In the spring of 1981 University of Toronto doctoral student Leslee Silverman was back home in Winnipeg for Passover when she ran into old theatre pal Colin Jackson.
The chance meeting at the corner of Princess Street and William Avenue took place just up from the rustic digs of the newly re-named Prairie Theatre Exchange, where Jackson was the executive producer. It was also the same distance down Princess from the home of Actors' Showcase, a non-professional troupe suddenly in need of an artistic director.
"Colin told me they had called that morning and were looking for someone to start up a theatre for young people," remembers Silverman. "I knocked on the door and asked if they were still interviewing. The first question was, 'If we asked you to direct Cinderella, would you?'
"I said, 'No, I would give you something much better than Cinderella.'"
Over the last three decades as artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Silverman has kept her word by presenting engaging theatre from the stages of Italy, France, Russia, Japan and Australia. Shows that explored topical social issues such as bullying, residential schools, eating disorders, racism and new immigrants. And she's taken them to schoolchildren all over the province, country and to New York City. She also has never staged Cinderella.
Last night, MTYP launched its 30th season with a revival of its one-time box-office champ The Hobbit. Earlier in the week Silverman, the only staffer to have survived all three decades, sat down in the Shaw Centre for Performing Arts to chat about the making of a leading Canadian young people's theatre.
She looked back at the downs and ups -- from standing outside on Princess pleading with hookers to wait until theatre students were picked up by their parents before soliciting passing johns, to standing in Rideau Hall in Ottawa last May with William Shatner to receive the Governor General's Performing Arts Award medallion for lifetime achievement.
"For me, personally, I wish my grandmother was alive to see it," says the 59-year-old Silverman, who in recent years has been showered with honours recognizing her tenacity and vision. "She always said I had a fire. She told me, 'How you do anything is how you do everything.' I learned that from her."
Silverman's fierce drive to raise children's theatre up by its bootstraps in this city has been ever present since her first entrance into the humble Actors' Showcase office. She never accepted theatre for young people being treated as anything less worthy than theatre for adults.
"John Hirsch wrote that to do this job you have to have a messianic complex," says the Wolseley resident. "Do I have one? Probably. I go to yoga, I try to be Zen. I try to recognize I have a forceful personality."
It has riled her that the financially challenged company did not see any grant increase in 1999 when it moved into its landmark new digs at The Forks and had to assume all the extra costs, as well as carry a then-hefty $1-million capital deficit on its building. The organization has paid down its debt by $650,000 in the last three years and hopes to have it eliminated next year.
"Do I have a chip on my shoulder?" she asks, rhetorically. "I used to. They told me take it off, that it wasn't going to help. We weren't going to get more funding. The struggle has always been ridiculous."
None of that has shown up on the stage, where a generation of kids has been treated to the best in the theatre for young audiences repertoire, some created right here, such as its most lauded and travelled work, Comet in Moominland, as well as Rick, An Illustrated History of the Anishnabe, Silverwing and Where The Wild Things Are.
"I would venture to say that if MTYP never existed, the adult audiences at Manitoba Theatre Centre, Prairie Theatre Exchange and Rainbow Stage would be much sparser," says local actress Jan Skene. "MTYP grows audiences for the rest of the community."
It has also grown performers who graduated from its school and made their mark elsewhere. Nia Vardalos and Adam Beach come immediately to mind but so does Peter Mooney, who is currently appearing in a leading role in the CBC-TV series Camelot.
"It felt like real school to me," Mooney says via email. "I was involved in a collectively created adaptation of Lord of the Flies when I was nine. Nine! It kind of made the stuff I was doing at real school seem like child's play."
The impact has probably been much more profound among the youngsters who have been exposed to social-issue plays such as New Canadian Kid, Liars, The Other Side of the Closet, Mirror Game, Dying to be Thin and See Saw. Winnipeg actor/director Robb Paterson remembers a drama about residential schools called The Rememberer.
"To this day my daughter, Tara, says that this is the show that changed her life and made her embrace the fight against social injustice," he says. "She was just a kid. She's now the president of the student union at the University of Victoria. She's an activist for women's rights, the pro-choice movement, student funding, the environment. You name it."
The playwright Ian Ross has a favourite MTYP moment from when it was touring his An Illustrated History of the Anishnabe to an inner-city school. During the post-performance Q&A, a little girl's hand shot up.
"It was obvious from her question that she had experienced empathy and learned about denial in society," says Ross. "That's what MTYP does so well. It gets kids asking questions. If we don't ask questions in society, it becomes very dangerous."
Silverman has recently been receiving birthday greetings for MTYP and took a second to consider what gift she would wish for her theatre.
"I would give MTYP a full-time janitor," she says. "I'd like to open the space behind the parking lot for aboriginal arts. I'd like to make Winnipeg an official child-rights city when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens but most of all I just want MTYP to continue."