Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Production creates Carnage for RMTC

Vancouver theatre's sudden closing likely to kill co-production and spill red ink here

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The surprise closing of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre after 49 years could put a dent in the bottom line of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

RMTC is opening God Of Carnage tomorrow, the front end of a co-production with the suddenly shuttered second-largest theatre company of British Columbia. After Yasmina Reza's Tony and Olivier award-winning dark comedy ends its run on the mainstage here April 7 it is scheduled to begin previews at the Vancouver Playhouse April 14. Embattled artistic director Max Reimer is in talks with prospective angels who might come to the rescue and bankroll the Vancouver leg.

If he doesn't succeed, RMTC might take a financial hit and make what looks like a financially losing season worse.

"Fiscally, it's been tough to make the numbers balance on the subscribers we have," says RMTC's first-year general manager Camilla Holland. "At this point it is likely we will be showing a deficit on the season and the situation at the (Vancouver) Playhouse could exacerbate that."

The source of the RMTC's expected deficit is a 10-per-cent drop in season-ticket holders on the mainstage to about 15,500 subscribers. The financial hit is not offset by the modest increase in subscriptions at the Warehouse. Holland cited the heavy fundraising always going on in the city and the plays not drawing the numbers expected as a couple of the reasons for the economic challenges. A 2011-12 deficit, if it comes to be, would be only the company's sixth in the last 30 years.

"I think the Winnipeg environment is changing," says Holland. "There are a lot of wonderful exciting things to do in Winnipeg and we need to remind people that the arts are a critical part of that."

Although nobody will come out and blame the Winnipeg Jets, the team's return to the city has soaked up a lot of attention and subscriber money, which has been felt at most of the city's major cultural institutions. But a small deficit at RMTC is nothing compared to losing a theatre in Vancouver or the Stratford Festival announcing last Saturday a 13-per-cent drop in attendance last season (although it registered a small surplus of $50,000).

"I think it is a tough time to be producing performing arts," says Holland, who succeeded longtime RMTC fixture Zaz Bajon. "I think we are all fragile. I would say this is the sharp end of the stick, that there for the grace of God go a number of theatre companies."

The Vancouver Playhouse announcement came out of nowhere and the media attending the press conference Friday expected the unveiling of the stage company's new season, as was being done the same day at the 54-year-old RMTC.

"I was surprised by the speed of the closure because this is a major organization with a long history and a supportive audience," Holland says. "I probably know more than most because we have been in those long conversations about the co-production and I know they were having financial challenges and I knew those financial challenges were worsening."

The God of Carnage cast and artistic team are in Winnipeg and are reeling by the news. Performer John Cassini was looking forward to make his Playhouse debut in what has been his hometown for the last eight years. Director Miles Potter, who once was the artistic director of the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, is sad about the closure.

"It's an inheritance of years and years of neglect," Potter says. "The theatre has not been a priority for the city or the province.

"It seems crazy to not find a way to get the play to Vancouver and at least generate some money. My analogy is if GM tells you you have to close your dealership. You don't trash the cars, you sell them. You get what you can. This show is ready to go."

There are precedents for B.C. arts organizations rising from the ashes. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was forced to shut down for five months in 1988 due to a $2.3-million deficit. It regrouped and is thriving. Same with the Belfry under Potter in 1985.

"I think it's not impossible the Playhouse might be able to use this outpouring of support," Holland says. "I think it will require a different operating model."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2012 D3

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