Kelly Thornton hopes to bring more diversity to Royal MTC as 1st new artistic director in 30 years

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has a new director at the helm for the first time in three decades, and she wants to start with a focus on boosting the diversity and variety of Manitoban-told stories on stage.

New leader brings 17 years of directorial experience at Toronto's Nightwood Theatre, replaces Steven Schipper

Kelly Thornton is the first new artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 30 years. (Dahlia Katz)

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has a new director at the helm for the first time in three decades, and she wants to start with a focus on boosting diversity on stage and the variety of Manitoban-told stories.

"The big discussion in Canadian theatre is how can we make our stages reflect the Canadian population," said Kelly Thornton, the newly minted artistic director of the Royal MTC. "It's super important for me to dig into that conversation."

Thornton replaces Steven Schipper, who announced in March that he'll retire at the end of the 2018-19 theatre season, after 30 years in the position.

"I really respect what Steven has done here. He's really built a very successful theatre company," Thornton said. "It's great to inherit such a healthy organization and dedicated audience."

Thornton comes to the RMTC via Toronto's Nightwood Theatre, a feminist-focused theatre where she held the artistic director post for the past 17 years of the company's nearly 40-year history.

Nightwood could only support one or two shows a year before Thornton's reign, and she took pride in "propelling women's voices" during her time there. 

In her first season and directorial debut in 2001, Nightwood and the Obsidian Theatre Company co-premiered The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Canadian playwright Djanet Sears.

It was an ambitious move for two independent companies, Thornton said.

"That was a great way to launch into my time at Nightwood, because it was above and beyond our capacity," she told Ismaila Alfa, the host of CBC Radio's Up To Speed.

Meet Kelly Thornton, Royal MTC's first new artistic director in 30 years. 5:24

"Our operation budget was less than what the actual show budget was at the time, but we did it and sold out."

As great as her time in Toronto was, Thornton said it's a big market "congested" with theatre companies, whereas the playing field is more open in Winnipeg.

Another draw of the Royal MTC is that it is a "history-maker and a leader" as the oldest regional theatre in Canada, said Thornton.

"It's a hugely vibrant and healthy theatre company, and the community of Winnipeg kind of blows me away in terms of the bounty of artistic practice," Thornton said, listing the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the many festivals hosted in the city throughout the year.

"It's great to come to a city that is defined by the cultural institutions of the province and proud of the art that's being made."

Thornton said she wants to build on the Royal MTC's rich history by growing the pool of resources available to local playwrights and helping more of their stories reach Manitoba audiences.

"Royal MTC has built a cultural identity for this province and now we look to the future to see what that cultural identity is in the 21st century."

She'll officially take over as artistic director at the Royal MTC in June 2019.

With files from Isaac Wurmann