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MTYP emerging from chaos with head above water

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Manitoba Theatre for Young People is on track to record a $150,000-$200,000 operating surplus on a tumultuous season that climaxed with the dismissal of founding artistic director Leslee Silverman earlier this month.

Outgoing executive producer Zaz Bajon is forecasting a surprisingly healthy bottom line given that the organization struggled all season with chronic cash-flow difficulties that caused it to miss payroll, have its Internet access cut for non-payment, garbage service stopped and creditors demanding cash on delivery for supplies.

"This shows that we are moving in the right direction, that this is a viable operation," Bajon said this week about the surplus.

It's obviously not all rosy at MTYP. It's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, the accumulated deficit. Bank indebtedness has spiked to $1.6 million and the pile of unpaid bills on Bajon's desk demand another $200,000-$300,000.

"Some people are threatening to take us to small claims court," says Bajon, who was the general manager of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre for 30 years until 2011. "Some people want to get their lawyers involved. I've got all kinds of people who want to be paid. We're getting deeper into the hole."

Bajon is leaving his post after less than a year. He joined MTYP in June 2012 to help the highly regarded but cash-poor organization. His main plan had been to raise $2 million to pay off the accumulated debt and launch an endowment campaign with a goal of $2 million, which would be matched by government funders.

That initiative never got off the ground as a Manitoba Arts Council-installed interim management board carried out a study of the organization.

"We were being studied to death," Bajon says. "What we needed to do was raise money. The longer we waited the worse it would get, in my humble opinion."

The determination of Bajon (pronounced Buy-on) not to spend money the company didn't have earned him the nickname No-buy-on. That frugality and reduced production costs are behind the surplus. It will continue next season when the theatre's budget will fall to $2.2 million, down from $2.5 million, with a smaller seven-show season still being contemplated.

Silverman's sudden firing came before the organization, which has seen a spate of key staff departures, had finalized its 2013-14 season. Since then, Bajon has attempted to gain the rights to plays and hire directors for a list of shows Silverman had intended to produce. The workload became too onerous.

"I'm leaving because I can't take it any more," says Bajon, who predicts his successor faces a three-to five-year job to turn MTYP around. "Last night I was up to two o'clock in the morning tossing and turning about all the things I have to do. I've realized that I've bitten off more than I can chew."

The troubles at MTYP, which ends its season with the final performance of Zoozoo on Sunday, are not unusual for young people's theatres across Canada. Several companies are hurting financially and the measures it can take to change that are limited. MTYP has never had a deep-pocketed benefactor to come to its rescue in times of economic crisis and corporate support was spotty right from the time money was solicited to build MTYP's distinctive $5.2-million home at The Forks, which opened in 1999.

Mavis Reimer was the MTYP board president in the late 1990s and did her share of door-knocking at city businesses. She found her pitch included much education about what MTYP is and what it contributes to the community. Often she was told MTYP was a second-tier company.

"It is not as prestigious to be associated with a children's theatre as it is with an opera company or symphony," says Reimer, a University of Winnipeg English professor and Canada Research Chair of Young People's Text and Cultures. "These are much more visible markers of high culture."

Many would suggest that Winnipeg has a thriving cultural scene due to MTYP's grassroots development of future arts consumers. Reimer says that MTYP is an amazing accomplishment and speaks to Winnipeg's distinct culture.

"Maybe there's a need for another round of public education as to what we have in the city at The Forks and why we should want to fight to keep it," she said.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 G1

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