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The long goodbye
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Steven Schipper, who brought Transit of Venus and Keanu Reeves's Hamlet to Winnipeg, makes his exit after 30 years

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Saturday, March 10, 2018 – Page R8

It's the end of an era for Winnipeg: Steven Schipper, artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) since 1989, is announcing his retirement on Saturday.

Schipper plans to make it an even 30 years in charge of Canada's first regional theatre, overseeing next season and the programming of the one after that, before he steps down in May, 2019.

"When I started, we had only two computers in the whole theatre, while today, Winnipeggers can binge watch an entire series on Netflix," the 62-year-old told The Globe and Mail in advance of the announcement. "For most of the time I've been here, I didn't want to be the guy who stayed too long and I guess I failed at that."

The news of Schipper's departure is an opportunity for Winnipeggers to recall some of the highlights of his tenure.

Perhaps the most notable were the premiere of Manitoban playwright Maureen Hunter's Transit of Venus in 1992 (a play about 18th-century astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil that went on to be done by the Royal Shakespeare Company); Keanu Reeves's Hamlet in 1995, which - staged the year after the Canadian actor became a superstar thanks to the action movie Speed - attracted fans and critics from around the world; and this winter's premiere of the new Canadian production of Come From Away.

It's also a good moment - given that Schipper is currently the longest-reigning artistic director of a major regional theatre in Canada - to consider the overall health of that network of Canadian institutions that was born when John Hirsch and Tom Hendry founded MTC in 1958.

Winnipeg set the template for the regionals that would spread professional theatre across the country with a mandate of a mix of classics and contemporary plays, one that would later expand to include Canadian-written work, and often a smaller second stage for more daring work.

In recent years, especially following the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse in 2012 and the "right-sizing" of other regionals around lower attendance, theatre artists have questioned whether these one-size-fits-all theatrical institutions still make sense in an era of fragmented audiences - and whether funding bodies such as the Canada Council for the Arts have invested too much in these large and careful companies over smaller, risk-taking independent ones.

In the almost three decades Schipper has run MTC, however, he has shown how resilient the regional model can be - and how one can thrive even in the age of Netflix.

The Winnipeg theatre has grown from revenue of $3.5-million and attendance of 178,883 in his first season in 1989-90 to revenue of $10.5-million and attendance of 276,330 in 2016-17, the last one for which full figures are available.

Most of that increased attendance is accounted for by the tripling of ticket sales at the very popular Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which MTC presents - uniquely for a Canadian regional theatre.

(The theatre company also runs a semi-professional city-wide festival called the Master Playwrights Festival that began in the winter of 2001 and, in its most recent edition, sold nearly 5,000 tickets.)

While annual attendance at MTC's second stage, the Warehouse, has declined by a quarter since 1989 to 15,344 last season, the audience for the theatre's mainstage programming has grown and last year was 91,399.

The strongest sign of the institution's health, however, is its massive and loyal subscriber base.

While many theatres have come to view season subscriptions as an anachronism owing to perceived changes in consumer behaviour, MTC has shown they don't have to be - and Schipper and his staff have increased subscribers from 12,772 in his first year to 14,123 in 2016-17.

That's close to a third of what Mirvish Productions attracts in Toronto, although Winnipeg's population of just over 700,000 is less than a quarter of Toronto's.

(This year's numbers, not yet finalized, will be even higher thanks to Come From Away.)

The stability of the Schipper era has made him very trusted by a succession of boards of directors - to the extent that his retirement date of 2019 was, in fact, set all the way back in 2004. At other theatres, 14 years is an impressive run as artistic director - unheard of as a contract extension.

Gail Asper, a prominent local philanthropist and former chair of MTC's board, says Schipper has always put the organization's needs first. "He's very cautious - which has served us in good stead," says Asper, who also cochaired MTC's endowment campaign launched in 2001. "You see how artistic directors can, in one year, bankrupt a place, having their own hubris imposed on the place.

Schipper's critics might say he's been overly cautious with programming for a not-for-profit - perhaps best signified by his long-time partnership with producer David Mirvish, which has made MTC a frequent pre-Toronto stop for commercial productions.

The artistic director describes his philosophy, however, as one that focuses on artists and audiences in equal measure: "We say artists and audience in that order because artists ought to lead - but we don't value them 51 per cent."

It's worthwhile to recall that, prior to Schipper's tenure as artistic director, local artists were not always valued at that level. In his first season, only 13 out of 70 actors were locals, but, partly due to his implementation of a requirement that all directors audition in Winnipeg, 51 out of 81 actors seen on stage last season were local.

"MTC does play a big role in the life of Winnipeg - it provides really great opportunities for our local actors and also for people in costume and lighting and props," Asper says. "It really is a pivotal organization."

If the old criticism of regional theatres such as MTC was that they received the lion's share of funding, while others that focus on new or innovative work got the short end of the stick, that may disappear now that the Canada Council for the Arts's budget is in the process of doubling and the ecosystem is changing as a result.

In the most recent competition for core funding, the federal arts agency kept MTC's annual grant at $350,000 a year, while awarding two smaller theatre companies in Winnipeg with major increases: Theatre Projects Manitoba's core funding tripled to $75,000, while Prairie Theatre Exchange's more than doubled to $370,000. (Says Schipper: "We were informed by the Canada Council that we had been recommended for an increase, but that they ran out of money in this tranche.") With an endowment that now sits at $19-million, MTC is no doubt in an enviable financial situation - able to subsidize itself regardless of what peer assessors decide.

But what about artistically?

When I ask Schipper for the artistic accomplishments he's most proud of in a phone interview, he starts a list of five that he's prepared in advance with "an excellent board/staff relationship based on mutual respect and candour and much laughter, too."

The others are: Premiering an average of one new play a year; the return of musical-theatre production to MTC; the fostering of writing talent such as Hunter; and that local actors now play leading roles.

Try to get him to name specific Winnipeg actors he's happy to have helped in their careers, however, and he declines: "If I did, I know I'd upset others."

What Asper calls Schipper's "quiet leadership" - that lack of hubris - may not always be stirring, but it is refreshing in an age where charming donors and embodying the brand have become a major part of an artistic director's job.

Schipper, by contrast, prefers to answer questions with "we" rather than "I" - and carries around a quote from Micah in his wallet: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

A search committee made up of members of the board and the broader Winnipeg community has hired Toronto's Searchlight Recruitment to find Schipper's replacement - but 30 years on, it's unlikely we'll see an artistic director quite like him again.

Associated Graphic

Steven Schipper

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