Atlantic Theatre Festival
In 1992, a group of theatre lovers in Wolfville, NS, led by artistic director Michael Bawtree, decided to present classic theatre in repertory during the summer months. With a grant of $2 million in government infrastructure money, a 514-seat theatre with a thrust stage on the Stratford model was constructed in Acadia University's 60-year-old former hockey rink. Bawtree, with the aid of Christopher Plummer, began a campaign to raise an additional $3 million to pay for equipping the theatre and its operating costs during the first season.
Since the Stratford Festival is the model for the Atlantic Theatre Festival, Bawtree invited Michael Langham, former Stratford artistic director, to direct Kentville native Peter Donat in the Festival's first performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which opened on 16 June 1995. Other plays in the initial season included Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, directed by Langham and Helen Burns, his wife. Although artistically successful, the company finished the year with an $881 000 shortfall. Donations from individuals, corporate sponsors, and the Nova Scotia Department of Renewal and Tourism reduced the deficit to less than $200 000.
For the second season's productions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by Langham, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, directed by Bawtree, and Ibsen's A Doll's House, co-directed by Burns and Langham with Megan Follows as Nora, patronage increased to 34 000 from 26 000 in the initial season. Still recording an operating deficit of $75 000, however, the Festival could not afford the large casts demanded for Shakespeare and opted for smaller shows. Molière's Tartuffe, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya comprised the third season in 1997. The smaller shows were more successful financially, bringing subscription sales up by 25% and adding $70 000 to box office receipts for a total of $770 000.
Returning to the large-cast format in 1998, ATF produced Shakespeare's Othello, Shaw's Pygmalion, and Wilder's The Matchmaker. A disappointing box office resulted in a deficit of $1.2 million and the resignation of Bawtree as artistic director. Although the financial crisis almost caused the closure of the fledgling organization, the Board of Directors and new artistic director, Jerry Etienne, raised $750 000 by February 1999 and undertook a fifth season consisting of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Maugham's The Constant Wife and 2 French farces by Feydeau. By reducing ATF's budget from $2.2 million to $1.5 million and the number of actors from 25 to 12, the 1999 season renewed optimism for the continuation of the venture. Playing to over 150 000 patrons during its first 5 years of existence, the Atlantic Theatre Festival generated nearly $20 million in economic spin-offs throughout the Annapolis Valley.
Despite these numbers and a strong critical reputation, mounting debts forced the Atlantic Theatre Festival to reduce cast sizes, lay off crew and cancel productions over the next few years. These efforts proved insufficient and the Festival board cancelled the 2004 and 2005 seasons. In 2006 the Festival returned with one show, the perennially popular Noises Off by Michael Frayn. The return to a multi-play season the following year, however, proved over-reaching, and in 2007 artistic director Nigel Bennett was forced to resign. One production completed its run, but two others were cancelled. A lack of public funding was cited as the main cause of the failure and the Festival did not re-open in 2008.