Saturday, March 16, 2013

Theatre For Thought, March 16, 2013

joel fishbane

Dateline Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2013. News came out this week, via the Globe and Mail, that according to figures which will be released at the company’s AGM on March 16, attendance in 2012 fell to record lows. According to the Globe, the company currently has a $3.4 million dollar deficit. Stratford opened its doors to the Globe and gave a preview of what to expect during the first year with new AD Antoni Cimolino at the helm, and while Cimolino is promising much, the most significant development is the new daily shuttle bus that will transport theatre-goers to and from Toronto.

Once only offered on Saturdays the shuttle is now offered on all performance days, with two departure times from Toronto and two from Stratford. This makes day trips to Stratford possible and addresses what has long been an issue for Ontario’s summer festivals: accessibility. It’s hard enough to get audiences when your theatre is only a short drive away. When you’re in an entirely different town, the challenge becomes that much greater.

For several seasons, for instance, they’ve been offering discount programs to make tickets more affordable. 

Ontario’s summer festivals, located in small towns that are not easily accessible without a car, have long battled with the perception that they are theatre for the middle-to-upper-class. The perception of these festivals as havens for the theatrical elite is one Stratford’s administration has tried to combat. For several seasons, for instance, they’ve been offering discount programs to make tickets more affordable. Last year they programmed the family musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and this year they have continued the trend towards more guaranteed crowd-pleasers. 2013 will see such classics as Romeo and Juliet, Fiddler on the Roof and Waiting for Godot, as well as the rock opera Tommy, which first appeared on Broadway in 1993. 

The shuttle bus program is another step towards transforming Stratford into a theatre attractive to a new sort of clientele. Aside from just tempting people with new productions of old favourites, the shuttle bus program is offering a bridge between audiences and theatres that’s much easier to cross. Considering the relatively low price of bus tickets ($20 for a round trip ticket), the program is another step towards larger accessibility. 

Given that Stratford offers rush tickets at up to 50% off, it is now entirely possible for a single person to attend a production of Blithe Spirit for $44.50, including transport; on a Tuesday, when some performances are 2 for 1, a couple could attend Measure for Measure for $65.25, transport included. Drivers will pick up patrons at the theatre, which means that even if a production runs long, you won’t miss your bus. And since the last shuttle leaves Stratford at 11 PM, it is possible to leave Toronto in the morning and return in time to catch the last subway home. 

Stratford’s bus solution isn’t perfect – anyone who doesn’t live in Toronto will still have to worry about accommodations and other travel woes – but it does represent a step in the right direction. Theatre festivals are a peculiar business in that they advertise a product that exists at a great distance from the vast majority of their clientele; the easier theatres make the journey, the happier their customers will be. It probably won’t be long before the Shaw Festival follows suit - at Shaw’s AGM in January, it was reported that although the festival finished in the black, there was an 11% reduction in attendance. With a  little luck, affordable public transportation to Canada’s two major festivals will one day be standard fare.

For more information about Stratford Direct visit

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