Atlantic Theatre Festival needed more support: artistic director

Ongoing financial troubles and a lack of interest among theatregoers are being blamed for the collapse of the Atlantic Theatre Festival in Wolfville.

Ongoing financial troubles and a lack of interest among theatregoers is being blamed for the collapse of the Atlantic Theatre Festival in Wolfville.

Over the weekend, the festival's board of directors pulled the plugon the summer season. The final performance was the theatre's production of Shirley Valentine Wednesday night.

It's the latest in the ongoing saga of the on-again, off-again theatre founded in 1995.

David Swanson, the board of director's vice-chairman, said the board tried over the years to streamline the festival as much as possible to cut costs.

But on Sunday they decided they could not carry on with the rest of the summer season.

"So, there are lots of mixed emotions. I suppose the best word is probably bittersweet. We put on fabulous productions; we're sorry it's over," Swanson said.

"We all felt very passionate about the theatre, and about what it could do for the Annapolis Valley and for Wolfville. We were believers."

The theatre was founded by Michael Bawtree 12 years ago. More than $2 million was contributed by local, provincial and federal governments to convert the town's former town hockey rink into a first-class theatre with a thrust stage.

The festival was first forced to close its doorsduring the 2004 season, and remained closed in 2005. It put on one play last summer.

Artistic director Nigel Bennett told CBC that the theatre was unable to carry on this year because of inadequate funding from the provincial and federal governments and from local backers.

"It's a financial question, as it always has been at ATF. We've been carrying quite a sizeable debt load from previous administrations, and we never had the amount of financing that weasked forfrom the funding bodies, from the province or the feds," he said.

"Then, one of our productions wasn't doing the box office that we'd budgeted for. It just accumulated and accumulated, and in the end, the board took the decision that it wasn't willing to continue."

Province gave theatre an extra $10,000 this year

Premier Rodney MacDonald said Wednesday he's confident his government did all it could to help the theatre survive. The province gave the theatre $10,000 more this year than the promised $25,000, he said.

"The province has been there, and we have made our commitments already," the premier said. "I think if you take a look, it's actually the other levels of government, with respect to operational funding, that they're pointing to."

The theatre's web page lists four sponsors: the Town of Wolfville, the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture, Wolfville Business Development Corporation, and Wellington West Capital Inc.

Bennett said the other problem was that there weren't enough people willing to pay for top drawer productions.

"We are in a theatre that seats 511 people altogether, and even when we closed down some of the seating, it's still 320 people who go in there. So, I was budgeting less than 50 per cent and we couldn't fill it," Bennett said.

"You know, there has to be an audience. There has to be people who are willing to pay the money and come along and support it. Certainly this year, at least in one of the plays, they really didn't want to support."

Besides Shirley Valentine, the festival was also staging The Drawer Boy, which was to run until Sept. 9. A Midsummer's Night Dream had been scheduled to run during the month of September.

The theatre was offering tickets to all three productions for $80 for adults, $50 for students.