He prefers to keep the spotlight on stage, but the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has steered the company into successful, respected waters during his 25 years at the helm AZIZ CONDUCTS BRAHMS
WHEN Steven Schipper was approached the other day to talk about his 25 years at the helm of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre he balked, a reaction that did not come as much of a surprise. “The thought of talking about myself makes me physically ill,” responded Schipper, who will be feted at a special celebration at the theatre Monday evening. The 59-year-old Montreal-born artistic director has been remarkably consistent about his aversion to selfpromotion all the while exercising a well-developed reflex to put his theatre before himself. In his first interview with the in 1989, he clearly set out his career philosophy: “It’s this wish not to be conceited. I want to be so great that part of that greatness is humility. Part of that goodness is humbleness.” The spotlight that gets focused on someone like Schipper — who by almost every measure has led a successful theatre company for what amounts to a generation — is deeply unwelcome.
“The theatre is the thing for Steven,” says Gail Asper, a RMTC advisory council member. “We on the board would watch as flamboyant artistic directors or maestros would come and go like Bramwell Tovey and wish Steven would be more up front. He’s never wanted to be the personality of the theatre. I don’t think we have been hurt by it. We’ve been damn lucky to have his 25 years of commitment.” For Schipper, married to Winnipeg actress Terri Cherniack, longevity is no great virtue. “What really matters is what you’ve accomplished in those years; more importantly, what you’ll make of the year that lies ahead,” he says. It would be hard to recognize the theatre that Schipper took over on a one-year contract from Rick McNair, who was sacked after a displeasing 1988-89 season left a scary $340,000 deficit. The board was unanimous in promoting the National Theatre School graduate — who had served as McNair’s associate artistic director for two years — with the mandate he sharpen the organization’s blurry artistic vision. Fast-forward 25 years and RMTC is the standard against which all Canadian non-profit theatres are measured. The brand has never been stronger and has added to its name recognition by getting the endorsement of Queen Elizabeth in 2010 as the first royal theatre in North America. Its extraordinary subscriber base could still be the largest among nonprofits in the country. The financial books are also impressive. Last season, RMTC recorded an operating surplus of almost $250,000. That left its stabilization fund flush with $557,000, with close to another $500,000 sitting in its capital replacement fund. The RMTC endowment fund, which stands at a staggering $16.4 million, contributed $564,755 to the company’s coffers last season. Under Schipper’s watch, the fledgling Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival has grown into the second largest in North America. A Master Playwrights Festival was founded in 2001 and annually lures thousands willing to brave -30 C temperatures to catch the most confounding, ponderous works by the likes of Beckett and Strindberg. “Not only has he endured but he has excelled,” says Dennis Garnhum, Theatre Calgary’s artistic director. “MTC remains one of the most important theatre companies in the country. “I don’t like defining us as regional theatres. I’m trying to end that notion there’s a centre and we’re not in it, but in the regions. Saying we’re a regional sounds like one category down. Steven has helped change that thinking.” Schipper, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2012, is on the road 50 nights a year seeing plays throughout Canada, the United States and Great Britain. His scouting has uncovered yet-to-be-discovered gems like Wit, which Winnipeggers saw before it became a New York hit and won firsttime Atlanta playwright Margaret Edson a Pulitzer Prize for drama. His relationships in the theatre world led to the RMTC premiering Andrew Lloyd Webber’s $1.4-million musical The Boys in the Photograph in 2009. And of course, his legendary coup was casting Keanu Reeves as Hamlet in 1995 just as his breakout movie Speed made him a global heartthrob. “What’s true is that when Steven Schipper picks up the phone, producers around the world answer,” says Garnhum, who directed Three Tall Women here in 1998. “That doesn’t come inherently with the job at MTC.” One of those global players is David Mirvish, founder of Toronto’s Mirvish Productions, Canada’s largest commercial theatre production company. “We’ve done more co-productions with MTC than any other partner in the country,” says Mirvish, who is paired up with two big-name shows at RMTC this season. “It’s because of Steven. I have a lot of respect for him and his judgment. He’s a great partner.” His seasons have been marked by a constant bid for balance with a playbill that will consist of an attentiongetter to open, an expensive musical to pack the John Hirsch theatre in January, a Canadian revival, something fresh from New York and a familyfriendly comedy. The Warehouse lineup trends to more daring and provocative titles. But not everyone agrees that Schipper’s strength has been his programming. “I’m not a huge fan of what happens on the mainstage but I accept that the mainstage is the economic engine that makes possible a number of interesting things, like the fringe and master playwright festivals,” says University of Manitoba theatre professor Chris Johnson. “Although there have been excellent productions on both stages, there has been too much emphasis on giving the audience what it wants and not enough attention to leading the audience to the point where it wants to be challenged.” Schipper has had his share of job offers to follow brighter lights to bigger theatres, but has resisted the inducement of more money and glory. “There were a couple of moments when I toyed with the idea of leaving, but I always try to think about what’s best for the theatre,” he says. “If that’s my departure, I’d graciously bow out. If that’s my continued presence, I’m honoured to serve. I still get a tingle every time I walk up the stairs towards the office, so I’d like to stay a while longer.”
Schipper will be honoured Monday for his 25 years in the artistic director’s chair at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Above, Schipper is invested into the Order of Canada by Governer General David Johnston in 2012. Top,
the artistic director in 1999.
Schipper’s favourite RMTC shows: (1990) M. Butterfly (1991) Death and the Maiden (1993) Hamlet (1995) Death of a Salesman (1997) The Rocky Horror Show (2007) Our Town (2007) It’s a Wonderful Life (2009) Jake’s Gift (2010) August: Osage County (2012)
Schipper in his office in 2002. Under his watch, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival has grown into the second largest on the continent.