Last week was a good news-bad news time for the Shaw Festival, but as always, CEO Tim Jennings is moving forward on a positive note.
With news of a $400,000 grant from the federal government for outdoor performances announced last Tuesday, the festival has kicked into high gear to make that a reality, with live musical revues expected to begin next week.
They could run into November, Jennings said, and be staged in the beautiful gardens of the festival theatre, with tables and umbrellas to “make it a pleasing experience” for patrons, or at wineries and other outdoor venues around town.
The Shaw has a portable staging system, he says, and could also make use of a portable tent, especially moving into the fall. “We’ve been running to try to figure out what this could look like.”
With the lack of tourists this summer, offering activities during the “cusp season,” this fall and next spring, becomes especially important for the theatre and the town. It’s easier to do in NOTL, with its milder climate, Jennings says, and the outdoor performances will hopefully attract out-of-towners who may also enjoy other activities, such as visiting wineries, taking bike tours, eating at local restaurants and staying overnight. “It will make a great staycation,” he adds.
Since the reason for the federal grant and the goal of the Shaw at this point is to bring visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake, the performances will be kept close to home. “This is primarily intended to drive economic recovery to the town, since it is so clearly impacted by the reduction of tourism locally,” says Jennings.
Although the Shaw had been working out possible scenarios for outdoor performances for months, they received very little notice of the funding, learning about it the night before last week’s public announcement, which wasn’t what they expected to hear.
Jennings says he’s still hopeful there will be more funding opportunities. Although the grant was welcome news, they were hoping for more — it isn’t enough to finance the performances.
“We’ll spend more than we’re getting,” he says, but glad to do it as an engine of economic recovery for the town, and also “to make some good art. We’re very excited about that, and we’re hoping to become a model for other places, especially in rural communities, that can follow,” with government or community funding support.
Rehearsals started Monday. “We’re jumping in on both feet, moving as fast as we can” to get performances underway, although there may be changes as they go along.
They intend to start small, with audiences of 50 people, and expect tickets to be snapped up quickly. “Tell people to watch social media” for ticket announcements, he says, adding he hopes to expand performances for crowds of 100 people as they move forward, as permitted by the Province.
“If the school openings are successful, we may be able to expand to that number. Then the real question is, how will we do it.”
They’ve managed to keep some people employed all summer, including actors, stage managers and others, with government support, but that is expected to change in September, says Jennings. The outdoor performances will likely only involve about 12 to 14 people, although if they can offer larger special events, those could require more help.
The bad news that came the day after the announcement of federal funding was that the Shaw has cancelled its 2020 season. The exception is A Christmas Carol, which remains on the calendar to be performed at the Royal George Theatre beginning Nov. 8 and running until Dec. 23, with activities for audience members such as Backstage Secrets and Create your own Victorian Christmas Card also scheduled.
Jennings says they had applied for funding to underwrite indoor performances for small audiences, which wouldn’t be financially viable without some help from upper levels of government. That didn’t happen, and they couldn’t afford to proceed with the season under the current Provincial guidelines.
He is anticipating using the 2020 Shaw season, as it was intended to be staged, to be the “building blocks” of the 2021 season.
They will make use of what they have already designed and built for 2020, to cut costs, but the smaller season is expected to mean fewer jobs.
“We can’t afford to do it in its entirety,” he says, “and we don’t know what the physical restrictions will be. They could be limited to 30 per cent capacity.”
Anything less than 60 per cent will cost them money and require outside funding, making government grants and community donations especially important as they move toward next season.