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Theatres deal with grant cuts

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A NEW Canada Council funding initiative expanding the number of theatre companies receiving operating grants has created big winners and losers among Winnipeg stage troupes.

While Theatre Projects Manitoba was among the 11 groups in the country awarded operating support this season for the first time, most of the 117 English-language groups in the country saw their grants reduced to free up money for the newcomers. Shakespeare in the Ruins got the bad news that it is taking a 16 per cent annual hit to its council backing for the next four years.

Prairie Theatre Exchange took the four per cent decrease that all the groups had been warned would be the minimum funding drop.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre was the only A-list company in the country that saw its Canada Council grant increase, up $5,000 to $350,000, the biggest jump since 1989, when it was getting $342,000.

"MTC was surprised and encouraged by our increase from the Canada Council; surprised, because we're aware of the excellent artistry and administrative leadership of theatres in our community and across Canada, and encouraged to maintain the width and breadth of the opportunities we provide to Manitoba artists and audiences," says artistic director Steven Schipper.

For Theatre Projects, the elevation to a $25,000 Canadian Council operating grant over the next two years reflects the rise in its stature among theatres in Canada. It also recognizes regional imbalance -- at least eight of the 11 new groups are based in Western Canada.

"This puts us on the radar nationally," says artistic director Ardith Boxall. "We're worked so hard and we think we deserve it."

Theatres were informed months ago about their grants but the grumbling was kept to a minimum until Canadian Stage in Toronto complained publicly about a 13 per cent cut to its $500,000 annual support. The rest held their tongue, not wanting to bite one of the hands that feeds them.

"People were kind of quiet about it," says Boxall, whose theatre closes its season Sunday with the final performance of Debbie Patterson's Sargent & Victor & Me. "There was some sensitivity. If you got a little increase, you didn't want to go around gloating about it, because you know most groups took a cut."

Bob Metcalfe, PTE's artistic director, said he doesn't begrudge any of the theatres who are receiving their first operating grants; he thought Theatre Projects was especially worthy of some financial stability. What is hard to swallow is that more theatres are deserving of a slice of the operating-grant pie, but the $22-million theatre pie is not growing to accommodate them. The council hasn't seen a hike in money from Parliament since 2008.

"I'm disappointed this is the only solution to address not having enough money in the pot," Metcalfe says. "Government participation hasn't kept up with developments in the sector."

The deep cut at Shakespeare in the Ruins is more painful symbolically than financially. The theatre will get over seeing its grant dropping to $25,000 from more than $29,000, but must deal with being judged harshly.

"It sucks, no question about it," says SIR general manager Matt Moreau. "In a very strange way, it's been kind of exciting. It's made us re-assess what we need to do to remain significant."

SIR artistic co-chair Kevin Klassen says the council viewed SIR as isolated and insulated, prompting management to take measures to enhance its national profile. The company joined the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and has hired Edmonton's Ron Jenkins to direct Comedy of Errors, which runs June 5-28. SIR is also planning to put out a countrywide call for directors with a play title and concept to pitch.

"It's an exciting and innovative thing we do, even though we do it with Shakespeare," Klassen says. "I think we will work harder to make everyone more aware of that."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 G3

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