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Stratford Festival ‘back on track’ with attendance boost, surplus in 2015

Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino is seen inside the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. in this March 6, 2013 file photo.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Sound of Music led to the sweet smell of success at the Stratford Festival last summer.

At an annual general meeting on Saturday morning in Stratford, Ont., executive director Anita Gaffney released the results from the repertory theatre company's 2015 season – with overall attendance of 475,742 boosted by director Donna Feore's "wildly popular" production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical leading to a healthy surplus of $559,000.

"We're getting back on track again," Gaffney said, in an interview ahead of the AGM. "I'm delighted with the results."

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Not long ago, the Stratford Festival went off-piste – landing $3.4-million in the red in 2012, the final year of Des McAnuff's term as artistic director and Antoni Cimolino's tenure as general director.

But three seasons into Cimolino's artistic directorship, with Gaffney in the executive-director chair, that deficit is now almost buried. Three consecutive surpluses have totalled $3.1-million.

While attendance has yet to rise back to the half a million Stratford has as an internal goal, this year 102,000 tickets were sold to patrons who had never been to Stratford previously, suggesting a healthy level of renewal in the festival's audience base.

Gaffney chalks that up to Stratford's varied programming – and its dedicated buses from Toronto, bringing in car-free or traffic-resistant theatre-lovers who previously gave the festival a detour.

Stratford wouldn't provide a play-by-play breakdown, but, of 13 productions, five were extended to meet demand: Kate Hennig's new play The Last Wife; Ben Jonson's The Alchemist; Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists (in a new adaptation by Michael Healey); and both Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Carousel and The Sound of Music.

Cimolino was gratified by the enthusiasm of audiences for less-familiar classics The Alchemist and The Physicists. His take-away: "Many of our audiences have seen a lot of theatre and they want to see new things."

Indeed, while Stratford is widely known as a company dedicated to William Shakespeare (and is partway through a project to film the entire canon), the Bard's works were responsible for about 30 per cent of ticket sales in 2015 – the same as other classics and contemporary dramas. The two musicals accounted for 40 per cent of the attendance.

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Cimolino noted that job action by Ontario teachers did affect school field trips and, thus, the numbers for curriculum classics like Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew in 2015. "The Shakespeare did well across the board, but we had a significant change in school attendance," says Cimolino.

The Stratford Festival's 2016 season holds its first preview on April 19 – with A Chorus Line, Macbeth and the stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love on the bill this year.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

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

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