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After losing Sears sponsorship, student drama festival gets its second act

Students perform in Toronto in 2015. The Sears Festival lost support from the failing retailer this summer.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The shows will go on: A 71-year-old Canadian high-school theatre festival that looked to be a casualty of Sears Canada's insolvency has found new sources of support to keep the curtain from falling in 2018.

The National Theatre School and stagehand union IATSE will announce on Wednesday that they are joining forces to secure the immediate future of the long-running Ontario Drama Festival, as well as its younger offshoots in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada – after the student-theatre showcases known to generations simply as the "Sears Festival" lost approximately $200,000 in annual sponsorship from the struggling retailer this summer.

Additionally, the National Theatre School plans to gradually take over administration of the festival from long-time executive director Wayne Fairhead, with a five-year plan to secure lasting financial support and, hopefully, expand nationally these performance competitions and showcases that currently involve more than 400 high schools and 15,000 students in Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces.

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"As the next step along the way to a performing arts career for a lot of Sears participants, we know how important the festival is," says Gideon Arthurs, chief executive offier of the Montreal-based National Theatre School. "It's been an incredible, under-the-radar champion for the arts scene for a long time."

Sears Canada and, before that, the retailer Simpson's, have sponsored the extracurricular Ontario Drama Festival since it was founded by Ken Watt in 1946 – and, in recent years, the retailer had expanded its support to similar Atlantic and British Columbia Drama Festivals as well.

In the Ontario iteration, school drama clubs fundraise to send productions of plays to district and regional competitions adjudicated by theatre professionals, before the very best are invited to be presented at a provincial showcase – where around $16,000 in scholarships from the Ken and Ann Watts Memorial Foundation are handed out to students looking to study careers in the arts or arts administration.

The Ontario Drama Festival has provided a training ground for generations of artistic talent – including the likes of filmmaker David Cronenberg, playwright Judith Thompson and actor Rachel McAdams. On the province's stages at the moment, you'll find its alumnae premiering new musicals at Canadian Stage (composer Britta Johnson), staging hot plays at the Coal Mine (director Mitchell Cushman) and performing in classics at the Stratford Festival (Anusree Roy).

To keep the festival going, the National Theatre School has committed $25,000 for this year and will absorb some of its administrative costs, while IATSE's international office has pledged $5,000 and the union expects to raise at least another $20,000 from its 40 locals across Canada. A crowdfunding campaign to be launched soon will make up a further part of the shortfall for this year, while the two organizations lead a search for ongoing private and public support as well as a new title sponsor.

"That which does not kill you makes you stronger," said John Lewis, IATSE international vice-president and director of Canadian affairs, whose union has many members who got their start hanging lights or building sets through the Sears Festival. "It was already a great institution, but this shakeup may actually make everyone wake up and see what's going on – and maybe even improve on what's already there."

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Theatre critic

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

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