Bring up theatre in this city and there’s one name that’s bound to pop up in the conversation: Rory Runnells. He’s been supporting it and living it in one way or another for almost 30 years.
Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP), its primary organizer and coordinator, and has been for most of its history. Formed in 1979, MAP is a non-profit organization that supports playwrights and playwriting in Manitoba.
Runnells, 61, was born and raised in Winnipeg and has, as long as he can recall, enjoyed going to the theatre. He studied creative communications at Red River College, but his passion for theatre took hold early on and hasn’t let go since.
The elusive Runnells doesn’t like to talk about himself but when it comes to his work, there’s no hesitation.
"I was writing about the theatre, and the playwrights’ association had their first Manitoba playwrights search to find out who was out there," he says. "I was one of the readers. It was 1979 and I would comment on scripts."
In the early 1980s, Runnells worked on the playwrights’ development program conducted by MAP. In 1983, he was hired as coordinator, and he’s been a central figure since.
Playwright Bruce McManus has known Runnells for many years.
"He’s passionate about theatre and plays and single-minded in his devotion to playwrights and their work. He has a wide range of interests and great intelligence. Most of us working professionally have benefited from his insight and encouragement," McManus says.
"Rory is private about his personal life and very public about his public life. In the first case I respect his discretion and in the second, well Rory tells everybody everything about anything to do with theatre," McManus continues.
"Some of us feel he could pursue a career in opera. Many theatre people would like to see him play the lead in Our Town."
MAP has grown and evolved significantly since its inception, and it plays a crucial role encouraging playwrights and others to write.
Membership includes supporters, actors, and directors as well as playwrights. The Fringe Festival began in 1988, and Runnells is proud of his affiliation with the festival. "We’ve done a lot of work with playwrights who’ve produced at the Fringe," he says.
"There’s a lot going on in Winnipeg," adds Runnells. "People from other cities feel there’s a lot going on here."
A quick look at local theatre listings shows the interest and involvement in theatre both big and small.
Winnipeg is home to the Black Hole Theatre Company, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Rainbow Stage, Sarasvati Productions, Theatre Projects Manitoba, University of Winnipeg Theatre Department, Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Winnipeg International Children’s Festival and Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, among numerous others.
Runnells appreciates all of it.
"I’m open to any kind of play as long as it’s working on its own terms," he says. "I’m as willing to go to MTC to see some big play — it might be a Broadway play — or to the Fringe. I like things that are going to stir things up. A play should be consistent to what it’s trying to do and have some thought behind it, something dramatic about it. A lot of plays aren’t, they’re just situations. Ultimately I like to see playwrights develop."
Laurie Lam, producer at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, met Runnells about 25 years ago, when she joined the MAP board. She describes him as an eccentric curmudgeon with an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre, music and literature.
"You’re always a little intimidated walking into his office because his intellect and wit can be humbling, but if you overcome your trepidation and get to know him, you will find he has a heart of gold, and a passion for championing art and artists," Lam says. "When I admired an Allan Geske print in his office one day, he immediately took me to the artist’s studio so I could buy one, too. His enthusiasms are contagious."
Lam highlights several of Runnells’ significant contributions to local theatre.
"The Harry S. Rintoul Memorial Award for Best New Manitoba Play at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which has done so much to recognize and publicize the work of local playwrights, and the Scirroco Drama Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition, which encourages young writers to think about writing for the stage. Then there’s Short Shots and the Open Door, two programs that have helped virtually every playwright in the city.
"Rory’s a great writer, whose elegant prose and perceptive insights have appeared in Prairie Fire and publications for Manitoba Opera and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre," Lam adds.
"He was awarded the Making a Difference Award for fostering growth in the arts community at the 2008 Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts. As an independent theatre producer, he’s brought Winnipeg audiences productions of classic plays, such as The Pelican, The Dance of Death and John Gabriel Borkman."
"We’re one of 10 play-development centres in the country," Runnells says of the program that offers widely appreciated feedback to emerging playwrights.
"When people go to a new play by a Manitoba playwright, first of all I wish they would do that — they may not like it but it should be looked at just like plays from outside — for the most part we’ve had a fair bit to do with the development of it. We offer this kind of primary support. We work in the background."
Playwright Rick Caslake is one of the grateful recipients of work done by Runnells and MAP. He remembers walking into Runnells’ office unannounced, asking about a play-reading service he’d heard about.
"Rory was welcoming and made arrangements for Bruce McManus to read my play, then set up a meeting time," Caslake says. "He did a lot for someone he didn’t know; I wasn’t even a member or anything, I just walked in off the street with a script.
"A year later I took a different script back to Rory and he brought in top-of-the-line actors to read it," Caslake recalls. "I was a very green emerging playwright; he encouraged me right from the beginning. He brought in Harry Nelken and Muriel Hogue and others to read my play. I was sitting at a table talking with Ellen Peterson, the dramaturge, and when Harry Nelken came in I had chills up and down my back.
"He knows the questions to ask. He never once said you should write it this way. Rory is not one to make snap decisions. He thinks a lot about stuff."
About playwriting, Runnells says, "It’s a very particular thing to do. You’re the creator of it but it’s a collaborative form. There are directors and actors.
"Writing plays, I think, is the hardest thing."
MAP holds a monthly themed reading series with guest readers at Aqua Books, 274 Garry St. A MAP fundraiser will be held on Dec. 3, featuring readings by theatre people from the community, on the second floor of Artspace in the Exchange District.
For more information about Manitoba Association of Playwrights, visit www.mbplays.ca or call 942-8941.