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Playing for keeps

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Choosing a season is an arduous year-long task rife with elements the Manitoba Theatre Centre would be proud to present on its stage: Conflict, desperation, ego, money, fear of failure. It's all great theatre -- but a show no one sees.

LAST spring, a dozen of the Manitoba Theatre Centre's best private donors gathered for a peek at the company's soon-to-be announced new season of plays. Artistic director Steven Schipper unveiled his six-title playlist, and then fielded questions.

"How far in advance do you piece together a season?" someone asked.

Schipper reached into his wallet, pulled out a scrap of paper, and announced to his startled audience the future -- his proposed 2002-2003 season:

The Dinner Party
with Winnipeg's only Tony Award-winner Len Cariou as director

Broadway comedy hit
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

The never-been-to-Winnipeg musical
Chicago

Chekhov's classic
The Three Sisters

Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing
starring local favourite Seana McKenna

The warm-hearted romp
Enchanted April

Recognize any of this?

Any informed Winnipeg theatre-goer knows that this is not the playbill Schipper announced 10 days ago. Not even close. In fact, not one of the original titles survived. Was Schipper simply making it up to placate his well-heeled patrons?

When Schipper is shown the long-forgotten lineup recently and compares it with his eventual choices, a sheepish grin comes across the face.

"I'm relieved," he says. "This is way better than what I had originally planned."

Choosing a season is an artistic director's most important job. Hits make them look like geniuses; flops, like fools. Too many of the latter can sink theatres and careers.

"It's a high-wire act that is exhilarating and incredibly frustrating," says Glynis Leyshon, artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse.

"It's like a surgeon, you know what they are going to do in the operation, but you don't really know how they do it."

For the last year, Schipper has allowed the Free Press unprecedented access to the backroom manoeuvring, hard-knuckle negotiations, jockeying for co-production partners and budgeting machinations that went into the creation of his 2002-03 season.

It's a process shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. Schipper and his colleagues don't go to some catalogue of available, already acclaimed plays, pick their six favourites and call a press conference.

A chronic list-maker, Schipper estimates he's jotted down more than 500 possible playbills on menus, napkins, placemats, tickets, notebooks, envelopes and bus transfers in the last year.

"I'm no Picasso, but I'm an artist who sculpts seasons," he says. "I fiddle with them, always trying to make each perfect."

In pursuit of playbill perfection, Schipper and MTC staff negotiated projects that might have brought to Winnipeg famous musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, stars of screen and stage such as Martin Short, Olympia Dukakis, Len Cariou, Seana McKenna, Nicola Cavendish and William Hurt.

In some cases, talks went on for months; others no more than the length of a telephone call.

Schipper's first principle of season-spawning is to ensure a playbill possesses three compelling reasons -- be it titles, stars or playwrights -- to make Manitobans say, "I'm not going to miss this," and sign on as a subscriber.

"It's not a theory any more," he says. "It's been proven to ourselves over the last few years."

He never gets too attached to his playbills. They are amended endlessly.

The first casualty of last spring's playbill is Neil Simon's The Dinner Party -- despite the prospect of bringing home Len Cariou to direct the comedy in which he starred with John Ritter and Henry Winkler on Broadway in 2000. "I saw the Dinner Party and didn't think it was a good enough play without stars," Schipper says.

Chicago is reluctantly dumped when a touring production is announced for the Centennial Concert Hall in July. Without those two name shows, the season lacks the sizzle he needs.

By April 16, 2001, the lineup is already changed to:

Life x 3 by Yesmina (Art) Reza.
Medea with Seana McKenna reprising her 1992 Warehouse hit.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story
Private Lives
Proof
Enchanted April

This playbill still lacks the requisite cornerstone production around which a season can be built.

Up until Labour Day, Schipper and staff are looking to form the framework of a playlist. As the 2000-01 season winds down, MTC receives a couple of calls that have the potential of being season-makers.

The New York producers of Jesus Christ Superstar, Columbia Artists Management, call to solicit interest in partnering what promises to be a high-profile North American tour. Lloyd Webber is personally enthusiastic about the revival and would be involved and present at the Winnipeg rehearsals.

MTC is interested, but only if it can build the show (sets, costumes, props and rehearsals in Winnipeg), which has some appeal to the New Yorkers, who would pay production expenses in Canadian dollars.

Opportunity then rings again, this time from Montreal director Guy Sprung, who has been hired to direct The Blue Room at the Warehouse in February. He wants to give MTC the heads-up on a deal in which he could deliver a Richard III starring William Hurt, a stage actor of real distinction.

