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Plan B

Theatre Projects Manitoba tweaks mandate this year to stage Quebec works

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Harry Rintoul would be rolling over in his grave.

The late founder of Theatre Projects Manitoba would be stunned to hear that for the first time in its 23-year history, the company is not presenting any homegrown work on its stage.

Both of TPM's 2012-13 offerings are from Quebec: Carole Fréchette's John and Beatrice, which opens tonight; and Bashir Lazhar by Evelyne de la Chenelière.

To reflect that re-focus the company quietly tweaked its self-description. A year ago TPM was "committed to the cultivation of Manitoba plays and artists, in the past 21 years, we have staged more than 50 new Manitoba works." This year the word Manitoba has been dropped in favour of Canadian.

TPM artistic director Ardith Boxall says that the company didn't have any new, stage-ready local plays to present after completing a development cycle that produced Armin Wiebe's The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz for the 2010-11 season and Dionysus in Stony Mountain by Steven Ratzlaff last season.

"We're just in between cycles of development," says Boxall, who is in her seventh season at the TPM helm. "If we want to continue bringing local plays of that standard and that quality, you don't put it up for the sake of putting it up."

The organization has not been the target of any blowback for not offering any Manitoba projects, she says. Boxall talked about presenting those two plays with the TPM board, who supported going with these two French plays in translation.

"My board actually said, 'Don't apologize for it, there is no need,'" she says during a recent interview. "The first play this company produced was by (Montrealer) Michel Tremblay."

It is true that TPM debuted with Tremblay's Albertine in Five Times, Rintoul's favourite play. It is also true that nine of the next 10 productions were penned by a who's who of local playwrights such as Ellen Peterson (whose first full-length play, The Brink, opened the Prairie Theatre Exchange season a few weeks ago), Michael Nathanson, Vern Thiessen, Yvette Nolan and Sharon Bajer. Of its 43 presentations since 1990, 35 were written by Manitobans.

During Boxall's tenure TPM has seen its attendance jump by 140 per cent. Ticket sales last year were 2,200, compared to 918 in 2005-06. The number of season subscribers was also increased to 260 last year from 68 in 2007-08.

"We are doing what we are supposed to be doing," says Boxall, who is directing John and Beatrice. "A company does shift and change in terms of how it can be vibrant and relevant. Our audience has grown and knows we are committed to Manitoba artists. They love the option we've become and trust us to continue developing the local voices and bringing them exciting theatre from around the country."

Boxall has been watching a growth in translation of Quebec plays into English and was curious about what English theatre had been missing. Her first discovery was Bashir Lazhar, which had its profile greatly enhanced when the big-screen adaptation was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. When looking for a companion piece, Fréchette, who had never been presented in Manitoba before, was a natural fit and created the bigger idea of a Quebec season.

In TPM's season opener, Beatrice, a self-proclaimed wealthy heiress, is ensconced in an office tower waiting for Mr. Right to come woo her after posting a challenge to all men and offering a reward. John is a bounty hunter who makes it clear that he's taking up the challenge solely for the money. These unlikely partners in a romantic fairy tale play out the delusions and truths of modern-day romance.

"We have a mismatched couple; their large desires and objectives are polar opposites," says Boxall, who has cast Winnipeg actors Kevin Klassen and Tracy Penner in the title roles. "Sometimes they remind me of Felix and Oscar (of The Odd Couple), two vibrantly opposite forces that are destined to go through something that is probably not a good idea."

Theatre preview

John and Beatrice

Theatre Projects Manitoba

Opens tonight, to Nov. 11, Rachel Browne Theatre

Tickets: $15-$25 at 204-989-2400

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2012 c13

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