How the Shaw Festival kept 500 people employed — by taking out pandemic insurance

Tim Jennings, the executive director and CEO of the Shaw Festival, talks to members of the company on Zoom from his home office.

About three-and-a-half years ago, Tim Jennings, the executive director and CEO of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, decided to undertake some risk analysis alongside his CFO. He looked at potential problem areas, and at concerns that might arise throughout the course of an ordinary season of theatre, and came to a shrewd conclusion: The festival should take out an insurance policy against the threat of a pandemic.

The policy covered the interruption of planned performances by communicable disease. As a consequence of that remarkable foresight, the Shaw Festival has been able to do the basically impossible: At a time of incalculable loss, in an industry that has been universally devastated, the festival has keep its more than 500 employees on the payroll full-time. Almost everyone in the field of arts and entertainment has been out of work since the beginning of the lockdown, when live performances became a logistical impossibility. But thanks to the coverage, Shaw’s are among the only actors, musicians, and theatre workers in the world who still have jobs.

No one could have predicted, even as late as this winter, that a new infectious disease would suddenly emerge and sweep the globe in 2020, killing millions, halting industry, and more or less paralyzing the economy everywhere. Given how few people were prepared for such an incredible turn of events — and how many businesses, including major corporations, failed to anticipate such a contingency — the Shaw’s insurance policy doesn’t look merely fortuitous. It looks downright prophetic.

Jennings insists he is no Nostradamus. He was simply planning ahead. “People keep telling me it was genius,” Jennings says, reflecting on this extraordinary stroke of luck. “It wasn’t actually genius. It wasn’t about this pandemic at all — it was about communicable disease.” In his time working in theatre Jennings has seen a minor stomach bug waylay productions on countless occasions. Shaw employs a rotating repertory ensemble; if one of his actors got the flu, ten of them could, and that might stall a show. “We took it out for the whole season, thinking that if six actors got ill and we had to shut down for two weeks, we might lose two million bucks,” he explains. “But the policy also very clearly covered a pandemic. That was really a useful piece of good fortune.”

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No insurance policy is perfect, of course, and the Shaw Festival, Jennings points out, is “still running into money issues, as one would expect.” But it is nevertheless the only organization of its kind to have managed to keep so many people employed and working when the actual work they do isn’t feasible. The festival has also taken advantage of the CEWS to offset the cost of paying its people — including the many actors and musicians who aren’t technically eligible, as independent contractors, thanks to another canny move. “Our actors rehearsed on Zoom from March through May, waiting to get back on stage,” he says. “When it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen, we pivoted.” Jennings terminated their contracts, instead hiring them on as employees, under the title Education and Community Outreach Specialists.

“We wanted people to help us, during this period when we couldn’t be on stage, connect with our community and our patrons and our education partners,” he says. These “ECOs” made calls to donors, taught choreography to students over Zoom, and performed for the ill in hospice. “I was able to rehire all of the artists, actors, and musicians, plus about ten more. All of these artists are able to get back to work.”

Earlier this week the festival announced that many of its fall shows would not be mounted as originally planned, in light of the restrictions dictated by the provincial government. Shaw is uniquely situated to decline to reopen before it is safe and reasonable to do so, as a result of the insurance and the system they’ve worked out. But on the whole Jennings feels the festival is eager to start performances again — once they settle on the right way to do it.

“Our biggest concern is that the Shaw Festival is the major economic generator for arts and culture in Ontario — we generate $220 million a year in economic activity, and we anchor so many people coming from the United States to Canada and from other parts of Canada to the Niagara region,” he says. “We want to find a way to move forward and use our services to help the area economically.”

The Niagara region has been hit especially hard by lockdown and the pandemic. It relies on tourism and entertainment, particularly through the summer, to keep the economy alive. “The whole are is really hurting. We feel a real pressure to find ways to get back to work. We want people staying here overnight, eating at restaurants, going to wineries — whether we make money or not is besides the point.” Jennings is eager to welcome Americans back to Shaw, as visitors from the U.S. represent about 35% of the festival’s attendance. “We’re desperate for it to be safe to reopen the border,” he says. “Currently, it is not. But when it is we will see them coming back.”


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