in “The Tempest.” McAnuff will direct that production along with “As You Like It,” featuring Brent Carver. Also on the bill is John Doyle directing “Kiss Me, Kate,” and a new production of “Evita” from helmer Gary Griffin, hot off this season’s “West Side Story.”

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