Stratford Festival season postponement to have big impact on city’s economy, mayor says

The festival says it plans to announce its 2021 season in the new year “when there is a clearer understanding of pandemic performance guidelines.”. Stratford Festival via Twitter

While not necessarily a surprise, the announcement on Monday that Stratford Festival would be putting its 2020 season on hold for the foreseeable future was still a tough pill to swallow, particularly given the festival’s prominent role in the local economy, the city’s mayor says.

The Stratford landmark generates some $135 million in local economic activity, and is directly or indirectly responsible for about 3,000 jobs in the city, said Dan Mathieson.

They are very much a foundational piece of our economy,” Mathieson told 980 CFPL’s Devon Peacock on Wednesday.

“They’re really our major piece for the summer. It will have a lot of impact on tourism and hospitality. Accommodation sector, restaurants, retail will be affected. And of course, the services that work into those businesses as well.”

READ MORE: Stratford Festival puts 2020 season on hold

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The festival’s season, which was set to run April 11 to Nov. 1, is among the scores of events in the region and across the country that have had to be either delayed or outright cancelled as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Mathieson said he believes the festival’s leadership team made the right decision, adding the situation was inevitable given the ongoing restrictions placed on gatherings under the province’s emergency orders.

The festival was set to roll out 15 productions in four theatres, including Colm Feore’s “Richard III” as the inaugural show at the new $70-million Tom Patterson Theatre.

Colm Feore in a promotional image for Richard III. Creative Direction by Punch & Judy Inc. with photography by David Cooper via Stratford Festival

The plan had been to open and dedicate the new theatre, named after the festival’s late founder, on June 11 to mark his 100th birthday, according to artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

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Other major shows included the first major production of “Chicago” outside of the United Kingdom and New York in more than 30 years.

Now, the festival’s 2020 offerings will likely have to be delayed until the new year, Cimolino said in an online video, noting the festival is open to putting something on stage in the fall or winter if the opportunity arises.

The festival is expected to face a $40-million budget shortfall it hopes to make up with assistance from the government as well as community donations, said a festival spokesperson.

READ MORE: More than half of Canadian companies saw earnings drop amid COVID-19: Statcan

Given the economic fallout that’s expected to hit Stratford, population 31,500, Mathieson says the city has launched a mental health fund through the United Way to help residents get through the stress of the pandemic and the uncertain economic future.

“Remembering that the Stratford Festival started in 1953 because the railway shops in Stratford were closing, it’s one of those opportunities for us to not only reflect and build a better future and think about how we can improve what we do with the theatre, but what other things can we do in the summer months that can help us get through this?”

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Looking toward recovery, Mathieson says one of his three main areas of focus right now is to make sure the city takes the necessary steps to align with the frameworks announced by Premier Doug Ford on Monday as part of the province’s reopening plans.

Two, it’s making sure that whenever the theatre comes back… that we have got through this and that we’ve got the support from the senior levels of government around marketing, and getting sure that we get people back enjoying festivals throughout southwestern Ontario and across Canada,” he said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Ontario set to release ‘sector-specific’ workplace reopening guidelines

“And three, that we take the time on the recovery to make sure that individuals that are not working in our community get the skills training… the supports they need so that they can pivot and transition.”

Amid the pandemic, the Stratford Festival says it plans to upload filmed versions of 12 of its most successful Shakespeare productions to its YouTube channel. The first of them, King Lear, was made public on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. It will be available until mid-May.

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Elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of Ottawa’s Bluesfest, the Calgary Stampede, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, and folks festivals in Edmonton and Winnipeg.

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