When Tim Jennings speaks about the Shaw Festival, his commitment and strong sense of responsibility are evident — to the continued success of the festival, to all those who rely on it for their paycheque, and to the patrons who are missing it.
It’s also quickly obvious, though, that the bigger picture also weighs heavily on the executive director of the festival. He feels deeply the impact of the festival locally, and the ripple effect of the cancellation of the season so far, in town and across the region.
Unlike the Stratford Festival and Toronto’s Mirvish Productions, Jennings still has hope there will be performances on Shaw stages this season, but not before August.
“In keeping with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s municipal order limiting organized mass gatherings,” says Jennings in an announcement Friday, all plays and public events are cancelled until the end of July.
Jennings has been working with Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who gathered the head of the Shaw, Paul MacIntyre of Vintage Inns, who is the chair of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, Del Rollo, a wine industry leader, and Richard Wall, president of the Virgil Business Association, to help the Town’s emergency control group through the recovery period.
The need for the shutdown extension came as no surprise, Jennings says, and he agrees with it. “It is quite right to restrict mass gatherings, and the smart thing to do.”
Financially, a forward-thinking insurance policy that covers disasters such as the pandemic, taken out when Jennings arrived at the Shaw in 2016, is helping to keep open the possibility of offering stage performances this season, he says. “It’s giving us the resources to be able to go on in ways others haven’t,” he says.
In the meantime, another smart move of suspending contract workers and rehiring them as temporary, full-time employees under the federal wage subsidy program, has kept them close by, employed, and ready to return to the stage as soon as it is safe to do so, and emergency orders from the Town and Province permit.
Opening to the public, even in some limited way, is important not just for the Shaw and its family, but to help jumpstart the Niagara economy, and to improve the lives and livelihood of the thousands of people who rely on and benefit from the tourism sector, says Jennings.
“Every day we look around and say, ‘how can we help?’ A lot of us are focused on making this easier.”
Everyone is making the best decisions they can with the resources available, understanding the economic impact to the community as the recovery unfolds, he says.
There could be a tipping point when the Shaw may have to cancel the season, but there are so many moving parts that are out of their control, it’s impossible to say when it would be.
Every day, he says, artistic director Tim Carrol is looking at the possibilities, and there are discussions about the many scenarios that will depend on when they’re told they can open, and what they’re able to do — without having any way of knowing how much lead time they might be given.
And every day, Jennings is asked questions “I wish I had the answer to, and I ask for patience.”
At any given time, he could have 100 different answers to each question, all dependant on factors out of his control, all the while it could be the one answer they have not yet considered, in response to a provincial announcement that is not what they have anticipated.
While they wait for that direction from the Province, the 80 artists hired back as education and community outreach specialists (ECOS) — or, as Jennings says, what they are calling the new ecosystem — are working at engaging the public, strengthening the festival’s connection to its community, by engaging Shaw patrons and developing resources for education partners through online events — initiatives Carroll was interested in implementing long before the pandemic.
“We see this as a huge positive coming out of this time.”
While it’s not the same as working toward onstage productions, says Jennings, the artists are happy to have the work that at least allows them to engage with the public.
Jennings says they’ve “pivoted pretty well — every time we come up against a new roadblock, we’ve found a solution.”
But as “proud and happy” as they are to have maintained a connection to the community, they’re “desperate” to get back to what they do best, providing live theatre, abiding by whatever regulations necessary to keep people safe, not only for Shaw patrons but for the future economic recovery so many depend on. “We’re working on doing that any way we can,” says Jennings.
The Shaw Festival administrative and box offices are closed by provincial mandate until June 9. Ticket holders to cancelled performances will have the full value of their tickets held on their account. A small team of box office representatives is currently working remotely to contact ticket holders to discuss options such as holding money on account for future exchanges, converting the ticket value to a charitable donation or issuing a refund.