Had it not been for a prescient insurance policy change in November 2019, officials with London’s Grand Theatre say the local entertainment landmark would be staring down a more than half-million-dollar operating deficit to end its 2019/20 fiscal year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the addition of performance disruption coverage, an adjustment made just months before COVID-19 could be declared a global pandemic, resulted in the theatre’s first operating deficit in 21 years amounting to $65,348.
While the difference is staggering, a deficit is still a deficit.
“I think the only thing that might make it acceptable is the size of it, and that it is a $65,000 deficit and not one that’s over half a million dollars,” said Deb Harvey, the theatre’s executive director, who announced the deficit on Monday during the Grand’s virtual 2019/20 Annual General Meeting.
“Our ticket sales are down to $2.7 million, they were $4.3 (million) last year. Our attendance was 65,000, down from 104,000 last year,” Harvey said in an interview Monday with 980 CFPL’s Devon Peacock, set to air Tuesday morning.
“Even the money that we spent locally… we spent $900,000 locally this year, but last year we spent $1.9 million. It impacts us and it impacts all of the local businesses that we use as our suppliers, so it really is pretty wide-reaching.”
Theatre officials say community support and government grants and emergency funds helped keep the Grand’s deficit from ballooning further.
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The financial hit is all the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the shutdown of the theatre on March 13, cutting short its 2019/20 season and with it one-third of its performances.
When the theatre closed, it was in the midst of preparations for the North American premiere of Room, a play based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, that was set to run that month.
“The world, as we all knew it, disappeared over-night and we have been playing some kind of catch up ever since. Our core business of producing live theatre and hosting audiences is still on shutdown with no end in sight,” Harvey writes in the annual report.
“Pre-COVID, it was business as usual with all of the energy of rehearsals, the excitement and joy of opening nights, and the irreplaceable sharing of stories by audiences in a darkened theatre. These days it is difficult to remember the ordinariness of those times.”
The theatre later scrapped the entirety of its planned 2020/21 season just three weeks after unveiling it to the public.
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In its place, the Grand unveiled several virtual offerings in late September, including a new podcast, an online version of its long-running High School Project, and a free, livestreamed “Un-Opening Night” which was held on Oct. 22.
The pandemic also forced the theatre to scrap the 48th edition of its annual gala, an event it says was forecast to bring in some $270,000 in revenue, and delayed a major multi-million-dollar renovation of the theatre — work which eventually resumed over the summer and will continue into the new year.
“It’s no substitute for audiences and rehearsals and opening nights and the excitement and creativity and imagination that happens with theatre,” Harvey told 980 CFPL, “(but) it does give us focus, it does give us purpose.
“It is a project that we can be working on to make this theatre better when we’re able to reopen.”
When theatregoers eventually return to the Grand, they’ll be greeted with a modernized box office and lobby, and updated sound and lighting systems. Work is also being done to expand backstage areas.
What remains an open question, however, is when the theatre will actually open. With details still being determined when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Canada, Harvey says Grand officials will make multiple plans for various possibilities.
“If we’re able to get a full 2021 season going, we’ll have plans for that, and/or we’ll do some kind of experimental season in 2021 depending on how many people are allowed to gather and the distance that people need to keep,” Harvey said Monday.
“I can’t predict the future, but I can only hope — I mean, we’re doing our very best to stay connected with everybody, to stay on people’s minds and in their calendars — that people will be very interested to come back, that they will miss being together and gathering with people.”
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In its annual report, theatre brass say roughly 45 per cent of the Grand’s earned revenue for 2019/20 came through ticket sales, down from 56 per cent the year before.
About 19 per cent of the theatre’s revenue this fiscal year ($1.13 million) came from contributions from sponsors, donors, and community supporters, led by BMO Financial Group, the season sponsor. Some 2,000 patrons donated the value of their tickets back to the theatre at the start of the pandemic to help offset lost revenue.
At least 17 per cent of theatre revenue ($1.01 million) came from government grants, including from the city, Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts, eight per cent ($504,753) came from COVID-19 insurance claims, and six per cent came from Government COVID-19 emergency funding, including $270,330 through the Canadian Employment Wage Subsidy, and $88,000 from the Canada Council.
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The coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the performing arts, as it has other industries.
According to the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts, the live performance industry shed 4,800 jobs in October — the third consecutive monthly decline. The group says the sub-sector’s labour force and employment is down 22 and 31.8 per cent from October 2019, respectively.
Performing arts companies have been hit particularly hard, with the industry group’s labour force down 61.4 per cent from October 2019, and its employment down 73.4 per cent.
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