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

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN PROKOSH

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.

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