Nothing is signed yet, but Hurt likes the idea, and so does Schipper.

By early May, a new, radically altered season is beginning to take shape:

Jesus Christ Superstar
A Christmas Carol
Dracula
Private Lives
The Three Sisters
Light Up the Sky by Moss Hart

Schipper comes up with the idea of kicking off the season with the Biblical musical Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Carol, adapted by Winnipeg playwright Bruce McManus, which together would chronicle where the world has gone in 2000 years. He is also toying with bringing back Camelot star James Brennan to star in Man of La Mancha.

Another option is to finally hook up with Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, one of the oldest American theatres and the one with the largest subscriber list (40,000). Artistic director Bernard Havard is Canadian and an old friend of MTC general manager Zaz Bajon. They've been working on a co-production for five years and have set their sights on Evita.

Neither Richard III or Evita are added to the playlist -- big-name shows cause big disappointment. Schipper would rather leave on summer vacation with something more concrete than a couple of exciting maybes.

On his return, he reinstates Proof and enters Labour Day with:

Jesus Christ Superstar
A Christmas Carol
Dracula
Private Lives
The Three Sisters
Proof

Proof is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner. Schipper is anxious to get it on his stage, but has yet to secure the rights. "Not since Art have I seen a play which I must do." But nothing is carved in stone at this point. "There isn't one there that I can say for sure we will do," he says in September.

"Once Tom McVie says 'OK, you guys will build Jesus Christ Superstar,' then that becomes the foundation. If William Hurt says he's in for Richard III, that becomes the foundation. Nothing to say that we can't do both." But the MTC insistence on building Jesus Christ Superstar scuttles the deal, and the New York producers turn to a California company.

"These great plays and great projects get cut for the flimsiest reasons," Schipper says.

His new list as of Sept. 24 is:

Proof
A Christmas Carol
Dracula
Private Lives
The Three Sisters
Evita

Schipper then turns his attention to Richard III, and flies to his home town of Montreal to have a dinner sit-down with Hurt, the star of such films as Body Heat, The Big Chill and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He tells him that the actor has only two choices -- yes or no -- and that once he has made a commitment to MTC, there is no reneging.

Hurt agrees, but says he wants to declare that if the post-9/11 world worsens, he needs to be the same side of an international border as his children.

"It's all a go," says Schipper, over the telephone. "He's now going to tell his agent at William Morris (Agency), who won't be happy. The cornerstone of our season is there, the ground is still underneath our feet."

In the excitement of getting a real actor in a great role for Winnipeg, Schipper recognizes that he has also agreed to the most expensive self-produced show in MTC history. He's aware of the repercussions. "The financial reality means if we want to afford Richard III, we need as many co-productions as possible."

Now the tricky phase of season-building begins.

On Oct. 17 -- the eve of the opening of MTC's 2001-2002 season -- the MTC 2002-03 playlist stands as:

Proof
Private Lives
Dracula
Richard III
Evita
Enchanted April

MTC is working hard to accommodate the Walnut Theatre's Evita project, which is beginning to look like a fit for the last slot. "That means Enchanted April is postponed to another April," Schipper says with a chuckle.

Officials from Toronto's Mirvish Productions arrive in Winnipeg to see The Wave and declare they aren't interested in the show, but do recommend Jean LeClerc as MTC's Dracula.

Two weeks later, MTC receives good news from agent Robert Vaughn, who cracks over the telephone, "I've got Proof for you." Just as crucial to MTC is that such a sought-after title will draw many co-producers across the country. One of them is Theatre Calgary, whose artistic director, Ian Prinsloo, proposes another Chekhov play, The Cherry Orchard, to come to MTC in the second slot.

As of Nov. 1:

Proof
The Cherry Orchard
Dracula
Richard III
Private Lives
Evita

The price-tag for the proposed season is growing bigger than MTC has ever contemplated.

Everyone is elated by the prospects, but worrying about how to pay for it.

A production committee meeting is called for Nov. 20, where the members offer an enthusiastic vote of confidence in producing what will be the largest season in its history.

All are willing to sell more tickets, subscriptions and sponsorships. "If the committee hadn't the appetite for taking on those challenges, there would have been no point continuing to dream big," Schipper says.

