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Back in black upon Avon

This year’s Stratford Festival explores the theme of madness, with plays ranging from King Lear (above) to Man of La Mancha to Crazy for You.[Submitted]
This year’s Stratford Festival explores the theme of madness, with plays ranging from King Lear (above) to Man of La Mancha to Crazy for You. [Submitted]
In 2012, the Stratford Festival was reeling from a $3.4 million deficit. In 2013, it enjoyed a $1.4 million surplus. Few could have predicted such a quick return to profitability for Ontario’s most famous theatre group, but novice executive director Anita Gaffney calls it a matter of efficiencies and accessibility.

“We had experienced a significant deficit in 2012, and we knew that was not a sustainable direction for us,” said Gaffney, who worked with artistic director Antoni Cimolino, a fellow first-timer.

One year later, as the festival prepares for its 2014 season and Gaffney prepares for her second year at the helm, a rough guide for how to save a struggling arts festival has emerged:

1) Keep Money In Thy Purse

For 2012, the festival’s budget was down by 3.5 per cent, though not necessarily in ways that were visible. “We really went through the entire organization and looked at how we could save money,” said Gaffney. “There was a wage freeze through a good portion of the organization; we brought some things in house where we might have used a supplier in the past; we reduced the page counts of house programs. All kinds of things that aren’t going to reduce the impact on our patrons, but things that make the operation a bit more efficient.”

2) Createth a Theme

Waiting for Godot, Measure for Measure, Mary Stuart, and Fiddler on the Roof don’t have much in common, but with a little massaging, they all fit under the general purview of the festival’s 2013 theme, Community.

“Fiddler feels like you’re wading into community; Waiting for Godot is one of those ones that makes you question, ‘What is the community?’ They’re neat titles to have against one another,” said Gaffney.

“It’s fun for the patrons to be able to explore a theme and connect shows with one another, and it encourages them to see more plays, because they can see the connections between them.”

This year’s theme, Madness, is broad enough to encompass the whimsy of Alice Through the Looking Glass and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the existential angst of King Lear, King John, and Antony and Cleopatra; the more literal insanity of Man of La Mancha; and, well, Crazy for You.

3) Giveth Some Bells and Whistles

Many of Stratford’s 2013 productions were accompanied by the Stratford Festival Forum, which featured guest speakers and the creative teams discussing the plays with audiences and each other.

“It was another reason for people to spend a bit more time in Stratford and come back, because there were people in the forums who were a draw themselves,” said Gaffney.

With the success of its filmed productions, the festival has also announced its Stratford@Play program, which will film three productions each season. The eventual goal is to have a library of the complete works of Shakespeare, to compete with those BBC videos you saw a lot in high school.

“We have the desire for a library of our work so students in Canada and all over the world can see the kind of Shakespeare we do here. We also feel that our work can stand alongside any other Shakespeare company.”

4) Get Thee to a Bus

The big challenge with any out-of-the-way arts festival is that it’s out-of-the-way. Last year, the festival introduced a bus service between Toronto and Stratford that ran twice a day, with discounted return trip. This year, a bus service will be added in Detroit.

“What we saw was, about half the people riding the bus were new to the festival,” said Gaffney. “It allowed people to come and go much more easily than having to make the drive.”

In addition, the festival introduced 2 for 1 Tuesday pricing, which was deemed successful enough that it will be expanded to Thursday for 2014. Gaffney said the cost-efficient option gave patrons a chance at a more immersive experience. “We’re a festival. Part of the joy of coming to a festival is seeing different kinds of plays and different approaches to the same theme.”

The 2014 Stratford Festival begins April 21 and runs to October 12. Before that, it will hold its second annual Shakespeare Slam in Toronto, with Paul Gross, Steven Page, and Hawksley Workman discussing the Bard on April 23 (William’s 450th birthday).

Tickets can be purchased at stratfordfestival.ca or by calling the box office at 1-800-567-1600.

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