The Magnetic North Theatre Festival cancels 2017 season

One of Canada's premier theatre festivals has cancelled its 2017 season due to financial constraints.

The Magnetic North Theatre Festival — which showcases and promotes Canadian theatre nationally and abroad — was scheduled to take place this summer at various venues in the capital, including the National Arts Centre from June 16-24.

"It's been an extremely difficult decision for us knowing what the impact would be on employees, the artists' community at large, donors, our funders and the National Art Centre," said Mike Hawkes, chairman of the festival's board.

In a statement released Wednesday, the festival said it incurred a total deficit of over $460,000 for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, which created financial pressures in the years that followed.

"We've been since grappling with that deficit while doing — I think — a tremendous delivery of productions of theatre in Ottawa and across the country," said Hawkes.

The festival's annual budget is approximately $1 million. In their release they said while they managed to reduce their "...accumulated deficit to $224,000 through surpluses in each but one of the successive years, [the festival] is now facing a forecast cash deficit of over $150,000 for this season....[and] to proceed with the festival, absorb the cash flow and provide some continuity for next year would require $250,000."

The National Arts Centre, which has hosted the festival in alternating years and has provided Magnetic North with use of its stages and office space for free, was disappointed by the announcement. 

"We really believe the Magnetic North Theatre Festival was an essential artistic organization to the country," said Rosemary Thompson, the NAC's director of communications.

"It was founded in 2003 to be an annual get-together of theatre professionals and presenters — the people who program theatre across the country — to see the very best work from across the country so they could pick wonderful shows to take everywhere in Canada," said Thompson.

"We think it's incredibly unfortunate that this has happened."

Thompson said NAC officials recently brought together different public funders to see what could be done, but in the end the festival's board of directors felt that the financial challenges were too great to overcome.

"Last week we forgave their [$42,000] debt to us, and we thought that would help but apparently there was more than that," she said.

A bad year that got worse

Hawkes said while the deficit placed incredible pressures on the festival this year, the financial challenges were compounded by other issues.

Two senior staff members left and were replaced, and a major source of income disappeared. 

"One grant that we really needed to keep us going here did not come through," said Hawkes.

The major public funders of the festival have been the department of Canadian Heritage, the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. The City of Ottawa has never funded the festival.

According to the festival's release, Magnetic North had also faced challenges fundraising money and had "...engaged two consultants last summer to develop strategies to increase its revenues through individual donations and corporate sponsorship."

Helped feed regional Canadian theatres

Although Hawkes admits the closing of the festival will leave a gap in Canada's theatre community, he is hopeful others will step in to create a space for new, emerging work to thrive.

"We're hoping that the [arts] community will rally and find another way to continue the legacy of Magnetic North," said Hawkes.

​"Magnetic North Theatre Festival is not just an opportunity to produce and deliver plays to audiences in Ottawa," he added. It's also an opportunity for the industry to gather...from Canada and around the world. We've had tremendous success over time with getting Canadian theatre into European theatre festivals."

Thompson also agrees that closing the festival will have an impact on Canada's theatre landscape.

"Anyone who loves theatre in this country has seen shows that have been programmed by Magnetic North," she said.

"A talent scout from Edmonton or Saskatoon or St. John's sees it at Magnetic North and programs it the following season. That's how Canadian theatre is being discovered and how it's being programmed," said Thompson.

"Our hearts go out to the artists."