And the season that gets the thumbs up Nov. 20 is:

Proof
The Philadelphia Story
Dracula
Richard III
Blithe Spirit
Evita

At the weekly production meeting Nov. 29, Schipper is interrupted by his assistant, Melinda, with the ominous, "I've got William Hurt on the line."

The first words out of Hurt's mouth are, "I want to tell you I'm not breaking my commitment. There is a play I want to do in New York and they want me for six months. Is there any flexibility in your season? What about the end of your season?"

MTC and Hurt's no-nonsense agent, Hylda Queally, begin to hammer out the logistics. It becomes clear that MTC will get Hurt either early or late in its season.

Schipper is wild about the idea of Richard III as a splashy season-opener, say on, Oct. 10, Oct. 3 or even Sept. 27, 2002.

"I keep asking about the opening dates in the fall, and she keeps asking about the ending dates in the spring," Schipper says.

They talk about an April 17 opening, but Schipper is dubious because it is a seder night for Passover and the night before Good Friday. Says the agent: "Well, being Irish Catholic, I see nothing wrong with that." Says Schipper: "She's as hard as nails."

The following day, Schipper leaves for Hamilton to attend a PACT (Professional Association of Canadian Theatres) conference of the so-called G-8, the eight largest regional theatres in the country. There are issues to talk about, but the cash-strapped artistic directors really have only one thing on their minds -- co-productions.

"The minute the coffee break is called, the energy level spikes, and everyone is trying to get in as many chats as possible about potential co-productions," Schipper says.

"During lunch hours, over beers after the day's meeting, everybody is very much a buyer and seller in a theatre bazaar."

The pressure is on. MTC co-produces more than any other Canadian theatre and with an expensive Richard III in place, Schipper ideally needs to nail down five partnerships to save the money to make his playbill financially doable.

He spends the whole weekend churning out playbills in his rundown room at a Howard Johnson motel. He is inundated with pitches. How about The Grapes of Wrath? Are you interested in How to Succeed in Business? What about the Shaw Festival's Chaplin with Simon Bradbury or Lettice and Lovage starring Nicola Cavendish?

"I felt a bit of hysteria," Schipper says. "The pages are flying fast and furious. I only had a deal with Richard III, everything else is negotiable. I'm thinking we should stock up on some comedic work right before it."

But the right playbill proves elusive. "I thought, 'Here I am, choosing plays I don't want to do."

What he is trying to do is work it so that MTC production staff are building most of the shows. "It's just not true that artistic directors choose all the plays they want to do out of a sense of what's best for our audience and artists," he says. "There are the constraints of co-productions."

Schipper returns from Hamilton unhappy about costs and the amount of work he has for his staff.

He takes a seat in the back row in the balcony of the empty theatre in search of inspiration.

His playbill has his staff building only two shows, when anything less than four is unacceptable. He realizes that Theatre Calgary needs a partner as badly as MTC does for Evita.

Schipper knows the theatre has a March hole in its playbill and proposes a solution which will see Evita and Richard III switch slots. MTC will build it and send it to Calgary. "It feels like the sun is coming through the clouds," Schipper says.

As he leaves for holidays Dec. 17 for two weeks in Florida, the playlist is:

Proof
The Philadelphia Story
Dracula
Evita
Private Lives
Richard III

In order to co-produce The Philadelphia Story with Theatre Calgary, it must go into MTC's second slot. Then Dracula will open in Winnipeg in January before moving to Theatre Calgary in February. This configuration has MTC building five of the six productions, with only The Philadelphia Story being assembled in Calgary.

Still, Schipper feels the season is not balanced. He and his staff are trying to close the gap between expenses and revenues. At one point, the difference was $900,000 and now stands at $525,000. The budget is looking to be significantly larger than the $5.2 million of this year.

"I'm not sure this playbill will survive," he says. Private Lives doesn't have a co-production partner. Neither does Proof. Everyone wants to do their own Proof, but he is confident a suitor will eventually come begging.

"It gets a little more frenzied for those who don't have balanced budgets the closer we get to March 1," he says. "They are desperate for any partnership which will save them anywhere from $50,000-plus."

MTC continues to crunch the numbers, and the revenue shortfall shrinks to $128,000 by adding $100,000 to box office expectations, $50,000 in subscription gains and bumping up casual ticket revenue by $15,000. "We'll ask our volunteers to take on some slightly more aggressive fund-raising targets," Schipper says.

On Jan. 2, Theatre Calgary calls to again request a switch of dates of Dracula and the Philadelphia Story, something that Schipper is initially loath to do.

