Steven Schipper to retire after 30 years as Royal MTC artistic director

After nearly 30 years as the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Steven Schipper — the longest-serving AD in the theatre’s history — officially announced Saturday he will retire after the end of the 2018-19 season.

‘I feel as though I've been living a dream come true,’ says Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s longest-serving AD

Steven Schipper has announced that he will retire as artistic director of Winnipeg's Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre at the end of the 2018-19 season. Schipper is the theatre's longest-serving AD, having been in the role since 1989. (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

When Steven Schipper took the reins at Manitoba's largest theatre, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, the Berlin Wall hadn't fallen, Milli Vanilli topped the charts and Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical, The Phantom of the Opera, was just a year into its history-making Broadway run.

But on Saturday, after nearly 30 years as the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre — a tenure virtually unheard of at a Canadian theatre — Schipper officially announced he will retire after the end of the 2018-19 season.

"There's a time for everything … there's a time to begin and a time to finish, and I wanted to go when I could conceivably still continue, but not when everyone else felt it was long past time for me to go," Schipper, 62, told CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show host Nadia Kidwai.

Schipper — who was born in Montreal and has lived in Winnipeg with his wife, actor Terri Cherniack, since 1987 — became the theatre's AD in 1989, after serving two years as associate artistic director under Rick McNair.

His tenure at the theatre has been notable for its stability. He's served longer than any other Royal MTC artistic director (MTC founder John Hirsch served eight years — a distant second for the title of longest-serving AD).

Remarkable stability

The theatre has also maintained healthy attendance — for the 2016-17 season, its two theatres had a total attendance of 106,743. That's down considerably from attendance of 141,800 in 2007-08 — MTC's 50th-anniversary season — but still a number many Canadian theatres would envy.

That stability is no accident; Schipper said he was brought on in 1989 to enact a "recovery plan" for the theatre.

"There had been a very large annual deficit the year before, which was part of the reason the former artistic director was let go," he said.

"So we determined that we would A, get in touch with our community, both with artists and audiences, B, improve the consistency of quality of work on our mainstage and last, but not least, put our financial house back in order."

Sarah Ballenden, a play by Winnipeg writer Maureen Hunter, saw its world premiere at the Royal MTC in 2017. The new works the theatre has presented, Schipper said, are among his proudest accomplishments at the Royal MTC. (Dylan Hewlett)

That's led to what some have criticized as a focus on commercial and mainstream work — the Royal MTC regularly programs musicals, Broadway hits and plays based on well-known films on its stages, especially the larger John Hirsch Mainstage.

Schipper makes no apologies for that, though, saying programming big musicals helps "broaden artistic scope and boost subscriber attendance for all plays, including new works."

Those new works, he said, are among his proudest accomplishments at the theatre. He cites the fostering of new work by writers like famed puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, Rick Miller and Winnipeg's Maureen Hunter — whose Transit of Venus premiered at MTC in 1992 and went on to be produced by London's Royal Shakespeare Company.

Credits others for successes

Another highlight of his tenure, he said, has been bringing more local actors to the Winnipeg stage.

"Local actors have always been important to our theatre, but they now regularly play leading roles with both our John Hirsch and Tom Hendry theatres," he said.

"The actors can take full credit for winning those roles on their own merits — the only contribution the theatre made was to ensure that directors came to Winnipeg to hold auditions."

Indeed, Schipper — who is famously media shy — is reluctant to take credit for many of the Royal MTC's successes.

I feel as though I've been living a dream come true, and it's all thanks to everyone connected to Royal MTC .- Steven Schipper

"I've always felt confident in positions of leadership," he said, adding, "When I say I'm comfortable, that doesn't mean I'm any good — it just means I know the things one ought to do."

Rather, he credits others for the theatre's successes.

"The team we have at Royal MTC is so extraordinary. The trustees are enlightened, the staff are dedicated, the volunteers are extraordinary, beautiful people. So it's actually one of the easiest places to succeed on the planet — the people make it so," he said.

"I feel as though I've been living a dream come true, and it's all thanks to everyone connected to Royal MTC."

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has seen many successes under Schipper's leadership, including a sold-out January 2018 run of the hit musical Come From Away. (Matthew Murphy/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre)

He has no immediate post-Royal MTC plans, he said — he'll continue with the theatre until the end of the 2018-19 season, and will program the 2019-20 season. After that, "I'd love to be able to share my leadership skills with another organization, be it in business or the arts or academia."

As for the legacy he'll leave in Winnipeg theatre, "if there is one, [it] will be up to others to determine."

Could that include a statue of the theatre's longest-serving artistic director, like the one of MTC founders John Hirsch and Tom Hendry outside the mainstage now?

"I hope not," Schipper said with a laugh.

Steven Schipper's greatest hits:

  • In 1995, MTC staged the Canadian premiere of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels In America. Other Canadian premieres at the theatre include Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
  • In 1992, the theatre presented the world premiere of Winnipeg writer Maureen Hunter's Transit of Venus. Other made-in-Manitoba plays premiered at the theatre include Hunter's Atlantis and Sarah Ballenden, Alix Sobler's The Secret Annex, and Bruce McManus's adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Next season, the theatre will premiere Winnipeg writer Ellen Peterson's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Robb Paterson, who served as one of Schipper's associate artistic directors, performs in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's November 2017 production of A Christmas Carol. The theatre premiered the adaptation by Winnipeg playwright Bruce McManus in 2005. (Dylan Hewlett/Royal MTC)

And a few misses:

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

With files from The Weekend Morning Show


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