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Coping with the Stratford Festival's extended intermission

  • Sweety Kumari
  • |
  • Sep 30, 2020
Coping with the Stratford Festival's extended intermission

Sweety Kumari is an MBA candidate with a professional background in business operations and marketing. She chose to pursue an MBA to grow her network, nurture her leadership skills, and build a foundation in business. She is passionate about community development through creative initiatives. In her blog below, Sweety outlines her perspective on the key takeaways from Anita Gaffney, Executive Director, Stratford Festival, for the Ivey Teachable Moments Series, a program designed to provide Ivey MBAs with unprecedented access to accomplished leaders.

Effective communication is critical

The importance of communication cannot be understated, especially during these uncertain times. COVID-19 has disrupted the theater industry and has brought it to its knees. Uncertainties around the future of the theater industry make effective leadership key to keeping things afloat. Anita Gaffney, Executive Director of the Stratford Festival, underscores how communication may bring about much-needed confidence around decision-making. She explains how crucial it is to communicate even when there are no right answers, or to deliver difficult news to stakeholders. People are craving decisions and guidance, even if it’s not the message they want to hear.

Vision guides the path during adversity

The impact of COVID-19 has been a make or break point for many artistic organizations. In a test of the viability of the existing business models, many creative firms have had to alter their structure and strategies to adapt to the current crisis. With multiple issues such as the BLM movement, physical distancing, and travel restrictions, courses have been set in motion that will fundamentally change how these organizations operate. Gaffney showed us how adversity inspires us to step-up and build something better. She emphasizes the importance of the organization's vision and how it should guide decision making, especially amidst turmoil.

In a regular year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Stratford, many traveling from all over North America. The festival provides an opportunity to connect with the target user base and establish new customer relationships. Forced to cancel this year due to COVID, the organization leveraged social media to organize digital film festivals to keep its user base engaged. In the future, this may end up being a sustainable source of income for the organization.

Nurturing communities will pay dividends in long run

Stratford is a town of only 32,000 in Southwestern, Ontario, with some diversity in terms of industry. The Stratford Festival is the cornerstone for the tourism industry in the town, generating thousands of direct and indirect jobs for the community. This year, the Festival has weathered countless challenges - a cancelled theatre season, subsequent unrealized revenue, and sunk costs as this year’s supplies become outdated for 2021. 

As one of the most self-sustaining cultural organizations on the continent, Stratford normally generates 95% of its revenue from ticket sales and fundraising events, and only 5% through government funds. Without the box-office money, the Festival struggled to maintain its employees and infrastructure. Bravely, they asked for support from patrons, asking them to hold onto their tickets. It seems any organization that supports and loves community is loved and supported in turn by the community.

Focus on Diversity

The Black Lives Matter movement inspired the Stratford Festival to start a dialogue around issues of diversity and inclusion within the theatre industry. It encouraged key discussions around sensitive matters concerning racism and discrimination. Gaffney took initiatives within the community, as a means to foster new ideas and bring synergies. Social media channels were effectively utilized to organize panel discussions, often mediated by black artists. I find it inspirational that Stratford saw this as an opportunity to learn and evolve into an organization that fostered community-building through not only its work but also direct discourse.

Under the strong and positive leadership of Gaffney, the Stratford Festival should be seen as a beacon for the arts organization who are struggling to cope up with the crisis. She has established a positive standpoint to look beyond just finding the means to weather the crisis and instead, using it as an opportunity to improve and stride forward.