Despite the sudden loss of a $48,000 federal grant in June, the 21st annual SummerWorks Theatre Festival saw a slight uptick in attendance this year, led by strong sales for several critical hits and a 25 percent boost in sales for the SummerWorks Music Series.
Heritage Canada had surprised the festival by announcing, six weeks before its launch date, that the festival would not be receiving a grant from the Canada Arts Presentation Fund as it had in the preceding five years. The grant had represented 20 percent of the festival’s operating budget.
The loss of funding led the festival to cancel several planned outdoor events, reduce programming, cut back on advertising and introduce a $5-per-ticket surcharge to stabilize its finances.
Critics suggested that Heritage Canada killed the funding in response to controversy over the festival’s decision to program Homegrown, a play about one of the Toronto 18 accused terrorists, last summer, and a revelation that SummerWork’s 2010 application to CAPF was received after the deadline.
A spokesperson at the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism.”
In response to the cut, an internet- and social-media-based fundraising effort, led by high-profile Toronto artists, collected more than $34,000 from 400 donors in just two weeks.
Approximately 20,000 tickets were sold at this year’s festival, which ran from Aug 4 to 14. That number includes between 1,500 and 2,000 tickets that were sold for the music series.
The fundraising efforts, plus SummerWorks’ ticket surcharge, has put the festival in a good position to weather uncertainties in its future grant prospects. While artistic director Michael Rubenfeld has previously told Xtra that he intends to reapply for CAPF funding next year, the festival is looking at a host of options to stabilize its resources in case its application is rejected again, options that include memberships, ongoing fundraising and more sponsorship.
“We’ve definitely discussed that we need to look at different options,” says Daniela Syrovy, SummerWorks’ PR agent. “In its 21 years, it’s never taken donations of the kind that appeared this year, but it was really a last-minute bailout. Many of the donors were making a statement about the cuts.”
SummerWorks also announced the winners of its audience and jury prizes at the closing night party, held Aug 14 at the MOCCA courtyard. Queer artist Sean O’Neill shared the Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation with Liz Peterson, for their collaboration, Express Yourself, which played at Hub14. The one-woman show, which O’Neill directed, explores themes of connection, authenticity and the need to perform, combining projections, improv, music, dance and text.