Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MTYP awash in red ink on eve of new season

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The high spirits surrounding a promising new season at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People are being tempered by the financial hangover left from the last one.

"It hasn't changed much," says MTYP executive director Zaz Bajon. "We're still struggling to make ends meet. We're not out of the woods; far from it. It still doesn't look good for MTYP."

That's despite the good news coming from the box office, where ticket sales are on a record pace. Single-ticket sales have jumped 25 per cent from this time last year, while the number of season subscriptions has also increased. The season opener, Where the Wild Things Are, is already 78 per cent sold. The provincial tour is sold out and school sales are at 90 per cent.

So while the MTYP playbill is getting a strong endorsement, its financial books prompted the Manitoba Arts Council to place the company on "concerned" status.

The 2011-12 season at MTYP was a fiscal nightmare, as the 30-year-old organization struggled with a cash-flow crisis that saw it miss payroll and have its line of credit severed to the extent that it was forced to request advances on this year's grants. Eliminating its $1.8-million debt, much of it a carryover from the construction of its home at The Forks in 1999, is proving a daunting task.

With MTYP's child-size ticket prices of $15.50, up 50 cents this season, it's hard to make a dent in what it owes. Nor does it help the bottom line that capacity for Where the Wild Things Are is only 100 children.

"The solution is not coming from the box office, but fundraising," says Bajon.

"Our debt is bigger than we can deal with," adds artistic director Leslee Silverman.

That reality was underlined last June when MTYP sent out a letter to parents and supporters outlining its precarious financial jackpot and soliciting donations to cover a small shortfall. That brought in $40,000.

"We're not getting $100,000 donations," says Bajon, the retired general manager at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre who joined MTYP last June.

The largest donation was $1,000. Most were $100, or $50 or less. A couple of young girls held a bake sale and gave the $70 or so in proceeds to MTYP.

"We made $1,000 last Tuesday when Columpa Bobb performed (read) at McNally Robinson and someone gave us a $1,000 cheque," says Silverman. "Oh, that sounds so Salvation Army."

Bobb is the director of MTYP's prized Aboriginal Arts Training and Mentorship program, which has seen its funding jeopardized by the federal government's freezing of all aboriginal youth programs under Cultural Connections for Youth. With that money on hold, MTYP will continue to run the program for almost 600 young people at least until the new year.

"We're trying to keep it going with nickels and dimes," says Bajon. "It's an invaluable program. We're scrambling with other financial problems and this compounds our financial situation. You can only fight so many fires on so many fronts with limited staff."

The plan for the organization is to launch a major fundraising campaign to finally remove the red ink from its balance sheets and to establish an endowment fund. Some of the details will be released at MTYP's annual general meeting next Tuesday, along with an announcement on the company's monetary performance for 2011-12.

Says Bajon, "And it won't be a surplus."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2012 D3

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