There was far more at stake for playwright Alix Sobler and her speculative drama The Secret Annex last February at RMTC Warehouse than the customary positive reviews.
The other secret surrounding her "what if Anne Frank had survived the Holocaust?" story was that Sobler had already submitted the script to New York's Columbia University as part of her application to the prestigious master of fine arts in playwriting program. The admissions committee's thoughts about The Secret Annex would have a far more lasting impact on her burgeoning career than any critical response in Winnipeg.
"Yes, there was a lot riding on that play being good," says Sobler, who was one of the unprecedented number of local female playwrights debuting new works last season. "It was so frustrating that in rehearsals I made so many great changes. I wanted to send them the newest script."
The 35-year-old actor/writer needn't have fretted; in April she was chosen as one of 10 students entering the exclusive, three-year program. She has resigned her day job as communications and resource development manager with the Winnipeg Arts Council.
"I guess since they accepted me, they saw the potential in my play," she says, during a recent interview.
Her departure on Monday with her husband Jason Neufeld is a significant loss for Winnipeg theatre. Ever since she arrived here from New York in 2005 to pursue her romantic relationship with Neufeld, she has been a relentless Winnipeg booster and fringe festival cheerleader. Neufeld, the festival manager for the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, will apply for his green card to work in New York.
With The Secret Annex, Sobler was poised to become a significant stage voice here.
"I really want to take that next step to get into the American market and maybe at some point write for American television and have a larger-scale career, which was beginning to happen here but it's a bit slower," says the 2001 graduate of Brown University, another Ivy League school. "It's really hard to leave."
It's also hard for Sobler to not be excited about Columbia; the institution recently announced that David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly and Aida for Broadway, and Lynn Nottage, author of 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, were joining the faculty. In the third year, students work on their thesis plays that are given a full production in a downtown New York theatre. They will also do internships at New York, regional or international theatres. Tuition is $50,000 for each of the first two years and much less for the third.
"I chose playwriting because its what I'm best at," says Sobler, who has penned six plays, including her first full-length work Some Things You Keep, which premièred at WJT in 2010. "I love acting and my arts council work, but being a playwright is what I am most drawn to. For me, it's about having the time to write and have an intro into a larger market."
The move is another big upheaval in her life, as Winnipeg has been where she established herself and made her name. She got married in 2010 and all her friends live here.
"I didn't expect this sensation of leaving home quite as much as I have, because I'm going home, but I very much feel like I'm leaving home," she says.
"But Winnipeg has definitely not heard the last of me. I have great connections here, so I have every intention of at least trying to have my work produced here again."