Prinsloo knows this will mess up MTC's planning, but he needs the favour. He is worried his six-play season is unbalanced due to a powerhouse second half of Dracula, A Streetcar Named Desire and Evita. He's afraid too many patrons will opt for the three-play package and select the well-known final three titles.

"I know this is a big ask of MTC," Prinsloo says. "I also knew Steven would listen to how I was trying to resolve the pressures in my season."

Schipper is sympathetic to his partner of three co-productions, but knows that changing Dracula dates may cost him star Jean LeClerc, one of the main reasons MTC is reviving the Gothic thriller. LeClerc is contacted for his thoughts and says he arranged his whole schedule around the January dates. He agrees to accommodate this switch, but says it's the final one.

MTC has also come around to recognizing the benefits of a fall crowd-pleaser like Dracula in the lineup and offering two comedies before the dark, nasty Richard III. The change also means the theatres will trade building shows, with Calgary getting Dracula and MTC producing The Philadelphia Story.

On Jan. 28, the alterations are confirmed:

Proof
Dracula
Evita
The Philadelphia Story
Private Lives
Richard III

Throughout January, Schipper is simultaneously attempting to solidify his fifth play. No theatre is interested in co-producing Noel Coward's Private Lives, and he learns MTC is not likely to get the rights, due to an expected Broadway production.

He begins to consider other possibilities. The preferred dance partner is Vancouver Playhouse; that theatre's dates line up perfectly with MTC and it's also on the hunt for a comedy.

On Jan. 13, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple is mentioned for the first time.

Although the title has drawn favourable feedback around the office, Schipper is concerned it is too well-known and too -- he hesitates to use the c-word -- commercial. The Vancouver Playhouse nixes the idea because The Odd Couple had just been done by another local theatre. Schipper then urges Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius to dump its chestnut of Blithe Spirit in favour of MTC's chestnut.

Artistic director Max Riemer proposes star Martin Short as one-half of The Odd Couple and explains that the comedian is a Hamilton native and loves his theatre. Schipper likes the idea, although he doesn't hold out much hope. Good thing: the idea is quickly dashed by Short's busy schedule.

The Odd Couple looks like a lock, and goes to the theatre's finance committee for budgeting. Still, Schipper is pitching hard with the Playhouse, proposing Feel Good by British playwright Alistair Beaton, Ray Cooney's Caught in the Net and Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. None tickles Leyshon's funnybone.

She counters with Tom Stoppard's Travesties, directed by Christopher Newton and starring Heath Lamberts. MTC presented Travesties in 1979 and it's not the kind of comedy Schipper has in mind. He counters with the offer to take any other comedy Newton wants to direct.

Schipper and Leyshon continue to trade ideas into early February. Schipper offers Over the River and Through the Woods, a Joe DiPietro comedy. He likes it so much that he chooses Over the River as the production to tour the province and drops Harold Pinter's Betrayal from making the rural rounds.

Through the final weeks, MTC and Vancouver Playhouse continue to look for a fit.

Over the River, like Richard III, is not a co-production. Leyshon likes it, but opts to go with Newton directing Harold Pinter's The Caretaker for her theatre's 40th anniversary season. After a year of negotiations, MTC and the Vancouver Playhouse are unable to nail down a single joint project, but come away trading complimentary e-mails about the process.

"Co-productions is this dance we do," says Leyshon. "Sometimes it's a tango, sometimes it's a waltz and sometimes it's like two sumo wrestlers."

The final playlist goes to the MTC board for approval Feb. 27. The budget is $5.8 million, up $600,000 from this season to the highest in its history. To pay for it, box office revenues have been jacked $500,000 and the season subscriber target increased to 15,000 from this year's 13,200.

MTC calls a press conference for March 6.

Schipper heads for the dais before about 50 media types and supporters to unveil his 2002-2003 playlist, and a season is born...

Proof
Dracula
Evita
The Philadelphia Story
Over the River and Through the Trees
Richard III

What he doesn't say is he has a scrap of paper in his pocket that foretells the future.

It's his lineup for 2003-2004:

Smokey Joe's Cafe
A Christmas Carol adapted by Bruce McManus
A Long Day's Journey into Night starring Len Cariou, Roberta Maxwelland Colm Feore
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
Private Lives
Enchanted April

No one asks about it, but Schipper is perfectly willing to divulge what would normally be an artistic director's secret. He knows it doesn't matter.

Most of it will be long forgotten this same time next year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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