MANITOBA Theatre for Young People has hired Derek Aasland as its new executive producer ahead of a town hall meeting tonight concerning the troubled stage troupe's future.
Aasland, the former Winnipeg actor, flew here Tuesday from Tampa, Fla., where he and choreographer wife Sharon Moore were finishing writing a circus show for the National Circus School in Montreal. The appointment may quell the public outrage over the abrupt dismissal of founding artistic director Leslee Silverman last month and the concern about the financially-beleaguered organization.
"Derek has got the knowledge and passion for our theatre and the practical skills we need," says board president Gloria Koop. "I think he's fantastic and exactly what we need right now."
Aasland, a 38-year-old Toronto resident, made his acting debut at the age of 14 in the MTYP production of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. He appeared in another dozen or so shows before he received a grant from the Canada Council to study Silverman's management techniques with the aim of starting his own company in Toronto. Instead, Silverman hired him as associate artistic director in 2006 and moved him to assistant general manger before he left in 2010.
"When I talked to Leslee on the day it happened, she said that if anyone should take the company it should be me," Aasland said over the telephone from Florida. "If she hadn't said that, I don't think I would be in Winnipeg. She gave me her blessing."
He said he had to separate his loyalty to Silverman from his love for the 31-year-old theatre. The priority, he said, is to guarantee MTYP's future.
"I was disturbed by the way it happened," said Aasland, who is remembered for performances in Unidentified Human Remains at the MTC Warehouse in 1992 and A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare in the Ruins in 1995.
"But as far as the survival of the company, I believe that the board had to do what it had to do in order to fulfil its mandate."
The board, which has been the target of much of the theatre's community's ire, contacted Aasland less than 10 days ago and made a quick decision that he would become executive producer, assuming both Silverman's artistic responsibilities and the duties of executive director Zaz Bajon, whose last day on the job is Friday. Aasland will return to Winnipeg in May after the circus production, La Vie en Swing, opens.
Wednesday's town hall meeting, set for 7 p.m. at The Forks Market atrium, could also be a bit of a circus. Aasland is not all that concerned because the turnout is likely to include friends of his and of MTYP.
"All the questions they are asking are questions I would be asking too, except I know some of the answers," said Aasland, who expects to announce a reduced seven-show 2013-14 season in the next few days. "Things are going to be fine. It's just a matter of putting cash-flow controls in place and restoring confidence with funders."
He arrives after a tumultuous season during which MTYP missed payroll and left scores of bills unpaid. The debt to its credit union is $1.6 million and the company needs another $200,000-$300,000 to pay suppliers.
Its financial woes started with the financial hangover from the construction of MTYP's $5.2-million home at The Forks that opened in 1999.
"The slippery slope started with the original capital campaign for the building," said Aasland. "The debt wasn't noticed for the first seven or eight years. The $1-million mortgage ate into the operating budgets. It kept nibbling and nibbling."
He says the job of erasing the red ink splashed all over MTYP's books is huge. He is also well aware that he is being asked to fill Silverman's big shoes, too.
"It's the toughest act I have ever had to follow," he said. "I'm doing it because I love the place and I want the kids of tomorrow to have the same opportunities I had."
Aasland doesn't rule out hiring Silverman in the future.
"We have to look at what the founding artistic director's role is going to be," he says. "It is inconceivable that Leslee is not going to play a role in the future of the company."