Prairie Theatre Exchange has become an institution in Winnipeg. It did not start out that way 40 years ago. But it has happened almost despite itself.
By describing PTE as an institution, I do not mean it has become ossified or detached from society. Quite the opposite. I mean it has become an organization which brings its own unique contribution to the educational, cultural and artistic life of our city.
It has become the professional theatre company that champions Manitoban and other Canadian playwrights in its yearly subscription series. It has succeeded in convincing its audience that a homemade product -- in terms of writing, producing, directing and acting -- is a winning combination.
After 40 years, it has won the admiration, the affection, and the respect, of the public, but in particular, of its audience and participants.
It was not that way at the beginning. I became involved 40 years ago because the Manitoba Theatre Centre decided to end the operation of its theatre school, leaving a gathering of students to look elsewhere at a time when there was no existing alternative.
Some of the parents of young students decided to form a corporation, raise some funds, and establish a new theatre school under the name Manitoba Theatre Workshop. We needed a location for the school.
I can recall speaking to D.I. MacDonald, then the chief commissioner of the City of Winnipeg, about the possibility of acquiring space in any city-owned building. As it transpired, what had been the first Grain Exchange building located at 160 Princess St. was owned by the city, and was excess to its needs. For the next 17 years it became the home of Manitoba Theatre Workshop for an annual rental of $1.
But very quickly, Manitoba Theatre Workshop became more than a theatre school for children and teenagers.
We were fortunate to engage a young man, Colin Jackson, as the first principal of the theatre school, and he quickly established that this theatre school would do much more than provide drama lessons on Saturday mornings.
We were soon engaged in producing puppet theatre, and then professional productions for children and their parents, and then cabaret-style evenings with local artists, and finally, full-blown productions for adult audiences.
MTW was developing into something much more than a theatre school.
In 1981, the name was changed to Prairie Theatre Exchange to recognize that the company had Prairie roots that find expression in various modes of theatre, and in an environment of exchange with the community.
As we grew we needed larger space in which to operate. We moved to Portage Place in 1989.
In many ways the move was made easy because the space in Portage Place became available at the right time and for the right price.
PTE was able to marshal the necessary financial support from our devoted fans and from the business community, and the result is a theatre that accommodated more than 300 patrons, a second small theatre, a rehearsal hall, classrooms for the school, and much more, in a venue where indoor parking is available on those long winter nights.
What was new in 1989 was in need of refreshment in 2012, and the space has been extensively refurbished this year. It is now an even more marvellous facility that PTE willingly shares with the broader community.
But it is not the physical attributes that count. The real achievement of PTE is the production of so many plays by Canadian authors, and starring local actors.
We found that famous writers were more than willing to have their creations receive première performances at PTE -- Wendy Lill and Carol Shields among them.
In a real sense the productions at PTE have been a reflection of Canada, Manitoba, and the local community of Winnipeg. In four decades more than 300 individual productions have graced the stage of PTE and almost half of them have been new productions.
The PTE school has not been forgotten. It is alive and thriving with outreach programs with various schools in the Winnipeg region and with a working relationship with the University drama departments.
On a personal note, I became the first chairman of the board of Manitoba Theatre Workshop and saw it through the first tumultuous but productive years. I continue to be a member of the board of PTE because, at a certain point in the dim distant past, the board passed a resolution making me a life member.
In 1987, I persuaded the board to establish the PTE Foundation Trust which has provided some financial comfort to PTE on an annual basis.
I have long since recognized, however, the future of PTE is secure because it has become a vital part of the community. It has indeed evolved into an institution, in the best sense of that word.
Charles Huband is a former Manitoba Court of Appeal judge and former Manitoba Liberal leader.