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Shaw Festival turning a profit after years of red ink

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The crowds are pulling into Niagara-on-the-Lake as the Shaw Festival begins its summer season. Behind the scenes, the theater festival is watching every dime, both coming in and going out. When the Shaw announced its financial results for last year, it was $19,000 in the black. That's a major change from losing $1.5 million the year before. The festival this year has a $27 million budget.

Since tickets don't cover the entire cost, the festival works at raising the rest in donations and advertising, increasingly difficult in the recession of recent years.

Executive Director Elaine Calder says theater may be a spectacle, but it's also a business. If it doesn't stay in the black, she says, the future is bleak.

Calder says costs have been cut substantially, gifts have increased, and ticket sales are on budget. Calder says festival workers have to balance re-using and making new.

"A show like "Ragtime" last year, magic happened because we were able to pull a huge number of costumes out of our warehouse. You can't always do that, but with "Ragtime" we could. That saved a lot of money but the audience couldn't see that," Calder says.

Calder says American ticket purchases have held up because they are mostly bought by people who travel and have passports to get across the border. She says there has also been more government money put into marketing tourist attractions like the Shaw and the Stratford Festival so people will come and enjoy other attractions like Ontario Region's wineries.

Calder says she believes the Shaw remains a key component in the Niagara region's tourist economy.

"A lot of people come every year and meet up with friends from other places. They all stay at the same hotel or bed and breakfast and they see plays together and they go to the wineries together. We are a part of a really special destination experience," she says.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.