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Vibrant communities? The play's the thing

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Last week, Canadian theatre leaders meeting in Fredericton celebrated the results of a comprehensive Nanos poll on how Canadians value live theatre.

Winnipeggers won't be surprised to learn it's something our nation cares passionately about. In an age of unprecedented growth in digital entertainment options, eight out of 10 Canadians still believe that theatres make communities vibrant. This is an impressive number when you consider how fast-paced and plugged-in our lives have become. It turns out that sometimes we actually want to unplug, and experience narrative on a human level.

In Winnipeg, we are fortunate to have incredible professional theatre companies -- large and small -- producing plays that light up our community almost every day of the year. In neighbourhoods across our city timeless classics, contemporary works and new Canadian plays are created and shared with a diverse and growing audience in even the darkest months. In the summer, we head outdoors to enjoy Shakespeare in the Ruins, Rainbow Stage and extraordinary theatrical diversity at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, the second-largest Fringe in North America. Thanks to the artistic commitment of Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Prairie Theatre Exchange and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, excellent theatre also tours extensively to smaller communities throughout the province -- not an easy feat in a Manitoba winter.

Live theatre is part of Canada's $50-billion cultural sector; it's an impressive economic driver, generating taxes, creating business opportunities and employing Canadians in a wide variety of jobs. An astonishing eight million theatre tickets are sold each year in Canada, and 80 per cent of Canadians believe that theatres make communities more attractive to visitors. Closer to home, theatre companies are central to a vibrant arts and creative industries sector that employs 6.3 per cent of the city's total labour force, and accounts for four cents out of every dollar of Winnipeg's economic output.

But beyond my natural tendency as a professional accountant to measure success in financial terms, I know the true value of theatre is that it engages our hearts and minds in a shared human narrative. Put simply, we love being told a story. In fact, recent scientific studies at Emory University and Claremont Graduate School suggest that the power of narrative to make us empathize with another human being has both physiological and social implications.

Those eight out of 10 Canadians know this instinctively: we emerge from a great evening of theatre feeling both whole and connected, not only to the characters on the stage, but to all humanity. We become more caring, more tolerant and more generous. That outcome is invaluable not only to the individual, but to our society.


Gary Hannaford, FCA is CEO of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Manitoba and a former board chair of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2014 A11

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