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Road To Reopening: Stratford Festival On Reopening, Streaming At Home, & More!


Find out how the festival launched the Stratford@Home streaming service, and their plans moving into Ontario's third stage of reopening.

Road To Reopening: Stratford Festival On Reopening, Streaming At Home, & More!

BroadwayWorld is checking in with theaters around the country as they prepare to reopen this summer. Next in our series we check in with Ontario's Stratford Festival Executive Director Anita Gaffney.

Since being appointed Executive Director of the Stratford Festival in 2012, Ms Gaffney has guided the Festival towards financial stability while supporting the introduction of a number of new initiatives including The Forum, The Laboratory, the HD film series and the Stratford Direct bus service. The recent public health crisis has brought about some extraordinary challenges and opportunities for the Festival addressing both its survival as well as its reinvention.

Prior to Covid-19 the Festival had completed a $100 million campaign to support the redevelopment of the Tom Patterson Theatre and the activities housed in this new facility. The new facility is complete and awaiting a time when it is safe to gather again.

Ms Gaffney joined the Festival in 1991 as a Publicity Assistant, and over the past 29 years has held a variety of positions, including Director of Marketing during the theatre's years of peak attendance.

An active member of the Stratford community, Ms Gaffney is Past Chair of the City of Stratford's economic development agency, the Stratford Public Library, and in 2011 she served as the Campaign Chair of the United Way Perth-Huron.

Ms Gaffney received an honorary doctorate from Western University in 2019. She participated in the Governor General's Leadership Conference in 2008 and received a Business Excellence Award for Personal Achievement from the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce in 2006.

She has an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business and a degree in English Language and Literature from Western University. She has continued her executive education through Harvard Business School. She resides in Stratford with her husband, Kevin.

What has Stratford's staff been up to over the past year?

Planning - and replanning - a 2021 season that responds to the current environment while working to sustain the Festival so we are positioned to return to our physical theatres in 2022 and beyond.

How has the pandemic most affected your company?

Theatre is all about gathering - gathering to prepare, to rehearse, to perform. The pandemic has interrupted our capacity to gather.

How did you guys come up with the idea to start a Stratford streaming platform?

The Festival has long created films of its stage productions. With a solid catalogue of films, we had the foundation to build a streaming platform. In addition to the films, we have also created new content which ranges from a cooking show series and a soap opera to a series of intimate cabarets on the Festival stage to panel discussions and interviews.

What were the biggest challenges in getting that from first ideas to a live product?

Building up the competency within our team for digital content creation and broadcasting.

Have you considered streaming more productions in future years? Maybe full production musicals?

Our fans have really enjoyed our viewing parties and our Stratfest@Home subscription service and we will continue to create new content, film our Shakespeare productions and licence appropriate third party work.

While the cost to stream a full musical is beyond our capacity at this time, we have created a concert series especially for Stratfest@Home and will be sharing the cabarets which are part of the 2021 season

What have the audience reactions to your streaming performances been like?

Reaction has been stupendous. We have had more than two million views of the productions we've shared at viewing parties, from more than 80 countries. We are thrilled to be bringing Stratford Festival productions to people far beyond our borders.

What have you got coming up you're most excited to share with audiences?

We are thrilled to be welcoming people to our two outdoor venues (and soon back into the theatre), and to be further sharing the productions from our 2021 season through our streaming platform. As the pandemic limited in-person attendance, streaming is a wonderful way to take this work to those unable to attend.

How did Stratford come up with a reopening plan/covid safety plan?

We put together a staff team and it worked with a number of specialists - consultants, public health, other performing arts organizations, government bodies, etc. - to develop the plan. It is extremely thorough and took a tremendous amount of detail work in an ever changing environment.

Will there be any adjustments in capacity or seating/vaccination or testing requirements?

Yes, as government guidelines change, so too does our Covid reaction plan. We have just announced an increase in capacity at our indoor and outdoor venues in response to the province moving into Step 3 of its Reopening Plan.

Will there be any changes to the on-stage aspects of the shows in response to the pandemic?

We've had to limit casts to a maximum of eight people and we are not working in repertory for the first time in our history. All but one of the shows are being presented outdoors, so that's a major change.

Were there any COVID considerations in programming the season - selecting titles, etc?

The season was planned to react to the pandemic both in terms of programming and presentation. The theme of the season is Metamorphosis, responding to the reawakening that we are experiencing in the theatre world and society more generally.

In order to prevent the possible spread of Covid, we decided not to perform in repertory for the first time in our history. Cast numbers were also significantly reduced from more than 30 in a large-scale show to a maximum of eight.

As we could not perform full-scale musicals with dancing and singing, we opted for a series of cabarets, many of which reflect on musical theatre. These were limited to four singers and four musicians.

Are any changes to your ticketing policies, flexible rescheduling, etc?

The vast majority of people who bought tickets for the 2020 season (which was entirely cancelled) kept the value of their tickets on account or donated the money back to the Festival. We do have to be more flexible for people needing to cancel because of illness or quarantine issues. As capacity increases, rescheduling for people should become easier.

When and what are you re-opening with?

We re-opened on July 13 with the cabaret Why We Tell the Story: A Celebration of Black Musical Theatre, one of five cabarets in the season. We are also presenting six plays.

What are you most looking forward to?

The happiness of people once again engaging with live theatre!

How have you remained engaged with your audience about the return to the stage?

From the moment of our first cancellation back in March of 2020, we have used a number of methods to keep in touch with our audience, including direct mail, social media and special video messages. But the primary means of engagement has been through our weekly viewing parties. These gave people a way to approximate a "live" gathering when we were all experiencing lockdown. As the possibility of a 2021 season came to light and now to fruition, we were able to talk about upcoming events through all of these established platforms.

How can audience members learn more and stay up to date?

People can sign up for emails. They can follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They can subscribe to Stratfest@Home. They can visit our YouTube channel. They can check out our website. They can call our box office at 1.800.567.1600. We are eager to share the news of our return to live theatre.

Photo: Members of the company in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photography by David Hou.

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