IN 1983 Stratford Festival artistic director John Hirsch partnered the up-and coming Montrealer Steven Schipper with budding superstar directior Des McAnuff for a production of Macbeth.
They became fast friends, Schipper assisting McAnuff by day while spending their off hours in the arcades playing a car racing video game called Pole Position. Almost three decades later, the pair, who have taken very different routes through North American theatre arrived last weekend at the same spot, by both being appointed as members of the Order of Canada.
"When I think of us doing Macbeth here, I don't think we were very likely candidates for the Order of Canada," said McAnuff yesterday from Stratford where he is the artistic director. "We spent a lot of time playing Pole Position, trying to rack up the highest score. We used to make all the little kids cry because we kept beating their scores."
McAnuff, 60, is a two-time Tony, Olivier and Dora award-winning director whose production of Jesus Christ Superstar just closed on Broadway. Schipper, 57, has spent 23 seasons making the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre one of the most successful regional theatres in Canada.
"He's the jumbo jet international high flyer," says the latter about the much decorated McAnuff who has taken Big River, The Who's Tommy and Jersey Boys to Broadway. "I'm the Air Canada regional jet but we both ended up being honoured by our country."
In between Macbeth and the Order of Canada announcement their road together got bumpy and came to a dramatic fork. Immediately after Macbeth opened, the American-born, Canadian-raised McAnuff left to take over the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego and took with him several members of his inner circle and invited Schipper to join him as his assistant.
"When Des wants something there's nothing like it," said Schipper this week.
The La Jolla general manager Alan Levy called him with a very generous offer which Schipper turned down in favour of staying at Stratford. The phone calls continued as the offer increased.
"On the last call he said, Look I cannot go back to Des and say I failed. So what is it going to take, just tell me and I'll make it happen. I cannot say no to Des.'"
He did, as Schipper wanted to continue his career in Canada and be as his own man. He knew if he went with McAnuff it would be the end of his marriage (he had married Winnipeg actress Terri Cherniack the previous year). He was well aware assisting McAnuff was a 24/7 job.
"I didn't want to be someone's assistant forever," said Schipper. "I'm good in the co-pilot's seat bit I aspired to being the captain.
"I don't thing Des talked to me for another 10 years."
McAnuff cops to a shaky memory of that period.
"That's probably true but I don't honestly remember that," said McAnuff, who still lives in the fast lane and is working on an opera about race car driver Ayrton Senna for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
They eventually made up and McAnuff came to Winnipeg to talk to MTC patrons.
"It would have been perfect (for Schipper to join him at La Jolla) but I think the people of Winnipeg would agree he made the right decision," said McAnuff, who needed to rush off to work with Christopher Plummer on a new piece called A Word or Two ("I can't be late for the Plum.")
Said Schipper: "It was one of the better decisions I ever made."