‘Highest total revenues ever,’ says executive director Tim Jennings
“I’m sure I’ve been to 45 of these meetings and this was the most ‘up’ one ever. They’re headed in the right direction,” says local Terri Mactaggart after the Shaw Festival’s 2019 annual general meeting.
The foyer of the Festival Theatre is lined with people-packed chairs. Laura Hughes, the Shaw’s director of communications, says the audience includes members, donors, staff, the Shaw Guild, patrons, board members — the public are all represented. “The doors are open, everyone’s welcome,” she says with a smile.
There are smiles all around at this meeting, reflecting the good news being shared.
Shaw Festival board chair Peter Jewett opens the event with a land acknowledgement, thanking Indigenous peoples for the use of their land, particularly the Neutral, Mississauga and Haudenosaunee tribes for their stewardship.
Jewett says he struggled to choose the best way to sum up 2018: “A very good year?” He settled on the firmly positive: “A terrific year.” Post-show polls, he says, showed that for 90 per cent of the audience, “this is working very well.”
The numbers are very positive: 251,321 patrons at 755 performances; 28 per cent of tickets sold to first-time buyers. The festival increased its total revenues by $1.38 million over 2017, and eliminated its remaining operating debt.
But the jewel in 2018’s crown, according to several speakers, is the dramatic increase in educational programming. Tim Carroll, the festival’s artistic director, says his favourite number is 47,391: “That is how many people engaged with our education department,” which he pointed out is staffed by two very treasured people — “Suzanne Merriam, the head of education, and Megan Gilchrist, who is the entire rest of the education department.”
“It’s beautiful to see what they did on that show,” says Carroll, referring to The Magician’s Nephew, and the hands-on workshop that preceded it for any who chose to pay an extra $5. “Kids — sometimes 16-year-old big hairy boys — proudly wearing ‘Dream Detective’ badges. If you’re not moved by that then you’d better check your pulse because you’re probably a critic.”
The charming and witty artistic director goes on to thank the Shaw Guild for all the work they do as volunteers. “It’s the Guild and their welcome that make this feel like a warm place,” he says in the brightly-lit and hard-surfaced space.
During the question and answer time at the end of the meeting, local resident and Shaw employee Paddy Parr asks with a grin, “Why did the greeters get billing and thanks, and there was no mention of the Guild gardeners?” The more than 70 Guild members who keep the Shaw gardens lush and lovely are promptly given their due thanks.
Carroll speaks last, after Tim Jennings, executive director, makes his joyous pronouncements about the highest total revenues ever, even with the average ticket price unchanged since 2017; about increased membership; about the Slate Family Academy donating another $5 million to be used over the next decade.
TC, as he prefers to be called, says, “Last season felt really ‘festivally,’ with open rehearsals, pop-ups, coffee concerts, secret theatre — things that create the openness to the experience.”
“We have to do things no one else is doing,” Carroll says. “This leads to ‘Marmite productions.’ Nobody’s indifferent to Marmite — you love it or you hate it. We’re going for excellence; we’re going to make Marmite.” He continues, “It’s my nature that they’re my favourite ones.”
“We have to be brave in our choices,” says the British director. “We have to make bold, progressive choices. It’s a balancing act, and we play to our strengths: the golden age of theatre, which coincided with the lifetime of George Bernard Shaw.”
He goes on to look at the long-term future of the festival. “We have to appeal to the next audience with shows like The Magician’s Nephew, which leads to The Horse and His Boy, and to the annual holiday productions.” Carroll stresses this does not mean artistic compromise. “Kids do not need to be talked down to. All the plays we’re doing this year have one thing in common: eloquence.” He describes the performing arts’ great advantage, as he sees it: “Theatre generally civilizes us because it makes us want to talk.”
The community is talking about the Shaw Festival, and its current financial success. “It’s phenomenal,” says an audience member. “They’re doing something right. How many arts associations would be able to say this?”