Pablo Felices-Luna never forgot the first impression that Manitoba Theatre for Young People made on him in 2002 as he arrived as a wide-eyed directing wannabe.
He was in Winnipeg to shadow and assist his mentor, Kim Selody, artistic director of St. Catharine's Carousel Players, rehearse two shows, The Odyssey and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Felices-Luna was wowed to walk into a one-of-a-kind building specifically constructed for kids and full of passionate artists dedicating their professional lives to theatre for young audiences.
"It was so inspiring," says Felices-Luna, who Thursday was appointed MTYP's third artistic director. "I told the board of directors that emotionally I never left. I love what MTYP stands for."
Eight years ago he succeeded Selody -- a longtime creative collaborator with MTYP's founding artistic director Leslee Silverman -- at the Carousel Players. When Derek Aasland suddenly resigned in May after 16 months on the job, Felices-Luna was quick to apply to become MTYP's third artistic director. He was one of 15 applicants, seven of whom were interviewed by the MTYP search committee.
Last Thursday, the 41-year-old father of three preschool girls quietly slipped into Winnipeg "like I was on a spy mission" for his final face-to-face interview with the board. The next day he was offered the job. He will take up his new post Nov. 15 after overseeing a couple of Carousel projects in the fall.
"I was surprised by the call but very happy," he says during an telephone interview from his office in St. Catharines. "I knew I was in against some tough competition because this is an organization with a lot of cachet across the country."
When he gets here he will be greeted by a few familiar faces, including Ardith Boxall, who was part of the cast of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2002. Since Carousel Players was a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatre, he served on several committees with Boxall, the artistic director of Theatre Projects Manitoba, and Camilla Holland, general manager of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
"It's a fabulous choice," says Boxall. "I thought he was the most perfect candidate. He's a warm and generous person. He's a great listener and will always speak up when it is necessary."
Felices-Luna joins a company on the rebound from a nasty 2012-13 season that saw the ouster of Silverman, the driving force of MTYP for over two decades, and continuing cash flow problems that caused missed payrolls. Aasland shrunk the season to five productions and made sure MTYP did not add to its accumulated debt which stands at approximately $1.5 million.
"I followed what was going on very closely," says Felices-Luna, whose mother tongue was Spanish but is now fluently bilingual. "I was personally devastated when things looked grim. We were all concerned about losing one of the most important organizations in theatre for young audiences in Canada."
He will contact Silverman, saying not to do so would be completely disrespectful.
His priorities are to integrate the programming so that it influences what is happening in the theatre school as well as ensure that MTYP remains focused on touring its work in the region.
"MTYP has always been a linchpin for touring in central Canada," he says. " I think it is very important MTYP continue to act as a conduit for work from both ends of the country while making sure Winnipeggers see the best theatre Canada has to offer."
Felices-Luna was born in Peru and came to Canada at 15 on a scholarship for an international school on Vancouver Island. He returned home to Lima for one year to study theatre before he enrolled at University of Victoria where he graduated in 1995 and earned his Masters in Fine Art in directing from York University in 1998.
He met Carrie Costello, a Canadian playwright and puppeteer, in 1995 and decided to stay in Canada. Felices-Luna served as artistic director of the young children's troupe Castlemoon Theatre from 2001-06 before moving over to head Carousel Players.
He's looking forward to all the challenges of the job and the city, which of course includes the harsh winters.
"The first week I was in Winnipeg I made the mistake of walking six blocks with a cup of coffee and expecting it to stay hot," he says. "I'll be prepared this time."