Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fired MTYP founder saddened, bewildered

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Ousted Manitoba Theatre for Young People artistic director Leslee Silverman still doesn't know why she was let go by the company she founded and led to national prominence.

"I have not been given a reason," Silverman said during an emotional interview March 6. "They are under no obligation to give me one."

Silverman, who spent 31 years at the helm of MTYP, was handed a two-page letter on March 5 that stated her open-ended contract would not be extended and that she was no longer a MTYP employee, effective immediately. It included no reason for the abrupt move that has shocked and angered the Winnipeg arts community.

Gloria Koop, MTYP board president, was not offering any specifics either.

"We operated within the terms of the contract and those details are confidential," says Koop. "It's not a personal decision, it's very much a business decision."

Koop lauded Silverman for her stellar leadership of the company but the financial problems left over from the building of its $5.2-million landmark home at The Forks in 1999 have come to an ugly head recently. The cash crunch left the organization unable to meet payroll last month when an expected $100,000 from a foundation did not arrive, owing to a misunderstanding. Late paycheques were sent out to employees March 6. Koop said the board concluded MTYP had to change.

"We have to do things differently, clearly," says Koop, who in private life is an accountant. "Yes, it's a difficult thing that we have done. It's a bump in our yellow brick road."

The board's decision was completely unexpected by Silverman, the first recipient in 2003 of the Manitoba Arts Council Arts Award of Distinction. On Sunday, she took part in a fundraising workshop and arrived at work Tuesday with the expectation of good news that would require her signature. After receiving her firing letter, Silverman was told to leave the building.

"I am not privy to the reason I lost my job and I was not privy to why on earth I'm not allowed to say goodbye. I don't understand the treatment," she says. "I wouldn't treat an actor that way. It's hurtful and I don't like the example it sets for theatre school kids and actors."

Staff said that MTYP has been a tense place to work as management grappled with its $1.56-million building debt and more than $200,000 the theatre owes its creditors. Garbage has been piling up because of its unpaid bill with Johnson Waste Management. The city has sent a notice about cutting off its water supply. Other staff have also announced their departures.

Zaz Bajon, the longtime general manager of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, came out of retirement last year to help MTYP with its fiscal predicament but earlier this year said he was leaving as executive director.

"I found it far more challenging than I anticipated," Bajon says. "I knew it was bad; I didn't know it was this bad.

"It's taking longer (to solve) than I anticipated. It needs someone to make a longer-term commitment to the organization."

Silverman rejected the notion that she was part of the economic distress problem and countered that she was a figure of goodwill, inspiring donations and fundraising initiatives from supporters. One of them was Edmonton theatre director Ron Jenkins, who over the weekend set up an online fundraising drive in which he was asking 1,000 people to contribute $100 each. Jenkins, who helmed the MTYP mainstage and touring production The Big League, says he has so far received more than $2,000.

"I'm just livid at these people on the board," he said, during a telephone interview. "They are supposed to help the staff do what they do best and get them the money to do it. I want to know how much money these people have raised? Now they yell fire when the place has been doing a slow burn for 13 years."

Jenkins will mull over whether to continue his campaign in light of what he sees as the senseless firing of the person who built the organization. Koop refused to divulge her fundraising total.

Silverman says she was not ultimately responsible for the money problems at MTYP. She says she did her part, chopping $180,000 out of the budget production for this season's playbill. She is responsible, she says, for what went on stage and that is drawing a steady audience of about 90 per cent of capacity.

"I don't have any shame or anything to hide about," she says. "It's just that I'm so sad. My heart is broken, but I've had bad reviews before."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 C6

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