The Shaw Festival has an ambitious season planned for its 60th anniversary, and it gets underway next week. There are 22 new shows, and a schedule that starts Feb. 9 and spans the calendar through to Dec. 23.
“Our focus for 2022 is to restore consumer confidence. We want to encourage people to get back out and return to a safe environment,” explains executive director/CEO Tim Jennings.
Early ticket sales were strong when the season was first announced last fall, and then “Omicron slowed things down, but hopefully we’ll make that up,” said Jennings.
He hopes the province's new hotel credit will get more Ontarians coming and staying over. The Ontario Staycation Tax Credit allows Ontario residents to claim 20 per cent of eligible accommodation expenses, to encourage people to explore the province and give a boost to the tourism and hospitality sectors impacted by COVID.
Returning Americans would also help boost audience numbers. While there were what Jennings terms “a fair number” of Americans last summer, it was not on a scale to match the past.
In a normal year, Jennings says 35 to 40 per cent of the audience is from the U.S., and he’s hoping the COVID testing requirements for the border get relaxed. “So we’re chatting with the government about that.”
He concedes, “It may be ambitious to expect a full return this season, but we’re building to restore confidence for '23-24, so we’re not in a lull” coming off COVID restrictions.
“It can take five to seven years to build back audience if we’re not aggressive about it. So the February start is part of that,” he explained.
“This Is How We Got Here” by Native Earth Performing Arts opens on Feb. 9. It’s the first time the Shaw has presented a play by a guest company.
According to Jennings, “it’s a great, great play we’d like our audience to have the opportunity to see, and it’s an amazing company. I’m very hopeful this will be the start of an ongoing relationship.”
Native Earth Performing Arts is Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous performing arts company and the play has won multiple awards. It is described as a story about love, loss and letting go.
Last season, of course, was a COVID roller coaster, as restrictions came and went and shifted unexpectedly.
Jennings acknowledges it was challenging, but said it was “a very successful year, probably the largest theatre season in North America. We put on 600 performances and 17 different productions.”
The company created new outdoor spaces, implemented COVID protocols and learned to pivot, repeatedly. It was a huge amount of work, so Jennings says “staff are excited about the new season, if still a little tired – 600 performances last season was like Olympic-level swimming through molasses.”
The effort is in service of the higher purpose of the festival. Jennings describes it this way: “We work to make the world a better place, to serve basic human needs, like gathering together to share a common narrative, and engaging with each other to talk about it together. These needs aren’t taken care of with online experiences. It just isn’t the same as gathering in person for live performances.”
Much of life the last two years has been virtual and socially distanced, so a robust return to live performance is part of getting back to normal.
Jennings reminds us that “social interaction is a muscle we haven’t exercised for almost two years,” but “people are sticking with us and it sounds like they’re looking forward to coming back.”