Stratford Festival ticket sales up over last year

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Antoni Cimolino



By Laura Cudworth, The Beacon Herald

July 26, 2013

It’s a simple philosophy but one that might turn the fortunes of the Stratford Festival around.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s mantra for his first season at the artistic helm has been, “Give them something they can’t get anywhere else.”

“If we try to compete by being like everybody else, and I hope this never happens to the Festival, no one will come because they can get that back home,” he said.

“The idea behind the Stratford Festival is to take the world’s best plays, work with the best people under the best conditions, it’s a great idea.”

Cimolino isn’t the first artistic director to take over at a time of financial difficulty and he’s been around long enough that he’s experienced highs and lows. Last season was a low in terms of revenue. The Festival experienced a 5% drop in attendance which resulted in a $3.4 million deficit.

Cimolino’s response was a strong playbill and affordable peripheral activities through The Forum—an eclectic program of music, comedy, panels and guest speakers.

So far, it looks promising.

The Festival is about 32,000 ticket sales ahead of last year at this time, said executive director Anita Gaffney. Part of that is reflected in the 11% increase in the American market.

“That’s wonderful to see. They tend to come for a longer period of time and stay in the community,” Gaffney said.

Anecdotally speaking there are more Americans staying in bed and breakfasts and they’re staying a little bit longer, said Murray Sanderson, president of the Stratford and Area Bed & Breakfast Association.

Americans made up a substantial part of the Festival’s revenue for years. The after effects of 911, including the need for passports to cross the border, and a weak economy have made drawing in U.S. patrons tough for the past several years.

Many of the hurdles are still in place so why are they starting to come back?

“It’s a combination of things. Maybe they’re feeling a little more comfortable about the economy and (appreciate) the strong classical content and variety of the season. They’re really drawn by the programming this year,” Gaffney said.

The Forum is a big attraction for Americans too because of the time they spend in the city.

The Festival has been offering “two-for-one Tuesdays” to bring more people in mid-week and that seems to be working.

“Its been a little bit of a different season, I can tell you that,” Sanderson said. “We’re getting a lot mid-week, especially Tuesdays. Tuesday is usually very quiet for us but this year it’s very busy.”

Good programming is one thing but inadequate train service is another. To solve transportation issues for people in Toronto who don’t drive, the Festival hired a transportation company to manage a bus. Gaffney acknowledges it’s a loss leader for the theatre—tickets are only $20 round trip—but it’s worth it to get patrons in the door.

“The bus has been really good for us. There’s strong use of it and we’re seeing just over half of the people using it are new to us,” Gaffney said.

There’s been a surprise spin off too. Some of the people taking the bus are tourists to Toronto who have added Stratford to their vacations because it’s easy to get here now.

“We have marketed them but we didn’t expect the pick up would be what it has been,” Gaffney said.

The reviews in various media have been favourable, for the most part. Perhaps what’s more important are the reviews coming from regular patrons who pass on their thoughts to family and friends. Sanderson those reviews are better than last year’s overall.

Cimolino had no sense of how the season might be received until after opening week. He described the winter as “nerve wracking” wondering if patrons would come.

“In effect it’s like having a baby and you don’t want anyone to tell you your baby is ugly,” he said.

That’s not what he’s hearing. Mary Stuart, which he directed, as been extended three times and he’s been told Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best productions at the theatre in decades among other accolades.

It’s been a good inaugural year.

“On the simplest level it’s an enormous relief and on another level it’s the best thing that could happen to any person,” Cimolino said.

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