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Shaw and Shea’s collaboration is ‘a natural match’

Put away those passports, Shaw Festival fans.

In a new partnership announced Wednesday, the repertory theater company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., will send select productions to 710 Main Theater as part of the Buffalo theater’s annual subscription season.

Starting in September, the Shaw Festival will move productions to 710 Main for two-week engagements after the company’s season wraps up each fall. The five-year partnership will begin with a production of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” Nov. 10 to 20. After that, the Shaw Festival will send two shows per season to Buffalo in an attempt to reach a broader Western New York audience.

Shea’s Performing Arts Center and 710 Main also announced its 2016-17 subscription season, which includes the Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s productions of the plays “Wonder of the World” and “Proof” and MusicalFare Theatre’s remount of its well-received production of the Johnny Cash musical “Ring of Fire.” A fifth show will be announced soon.

Anthony Conte, Shea’s president and chief executive officer, who is set to retire this year, hailed the Shea’s and Shaw Festival partnership as true to the Canadian festival’s original mission as a binational theater company. He noted that Shea’s will get reliable programming from a highly regarded theater company in exchange for providing the Shaw Festival access to a theater-hungry market in its own backyard.

“From a business perspective, it seems like a natural match,” he said.

Shaw Festival Executive Director Tim Jennings echoed Conte’s enthusiasm, characterizing it more as an effort to reach new audiences than a significant money-maker.

“The folks who know us in Buffalo know us pretty well, but I would say that a great truth about Southern Ontario in general is that for a lot of people in Buffalo, they don’t go across the water, even though it’s a 10-minute ride,” he said. “It’s really about reminding our Buffalo audience that we’re across the water so that hopefully they come see other things.”

The idea for the collaboration emerged from discussions among Conte, Jennings and the Shaw Festival’s American board members. After board members and Shaw staffers got a closer look at the historic venue earlier this year, the prospect seemed to too good to turn town.

“I think what sealed it is that during the run of ‘Avenue Q,’ we hosted one of their full board meetings at 710,” Conte said. “They were very pleased about what they were seeing.”

Since Studio Arena went out of business in 2008, the venue has hosted a diverse mix of programming, from productions by small local theaters seeking to expand their audiences to touring shows such as the recent tour of “Love Letters” starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. Shaw Festival productions often are recognized for their high standards, which could lend stability to a programming mix that has been unpredictable.

“People see us as something that they can rely on,” Jennings said.

During the tenure of outgoing artistic director Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival mounted co-productions with companies in Chicago and Toronto. But Jennings said that the Buffalo partnership is an effort to reach even more people in communities where the festival already has a foothold. He noted that Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Toronto are also in the mix for future Shaw Festival exports.

The shows chosen for Buffalo productions will be smaller-scale pieces, such as “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” that require a minimum of restaging to work on 710 Main Theatre’s three-quarter thrust stage. Jennings said the fall show will need a couple of days of restaging work, a modified proscenium and a retooled lighting design, but otherwise “fits pretty nicely.”

He and Conte will be jointly applying for work visas for the Canadian actors and crew, and Jennings said he doesn’t anticipate any problems with that process.

As for any financial risk, both partners were confident that the partnership would pay dividends in both exposure and ticket sales.

“Once the shows are up and running, the running cost of them is actually fairly reasonable,” Jennings said. “Our thought had been, if we did a direct transfer, if at the end of this season immediately following the close of the show we were to move it to Buffalo, which is not very far away, that actually would mitigate a lot of financial risk.”

Conte agreed, adding that the imprimatur of the Shaw Festival stands to add to 710 Main Theatre’s growing reputation.

“It legitimizes what we’re doing. Shaw is a major player,” he said. “To have them on board, a lot of people will take notice. It’ll help us build audience, which is what we’re trying to do.”