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Theatre centre's unique design earns recognition

Royal MTC a national historical site

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Conservative MP Steven Fletcher (left) and artistic director Steven Schipper pose with the plaque at Saturday's ceremony.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher (left) and artistic director Steven Schipper pose with the plaque at Saturday's ceremony. Photo Store

Don't be fooled by its post-modern, concrete-fortress appearance -- it's really an intimate historic site where actors and audiences can get cosy together.

And there's a plaque to prove it.

On Saturday, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque commemorating the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre building as a national historic site.

"The Mainstage facility is an excellent expression of small-scale Brutalist architecture in Canada in its poured concrete forms, solid massing, interior layout and exposed structure," the board said in its tribute to Canada's oldest English-speaking regional theatre.

"The night it opened -- Nov, 2, 1970 -- one audience member asked to be directed to his cell block," artistic director Steven Schipper said at the ceremony in the lobby of the Market Avenue theatre.

The building was designed in 1969-70 by Michael Robert Kirby, with the Winnipeg architectural firm Waisman Ross Blankstein Coop Gillmor Hanna, in collaboration with Eddie Gilbert, MTC's artistic director at the time.

They had only two goals that informed every decision they made, said Schipper: the building had to be constructed as inexpensively as possible and it had to foster communication between people "to create a theatre where there really are no bad seats." They succeeded. No audience member is more than 75 feet from the stage, he said. And the concrete wasn't an attempt to make an architectural statement about the Brutalist movement but to save money.

Brutalist architecture emerged after the Second World War in Great Britain among avant-garde young architects, the monuments board said in a press release about the Royal MTC. The Brutalists were keen to explore the possibilities of concrete, and explore they did with the Mainstage building.

"Inside, the innovative use of space and light in the foyer, auditorium and backstage areas creates an intimate atmosphere and supports artistic and technical collaboration, promoting a strong relationship between actors, staff and audience."

The theatre received its royal designation from Queen Elizabeth II in October 2010.

"It's the bedrock of this city's artistic and cultural community," MP Steven Fletcher said at the plaque's unveiling.

"It's said that a house is just a building but a home is a house with memories... It's what happens inside," said the former engineer who now represents Charleswood-St.James Assiniboia.

"Could you imagine if we were all judged by our exteriors? Only a few of us would be judged well, I'd venture to say."

Fletcher looked to the theatre lobby's wall covered with of photos of cast members from some of the 600 plays performed since the Royal MTC was founded in 1958.

"This wall is why we're receiving the designation," Fletcher said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2014 A4

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