Frankly, Steven Schipper doesn't give a damn that the theatrical landscape is littered with failed stage adaptations of the literary epic Gone With the Wind.
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre artistic director is so confident that he possesses that long overdue script -- one that will finally do justice to the iconic 1936 Margaret Mitchell book -- that he has made it the linchpin production of his company's 2012-13 season, announced yesterday in the lobby of its Market Avenue headquarters.
"I'm convinced it has the potential to be the iconic stage version of this classic story," says Schipper during an interview. "I'm sure this will be produced around the world and enjoyed for generations to come."
This is the 24th RMTC season Schipper has unveiled, some with movie star appearances from Keanu Reeves and William Hurt, others with world premières from the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Findley, but no title has excited him more.
"I've never had the experience of reading a new play that I knew was going to be produced everywhere after we present the world première," says Schipper, who will direct the opening set for Jan. 10, 2013. "We've welcomed some stars onto our stage and that was exciting, but I think this will be the most exciting legacy the RMTC leaves the world."
The source of all this excitement is as unlikely as RMTC announcing it will present the world première of Gone With the Wind. The author of this promising adaptation is Niki Landau, a Toronto actress who has performed here a few times with little fanfare (she made her professional debut here in WJT's Kindertransport in 1995). With a couple of titles to her credit (Territories and The Corpse Bride), she still rates an emerging playwright.
At the launch yesterday, Schipper began by declaring, "There's something thrilling at the heart of our upcoming season," but held off introducing Gone With the Wind to the last, when Landau was unmasked as the adaptor. It was a relief for her to throw off the cone of silence that has surrounded the project.
"It's been almost three years of working in secrecy; it was always called the secret play," says Landau, during an interview. "We've had a couple of secret readings with everyone signing letters of confidentiality. It's kind of shocking now to be able to say this is what I'm working on."
Landau was commissioned by RMTC after an innocent conversation with company producer Laurie Lam in 2008. Lam had been telling her of the recent success of Pride and Prejudice on the mainstage and wondered what other classic books could be dramatized for the stage. Landau suggested Gone With the Wind, which had been a favourite read growing up. She immediately heard Lam go to her computer; the producer then announced that the book was in the public domain, "so it is yours if you want it."
Landau had no intention of angling to adapt Gone With the Wind but once she was offered the opportunity, she agreed, after conferring with her husband Paul Lampert (they run Theatre Panik together). His repsonse: "You really can't say no, can you?"
Landau soon discovered that the novel has never been adapted successfully. The biggest flop was the most recent attempt -- a musical version in London in 2008 where the £4-million production lasted 70 performances after being critically mauled. The running time was initially four hours and 20 minutes; even after cutting an hour, no one in the West End gave a damn.
Her script is currently 104 pages long (compared to the book's 1,600 pages) and looks to be a three-hour production. That is even shorter than the beloved movie with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, which clocks in at three hours and 42 minutes and had 16 writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"If it comes in at around three hours, that would be a record," she says. "I would be doing something that's never been done."
That Landau is debuting her Gone With the Wind at RMTC is a strange twist of fate. Her first appearance with the theatre was in the Warehouse production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in which she played a Southern woman fixated on Gone With the Wind who made a memorable entrance in a grand Scarlett O'Hara hoop dress.
"I don't know if I can be ready for what is to come," she says. "I love doing theatre that matters to people and I have a feeling that this one is going to mean a lot to a lot of people."
Schipper also announced the 2012-13 mainstage playbill would open in October with A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network). It's about an American lawyer who defends two marines accused of murder in a hazing incident gone wrong. Schipper said he thought handsome men in uniforms would be a draw to the women who make up the majority of the RMTC audience.
The season also includes several feel-good productions: the chamber musical Daddy Long Legs is about an orphaned young woman and her anonymous benefactor; Ed's Garage, by the Wingfield franchise team, is where small-town dwellers take their cars -- and psyches -- for tuneups; and Miracle on South Division Street is a comedy about faith and family by Tom Dudzik. The season wraps in April with Other People's Money, in which a small town business becomes the target of a hostile-takeover bid.
The Warehouse season opens with the 2010 Tony Award winner for best play, Red, which is about New York painter Mark Rothko and the price artists pay for integrity. The RMTC contribution to SondheimFest 2013 is the legendary American composer's killer musical Assassins, a production being brought in from Toronto. That is followed by the stage version of Margaret Atwood's novella The Penelopiad, and the season ends with Ride the Cyclone: The Musical, a show with great buzz out of British Columbia. It follows a teenage chamber choir killed in a roller-coaster accident but given a chance to perform their final recital from beyond the grave.
"We're very hopeful it will lower the median age of our audience, which I'm proud to say is lower than most theatres already," says Schipper. "This will continue the development of our next generation of theatre-goers."
RMTC 2012-13 Playbill
A Few Good Men, Oct. 18-Nov. 10
Miracle on South Division Street, Nov. 22-Dec. 15
Gone With the Wind, Jan. 10-Feb. 2
Ed's Garage, Feb. 7-March 2
Daddy Long Legs, March 14-April 6
Other People's Money, April 18-May 11
Red, Nov. 1-17
Assassins, Jan. 17-Feb. 2
The Penelopiad, Feb. 21-March 9
Ride the Cyclone: The Musical, March 21-April 6