Theatre nomad finds a home in Winnipeg New Royal MTC artistic director to ensure everyone gets an equal voice on stage

It’s kind of like going from a nomadic existence to suddenly having two homes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/10/2018 (1635 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s kind of like going from a nomadic existence to suddenly having two homes.

That’s what it’s like for Kelly Thornton to shift from her 17-year tenure at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre to come to Winnipeg to take the helm of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

When she takes over the role of artistic director from retiring A.D. Steven Schipper in June of next year, Thornton, 53, will program for two venues, the Royal MTC’s John Hirsch Mainstage and the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre.

Keep in mind that, in her years at Nightwood, Thornton had no single theatre to call home.

“For the last 17-and-a-half years, with every season and every play, it’s all been a piece of that puzzle of programming,” she says. “In Toronto, the venues that I produce at are Crow’s Theatre or Buddies in Bad Times, sometimes Canadian Stage, sometimes Tarragon.

“You’re kind of at the whim of what they’re giving you,” she says. “They program their season and then say: ‘Oh, you can have the March break slot or the slot where you have to rehearse over Christmas.’

“So that (aspect) is amazing, and the huge amount of resources that I’m privileged to have at RMTC. It’s incredible.”

The Free Press spoke with Thornton prior to her official announcement as the new artistic director. Here is a condensed version of that interview:

Free Press: Nightwood Theatre had a specific feminist mandate to showcase female playwrights and employ female directors. What was the rationale for that?

Kelly Thornton: When I took over Nightwood in 2001, I was interviewed by someone from the Toronto Star who asked: ‘What’s the point of a feminist theatre company in the 21st century? Aren’t we beyond that now?’

“I thought: ‘Oh, sure, we’re equal in all sectors.’ But then I thought: I just inherited this mandate and I need to actually look into that. So I formed a committee from across the country and then partnered with the Playwright Guild of Canada and eventually the Canadian Association of Professional Theatres to look at the status of women. And even in 2002, there was still a lot of disparity.

“There was a report done in 1982 that showed 17 per cent (of female leadership in Canadian theatre) and we had only climbed to about 25 per cent in terms of female artistic directors. And a lot of female directors were not getting the opportunity to direct in the A-houses or the big stages. So I realized, yes, it still has relevance. But I’ve always said, for me, as a theatre-maker — I coined this phrase for Nightwood — ‘Theatre for everyone, made by women.’


FP: To what extent will you be bringing that mandate to Royal MTC?

KT: “I’m a humanist in many ways. I think I use my position to propel women’s voices, to develop female playwrights and to enhance a canon of plays written by women in Canadian theatre.

“But to be able to come to Royal MTC, all I want to do now is give equal voice and make sure there’s representation. And that’s equity, diversity and inclusion, the whole gamut of what all Canadian theatre is talking about right now.

“How can we do better to reflect the population that is Canada on our stages? Part of that piece is a gender piece, but there’s a huge discussion of inclusion in terms of cultural diversity, in terms of developing audiences, having age diversity in your audience — it’s a grand conversation that’s happening.”

“For me, obviously I want to bring voice to women, but it’s a tough mandate actually, because my mandate at Nightwood is developing a playbill annually of new Canadian work by women, and having a diverse and balanced playbill. That’s a harder task in many ways than to go: I want to develop great new Manitoban stories. I want to bring those voices to the stage.

“This is a regional A-house stage, and of course a play like Matilda and Billy Elliot. Those plays still need to be able to go on our stages. So for me, an equal voice is what I feel will be the future.”


FP: What’s been your personal experience of Winnipeg prior to this?

KT: “I haven’t worked in the city. I’ve seen plays here. I’d been with (ex-husband actor-playwright Alex Poch-Goldin) for 20 years so I came out to see his work, and I love the city. The city is fantastic. I kind of compare it to Quebec City in terms of the cultural identity that people feel with their relationship to the arts. It’s a really dedicated base, and you don’t find that everywhere.

“I really believe that the cultural institutions of Winnipeg and Manitoba in general have created a very strong cultural identity, and per capita, there’s a lot of stuff happening, considering the size of the city. That’s super-inspiring.

“(Royal MTC co-founder) Tom Hendry said the arts give a great city an image its soul, and that’s the truth. I think that’s the nature of what RMTC has done. Being 60 years old, Manitobans have grown up with the pride of cultural institutions bringing them their cultural identity.”


FP: How would you describe your audience like at Nightwood?

KT: I am happy to say my audience base is really diverse. I’m cultivating a base that has the standard theatregoer that’s 60-plus Caucasian, and then I have the 25-year-olds that are fresh into the theatre world and they’re happy to be there with them.

“I remember sitting in The Penelopiad when I did it in Toronto and being so happy to see such diversity in the room in terms of age and culture. Even for the audience members they’re having a live experience. They’re breathing together.

“So if it’s not a homogeneous room that’s breathing together, that’s exciting.”


FP: How do you hope to bring that kind of audience diversity to Manitoba?

KT: “This is the great luxury that I have, I have a year to talk and talk and talk to artists and audience members and donors and say, ‘ This is the conversation that’s happening in Canadian theatre. You know your community and your base and what Steven has built and here’s a little idea.

“What do you think? Where do we go from here? How do we represent our Canadian population?’”


FP: And Manitoba’s talent pool?

“I’m really excited to get to know the artists, to really sit down with them and get to know their work. I want to develop more Canadian plays and put Manitoban stories on the stage more. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 18 years at Nightwood.

“We could develop a Come From Away! What’s our Come From Away? Let’s look at developing new Canadian musicals. It’s not just bringing stuff in, it’s getting our stuff out. Come From Away showed it can be done.”

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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