This number of plays being read - just read out loud - and having an audience show up is unheard of.
—Alix Sobler, playwright
The Playwrights Unit is gathered around a table in Prairie Theatre Exchange's glass-enclosed boardroom. They're about to review each other's "short shot" scripts for the upcoming Carol Shields' Festival of New Works, but first they're taking stock of the success Manitoba playwrights are enjoying.
By their count, over 50 productions of works by the group's 10 members have played on major stages across the country and into the U.S. over the last five years. That's compared to perhaps a dozen productions, mostly on local stages, in the preceding five year period, according to playwright Rick Chafe.
Evan Hall and RobYn Slade appeared in PTE's production of Ellen Peterson's The Brink. (Bruce Monk)
"There's never been 10 to 12 local playwrights all producing at the same time," Chafe says. "All the other disciplines - music, visual arts, literature - are light years ahead in terms of being recognized internationally."
The unit's members - Chafe, Debbie Patterson, Alix Sobler, Sharon Bajer, Joseph Aragon, Ginny Collins, Trish Cooper, James Durham, Marc Prescott and Ellen Peterson - can't put their finger on why Winnipeg-penned productions are beginning to take off on regional stages.
Some point to the personal development afforded by 25 years of the local Fringe Theatre Festival, where playwrights are free to try out new material with relatively low risk. Others point to the Carol Shields Festival as a venue where audiences, including local artistic directors, will go to support new plays.
Alix Sobler's The Secret Annex is in RMTC's lineup for next season. (Lucky Girl Photography)
"One of my first productions to be picked up was first staged at the Carol Shields Festival," says Sobler. "This number of plays being read - just read out loud - and having an audience show up is unheard of."
Chafe is also inclined to give credit to the Playwrights Unit itself. Formed in 2007, Chafe says the group's fostering of critical feedback and peer encouragement has pushed the members to produce their best work.
"Our supporting each other, our mutual dramaturgy, our pushing each other to send scripts out to theatres - it's a big part of all our boats rising together."
PTE's artistic director Bob Metcalfe is also sitting at the table. His choice to commission, stage and promote Manitoban-penned plays is commended by the group, particularly given the cost of seeing a project through from the drawing board to the stage.
"The economics do not favour developing local plays, I can tell you that," Metcalfe says. "It costs considerably more to present local playwrights."
Metcalfe says at meetings of the national body umbrella group PTE and other regional theatres fall under, artistic directors spend at least part of the time passing scripts and back and forth, comparing notes.
He doesn't hesitate in passing out scripts from the unit's members, hoping to secure the elusive "second production" of a local play. The recognition Manitoban plays are receiving nationally make it easy.
"Now when I have conversations with my colleagues," Metcalfe says, "they know your names."
2013/14 Winnipeg-written main stage productions
Royal Manitoba Theatre CentreThe Secret Annex
by Alix Sobler
Prairie Theatre ExchangeSocial Studies
by Trish CooperPortage & Munsch - 50 Below
adapted by Debbie Patterson
Winnipeg Jewish TheatreGood Intentions
by Ginny CollinsIvanov by Chekhov
, adapted by Michael NathansonShiksa
by Cairn Moore
Theatre Projects ManitobaThe Miser of Middlegate
by Carolyn Gray (in co-production with zone41)Sargent & Victor & Me
by Debbie Patterson