Stratford Festival has a hit season on its hands

Anita Gaffney talks turnaround for Canada’s biggest theatre festival

By: Entertainment, Published on Fri Jul 05 2013 from

anita_gaffney_in_theatre.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox“Things are looking up,” says Anita Gaffney, executive director of the Stratford Festival.

That could be the understatement of the season.

After spending a scary 2012 season sinking deeper and deeper into red ink, eventually posting a deficit of $3.4 million, Canada’s biggest theatre festival is enjoying a fiscal comeback that deserves a standing ovation.

With the season not yet at the halfway point, the festival has sold 336,000 tickets, which is 32,000 more than it had at this time last year, and is on target to balance its $58 million budget.

The biggest demand is for plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where the season has already been extended for a week.

Gaffney, who joined the festival in 1991 as an assistant publicist, worked her way up, becoming the director of marketing and earning an MBA at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

After the 2012 season, Gaffney took over as Stratford’s top administrator when the former executive director, Antoni Cimolino, became artistic director, succeeding Des McAnuff (who presided for five seasons, starting in 2008).

“Antoni has played a huge part in this turnaround,” she says. “He selected a playbill that really resonates with our audience and people are excited by his vision.”

No doubt choosing the plays, the actors and the other members of the creative team is crucial. But there are many other factors involved in the art of filling seats and balancing the books.

Perhaps the most startling factor is that ticket sales to visitors from the U.S., after declining alarmingly for a decade, have increased by 11 per cent so far this year.

Why? Americans are feeling better about a looming economic recovery, but Gaffney thinks they are lured by intriguing shows they could not see closer to home.

A restaurant owner I know believes the biggest factor in the turnaround is a change of how scheduling is done, filling more mid-week slots and providing more choice for people who stay two or three days and want to see several productions.

As Gaffney explains, the festival has introduced a number of touches that have cumulatively boosted attendance.

One of them was to bring back its two-for-one Tuesdays program, a draw for bargain-seekers.

Another is the development of the Forum, a festival within the festival featuring debates, mini-performances and discussions, offering audiences a way to explore the plays and players before or after seeing a production, thus encouraging visitors to extend their stay in Stratford.

For the first time this year, Toronto theatregoers who do not drive cars and can’t afford limos have an easy and inexpensive way to experience the festival. That’s because of a new express bus, which can whisk you from Front St. near the Intercontinental Hotel to your Stratford show for $10 each way.

Earlier this year, the dispute between Ontario schoolteachers and the Ontario government threatened Stratford’s group sales to schools, a program that not only fills thousands of seats but plays a key role in developing audiences of the future. But that problem has vanished and, impressively, school sales have increased 17 per cent this year compared to 2012.

And in the fascinating category of “the return of lapsed patrons” (meaning former ticket buyers who have not been to Stratford in recent years), the number this season is more than double the 2012 figure.

At this stage, Gaffney is cautiously optimistic, rather like the manager of a baseball team leading the league at the all-star break but not yet counting on winning the World Series. But the evidence suggests that the Stratford Festival will wind up the 2013 season as a big winner.

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