Bard on the Beach launches 27th season on secure financial footing

Festival attracts about 100,000 visitors annually, breaks even on $6 million budget

Bard on the Beach executive director Claire Sakaki and artistic director Christopher Gaze stand in front of their new head office, which they share with the Arts Club Theatre Co. | Jason Keel

Bard on the Beach launches its 27th season on June 3, and executives expect near-capacity crowds all summer for the Shakespeare festival at Vanier Park.

Part of that confidence comes from renewed interest and marketing opportunities brought this year by the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

“The reason that 100,000 people come to Bard on the Beach is because we do it well,” the festival’s artistic director, Christopher Gaze, told Business in Vancouver. “They don’t just come because we market the hell out of it.”

The festival has had ups and downs through its history but has never been on a more secure footing.

Four plays are slated for this year. The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet rotate at the festival’s 740-seat BMO Main Stage while Othello and Pericles rotate at the 250-seat Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre.

For its first two decades, the festival’s largest stage was only about 520 seats. A $3.4 million capital campaign enabled Bard on the Beach to buy a custom-made tent and create the BMO Main Stage in 2011.

Back-end operations have also had a huge upgrade.

Bard on the Beach partnered with the Arts Club Theatre Co. to raise more than $20 million to build the BMO Theatre Centre at 162 West 1st Avenue.

Governments contributed $18.1 million to the project while the main corporate sponsors were BMO Financial Group (TSX:BMO), with a $1.5 million donation, and Goldcorp Inc., (TSX:G), which added $500,000.

Bard on the Beach moved its corporate offices into that new theatre centre late last year.

The venue, shared with the Arts Club, comes with a 243-seat theatre called the Goldcorp Stage as well as 7,000 square feet of rehearsal space, a costume storage room, a costume-making room, an artists’ lounge, a boardroom and other amenities.

“Usually theatre companies are in the perimeter of a city, often below ground because the rent is cheap,” Gaze said. “But here we are in a central location in a celebrated part of Vancouver in this beautiful facility.”

The next major improvement that Gaze said could be on the horizon is to upgrade the company’s space at Vanier Park to include a hard year-round surface.

Each year, when Bard leaves its site, it leaves behind a lot of mud because its tents and village have churned up the ground.

“We would love to have not concrete, but a hard-packed surface that would look nice in winter and people could walk over and not have to go into mud,” Gaze said.

Discussions about this possible upgrade have been continuing for years with the Vancouver Park Board.

Regardless of what happens with the grounds, Gaze said, the festival is content with the venue.

“We have a sense of permanency,” he said. “There are 86 13-foot-long steel pins that remain under the ground in Vanier Park that our big BMO Main Stage theatre holds onto.”

Claire Sakaki, who came on board as the festival’s executive director in 2013, said the organization is on strong financial footing.

In the non-profit company’s most recent fiscal year, it had a balanced budget of about $6 million.

About two-thirds of that revenue comes from the box office and retail sales, while 23% comes from fundraising. About 4% comes from government grants, 2% comes from the festival’s youth theatre program and 5% comes from investment income.