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A surplus and high attendance: A standing ovation for Stratford’s success

Stratford Festival’s artistic director Antonio Cimolino said the rise in tickets sold to Shakespeare’s works starring a young crop of actors is ‘a testament to the possibilities of the future.’

Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If you're looking for some good news in Canadian theatre, you'll find it at the Stratford Festival's annual general meeting on Saturday.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney are set to announce two magic numbers pertaining to the Ontario repertory theatre's 2016 season: a surplus of $687,000 and attendance of 512,016.

To understand the real significance of those figures, you'll have to go back to four years ago – when Stratford announced an operating deficit of $3.4-million, the biggest in its history, and attendance of 432,240, the lowest since 1986, for its 2012 season, the final one programmed by former artistic director Des McAnuff. At the time, Cimolino and Gaffney – who had just stepped into their current roles – set a goal of eliminating the deficit and getting attendance back up over the half-million mark.

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And now, after four consecutive surpluses and a host of audience-boosting initiatives, they can say they've done both.

"We're very pleased with the results," Gaffney says. "We did set out a plan and we feel we've had some measure of success … but we're also charged up about going forward and continuing to find innovative ways to get people to Stratford and get Stratford out to the world."

Not everything is always in the festival's control when it comes to attracting visitors, of course – the lower Canadian dollar has likely played a not-insignificant role in U.S. attendance growing 15 per cent since 2012 to 108,501. But visitors from the Greater Toronto Area are up 14 per cent, too, and that's just year-over-year – with almost 20,000 visitors getting to Stratford from Toronto in 2016 on the bus service the festival launched in 2013.

This Stratford Direct bus has been such a success that the Shaw Festival – the other big repertory festival in Ontario – will launch its own bus service from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake this season.

If anyone was worried that the Stratford in HD project to film the festival's William Shakespeare productions and show them in cinemas and on television might hurt in-person attendance, the proof is in the pudding that's not the case.

Last year saw a 25-per-cent year-over-year rise in tickets sold to Shakespeare's works – with Cimolino's own production of Macbeth (which could be seen in Canadian movie theatres this week) a particularly good seller. That show starred a young crop of actors – Ian Lake, Krystin Pellerin and Michael Blake – rather than established stars, a fact that Cimolino finds particularly encouraging. "That's a testament to the possibilities of the future – there's something very invigorating about that," he says.

The so-called "youthquake" that hit Stratford last season also extended to audiences – with school trips to Shakespeare and the family show The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe helping bring in 80,000 spectators under the age of 18.

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Cimolino was happy with the British stage adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel (directed by Tim Carroll, now artistic director at the Shaw Festival, and extended multiple times) – but is eager to commission new works by Canadian writers to fill the family slot in the future. "There's a limited number of these kinds of plays aimed at the whole family – and we need to make that a bigger pool and a Canadian pool," he says.

Indeed, when it comes to the bottom line, the Stratford Festival hasn't been saving its way to success – the budget grew year over year, due to an expanded playbill, more new play development and more workshops in what Cimolino calls "the Laboratory." Revenue went up from $60.1-million in 2015 to $62.4-million in 2016 – government funding staying roughly flat and accounting for only $3.7-million of that.

This all means that Stratford is in a healthy financial position to continue exploring replacing the Tom Patterson – its third-biggest theatre, currently housed on a cramped site shared with the local Kiwanis Club. "The building is very delicate structurally," says Gaffney, who adds that a new one would try to keep the Tom Patterson's intimate feel, but allow for an expanded front of house including more bathrooms and space to house the Stratford's Forum lectures and activities.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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