Steven Schipper to retire after 30 years as Royal MTC artistic director
‘I feel as though I've been living a dream come true,’ says Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s longest-serving AD
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).
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."
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."
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.
- In 1995, MTC brought in a movie star named Keanu Reeves to play the lead in a production of Hamlet. Patrons travelled from around the world to see the production.
- The Royal MTC-sponsored Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, which began in 1988 under Schipper's predecessor, Rick McNair, has grown into one the largest festivals of its kind in the world. (It's second in size in North America only to Edmonton's Fringe Festival).
- In 2001, the theatre began a January Master Playwright Festival, dedicated to giving local theatre companies the chance to stage plays by a designated playwright. Most recently, the festival celebrated the work of American writer John Patrick Shanley.
- In 2010, the Manitoba Theatre Centre received its Royal designation.
- In 2007, Schipper received a honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Winnipeg. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2012 and awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba in 2015.
- In January 2018, the Royal MTC sold out its entire run of the hit musical Come From Away. The production is now selling out performances in an open-ended run in Toronto.
And a few misses:
- In 2011, the theatre presented the world premiere of Grumpy Old Men: The Musical, which its producers hoped would be Broadway-bound. It was critically panned in Winnipeg and has not yet made it to Broadway.
- In 2006, Hollywood star William Hurt — who had previously appeared in an MTC production of Shakespeare's Richard III — backed out of a starring role in MTC's production of The Tempest. "I know that he'll return – he's made that clear," Schipper said at the time. Hurt has not yet returned.
- In 2009, MTC staged the first full-scale production of hitmaker Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Boys in the Photograph. It was, again, poorly received critically and — unusual for a Lloyd Webber musical — has never made it to Broadway.
With files from The Weekend Morning Show