The importance of receiving almost $1 million from the province can’t be overstated, says Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw Festival.
The Ontario government is giving a total of $25 million to the 140 organizations in the arts sector, of which the Shaw is getting $999,593.
With the exception of virtual programming last season and small in-person concerts last summer and fall, the festival season was cancelled, bit by bit, until it became obvious in July there could be no stage productions offered in 2020.
When Gypsy, the largest production of the season held over from last year, was cancelled for 2021 as well, Jennings was left to find ways to keep about 90 people involved in the show employed. The funding announcement “was fantastic news,” he says.
“This new funding will help underwrite and stabilize the jobs of our artists, artisans and arts workers as we pivot and work through the shifting landscape of this coming year, as we did through all of 2020.”
Jennings says one way the festival hopes to do that will be with outdoor concerts and events this summer, although there is much to work out before that can happen. They had planned to do that anyway, but may be able to do more, thanks to the funding, which will stabilize operations and underwrite employment, hopefully lessening the impact for the artists and crews who were expected to be involved with Gypsy.
“We have to figure out what we can do to protect them.”
Jennings says the provincial investment is also important for the “economic success and stability of our communities, as well as their cultural health.”
He feels the weight of responsibility of drawing visitors to the region and to the town, for the success of the local tourism industry, and as one of the region’s largest employers. The festival, he says, is “an economic generator that anchors thousands of related tourism jobs for our local wineries, hotels, restaurants and retail shops.”
The six other shows of 2021 are scheduled to go ahead, with two more holiday offerings in the fall.
Charlie’s Aunt, the first on the calendar, is expected to open in previews May 1.
That will, of course, depend on provincial restrictions, based on the progression of the pandemic, but Jennings has a year of experience behind him when it comes to pivoting from one plan to another.
It was easier last season, when decisions were based on the number of cases and it was easier to predict what would happen, but this year, there is the arrival of vaccinations on one side, bringing great news, and on the other, fear of the variants causing a spike in cases.
“I’m a planner, and it’s really hard when I have no idea of what next week or the week after that will look like,” he says. There are “all sorts of contingency plans” in the works, but at the moment, they are moving forward and getting people back to work in preparation for their May opening, “under huge safety protocols. In order to open a show in May for 50 people, we need to get started now.”