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Aug. 11, 2020 | Tuesday
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COVID-19: Shaw waiting for share of $500M from Ottawa
Shaw Festival CEO Tim Jennings. (Supplied)

Financially scraping by, week-to-week, festival hopes to return to stage in July

The Shaw Festival is counting on the federal government’s promise of $500 million for the arts, culture and sports sectors to help the theatre company make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake festival is scraping by, week-to-week, extending its payroll and continuing to prepare for the day when it can return to the stage, says Shaw CEO Tim Jennings.

But receiving a portion of the $500 million Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised last week is crucial to the helping the Shaw out of the financial hole caused by the pandemic, Jennings said in an interview.

The festival remains in the dark about how much it might receive – and when.

“We are curious as to how it is going to be divvied up and used and what the allowances for that money are going to be,” Jennings said.

“We’re sort of like the miners on one side of the mountain digging a tunnel toward the government digging from the other direction and hoping we meet in the middle in time.”

The festival is a major Niagara tourism draw and the second-largest theatre company in the country, behind only Stratford.

But right now, “We need a little bit of surety about the timing” of government help.

“Weeks matter at this point. We’re working week-to-week and trying to keep finding the resources we need to go on to the next week. We are definitely in the position where without help we can’t sustain forever,” he said.

For the Shaw’s staff, “We have committed to another week and another week. Every week we commit to another week out. It’s our plan to keep doing that until the government catches up with us and we get some help.’’

He doesn’t foresee any immediate layoffs, “nor do we foresee rehiring a lot of the folks who rely on us for summer work,” at least until full details of government program are known.

Another big concern is if either the provincial or municipal shutdowns get extended, Jennings said. Right now, the province has ordered most businesses closed until mid-May and the Town of NOTL has banned large gatherings until June 30.

If the town’s order is extended, “That starts to really impact what we can accomplish this summer.”

The company needs about five to six weeks “from the time we’re allowed back into the building to when we can get the performances on stage,” Jennings said.

He’s hoping to be back on stage by July as the company has so far lost almost one-third of its 750 performances to the pandemic shutdown.

The festival is operating now on its line of credit. Its bank has been very helpful and Jennings is confident that with government and other aid, the financials will get sorted out later in the year.

In addition, he said the Shaw is one of the few Canadian theatre companies that purchased pandemic insurance, not so much for a situation like COVID-19, but “in case 10 or 15 members of the cast got sick with the flu or something.”

“We took out pandemic insurance back in 2017 and we don’t know exactly the extent of the claim yet, but we know we are in a claim situation and trying to figure out with the insurer what that looks like.”

Having the insurance “has given us some choices other folks haven’t been able to make,” but Jennings knows the claim will only cover a portion of the costs the festival incurs.

He said the festival has been in touch with area MPs, all of whom have been supportive and report hearing the same question from people: “ ‘When is the Shaw Festival going to open again?’ So, it’s proving how much of a tourism draw we are for the area.”

In the theatre, careers are built on “hopes and dreams a little bit and so we’re trying to keep optimistic during all this,” Jennings noted.

“Everybody’s just been working like crazy to make this as painless as something this crazy can be.”

He praised the “incredible support” of the Shaw’s patrons and donors, “many of whom are helping us out by either committing to a pledge now or moving some of their tickets to a donation or, in a much larger way, some of our donors have advanced their donations this year or increased them. So, it’s been very heartening.”

Jennings noted, “For a lot of people, our mission to really connect humans through art is resonating now more than ever. People are thinking about how much they miss the live experience, how much they miss gathering together, how much they miss that shared conversation about a show over a glass of wine. I think it has reamplified for people the value of live art.”

He said he hears daily from people wishing the festival well and looking forward to the shows resuming.

In his 35-year career in arts management, Jennings said he’s seen a lot of emergencies and disasters. “Nothing quite like this, but there are aspects of all of those that have given me some hope and some thoughts about how to approach this work as we’ve been going through it.”

He said he feels proud and fortunate to have a team of senior managers who are among the most experienced in the North American theatre industry.

Like many companies during the pandemic, “We have a 4 o’clock senior staff meeting every day, which is about 23 people, who come in on Zoom and from all areas of the organization to report on what’s been happening and to talk through issues and to try to figure out things.”

Looking ahead, while holding rehearsals via Zoom will never match the live experience, being forced to work remotely has opened company members’ eyes to new opportunities once things return to normal.

Jennings can foresee using technology to expand the Shaw’s reach into the education system.

As well, maybe there could be master classes for the ensemble. For instance, “a director who can’t come here from, say, Czechoslovakia, but could do a master class (on Zoom) with our artists in a way we’d be quite used to.”

“I see all sorts of opportunities in the socially distant spaces but they’re not as good as the live ones. There are some things we can do in the emergency and then there are some things we will learn to do from distance and there are some things we don’t want to be doing from distance.”

Ultimately, even if it has more of an online presence, the Shaw is and will continue to be a venue for live art. “What I don’t want to become, and I think is important, is bad television.”

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