Stratford Festival faces $20-million budget shortfall despite cost cutting

TORONTO — The Stratford Festival says despite efforts to rescue its finances from the impact of COVID-19 the organization still has a $20-million hole in its annual budget.

Carol Stephenson, chairwoman of the board at the festival, has asked the House of Commons standing committee on finance for $8 million to help get the arts organization back on its feet.

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She says the remaining $12-million shortfall for the year can be raised through donations from the private sector.

"It pains all of us to be in this position, it's not our usual manner, and one that we will not become accustomed to," she explained Thursday over a web conference.

"But because of this pandemic, a business model that has worked for decades had been turned on its head."

Stephenson outlined measures the festival — a huge economic driver for the Stratford, Ont., area — has taken in recent weeks to recover from a projected $40-million deficit over two years.

Stratford was scheduled 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, before the closure of its theatres in March.

The non-profit organization turned to ticketholders following the cancellations and asked if they'd consider donating the value of their cancelled tickets for a tax receipt.

Stephenson said those efforts helped, as did cuts to overhead expenses, drawing from the festival's endowment, a $6-million line of credit and a 50 per cent salary cut for its executive director and artistic director.

However, she added that without ticket sales the organization struggles to maintain its model, which is 94-per cent self-funded.

Roughly six per cent of Stratford's annual budget comes from the provincial and federal governments.

Anita Gaffney, executive director of the festival, emphasized that without its presence in the city, there would be a "massive impact" on the local business that would render the area "a ghost town."

She said beyond tourism, the Stratford Festival is also a driver of local construction jobs, accountants, lawyers, and other services.

"It has a massive impact on not just Stratford, but southwestern Ontario," she said.

"We know that this is a major catalyst."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2020.

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