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Shaw Festival: What if a theatre held an annual general meeting and nobody came?

By Keith Tomasek, March 7, 2018

What if a theatre held an annual general meeting and nobody came?

The Shaw Festival held its annual general meeting on March 2, 2018. To date, no major newspaper has covered the meeting. So, as much as I’d like to write about the meeting itself, I want to address the fact that, apart from a press release published on Broadway World, no media organization has published anything about the annual general meeting where the results of artistic director Tim Caroll’s first season were presented.

In the past The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and the Niagara Falls Review would have covered it.

Each day since the annual general meeting I’ve searched their sites and found nothing.

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I can understand, I suppose, why the annual general meeting hasn’t received coverage. It doesn’t have the allure of a feature story about well-known actors with gorgeous production shots or conversely a tragic story about a scandal.

Nevertheless, an annual general meeting is important. Seen over time these meetings provide a barometer of an organization’s stability. In the short term they reveal the results of choices made, in this case by Caroll and executive director Tim Jennings, now in his second season.

I’ll admit I do not follow the Shaw Festival as much as I do theatres closer to home here in London, Ontario, but at first glance the news from Shaw is very promising:

  • Ticket sales were stable with 236,824 sold compared to 237,471 the previous year.
  • Operating surplus was approximately $65K.
  • Best fundraising year in the company’s history, with operating contributions in excess of $9 million – up $400K from last season.

In a release published by the Festival, Jennings reported that “We were also able to pay off $1.25 million of our operating debt and $800K of our capital debt, and we invested another $2.5 million into eliminating a large list of historical capital deficiencies. Thanks in large part to a matching grant from Canadian Heritage we received in 2016, we are on track to eliminate all capital deficiencies by the end of 2018.”

The release leads with copy about all the “new things” that the Festival is doing. In the classic spirit of a new leader’s attempts at team building, Caroll is quoted as saying that the good news isn’t that these new things worked out but rather, “how open and committed everyone was to them.”

These new things include the Secret Theatre series, a huge hit, as well as personalized show introductions and open rehearsals.

These innovative programming choices provide company members with a chance to experiment, keeping their creative juices flowing. Sources say that audiences seem to be recognizing this approach to creation which has the effect of highlighting the collective experience.

Caroll’s first season was marked by, philosophically speaking, a transformation in the manner the Festival manages its relationship with its audience. In the press release, this new approach was most evident in the section about ticket sales.

In past years ticket sales were referred to as, well, ticket sales. This year’s release avoids the verb “to sell” and rather uses the verb “to welcome.” For example: “[Carroll’s first season] welcomed 236,824 audience members to 783 performances.”

Looking ahead to the 2018 season it’s important to note a few changes: The Festival has reduced the size of the company, several high profile company members are not on the bill, but more significant is the number of young female directors, and assistant directors.

All of this speaks to the Festival’s balanced commitment to board members, patrons and artists. In theory, the effort to make theatre-goers feel like part of a creative hub could build a much more satisfied and engaged family of supporters.

We’ll only know for sure by keeping an eye on future annual general meetings.

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Shaw Festival: What if a theatre held an annual general meeting and nobody came?

Keith Tomasek
6 March 2018
News and Rumors

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