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Opinion

The final curtain: Parting from Free Press theatre beat is such sweet sorrow

Winnipeg Free Press theater writer Kevin Prokosh, who is retiring from the paper, poses outside the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on his last day.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Free Press theater writer Kevin Prokosh, who is retiring from the paper, poses outside the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on his last day.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/9/2015 (1721 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In my 25th year as theatre critic for the Free Press, I write this final column.

There is no drama in my exit; I am simply hanging up my stars. The choice to leave is my own. For me, this has been a happy time, and ending it is a sad one.

It has been a privilege and a joy to write for you about an arts community that is recognized across the country and spoken about rapturously by international fringe performers everywhere. Winnipeg is a theatre town with a rich history.

I know, because I have seen a ton of it — maybe more than anyone, given I was on the job during the relentless growth of the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival.

Overall, the city’s theatre community is in good shape and enjoys loyal support from an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. That wasn’t the case in 1991 when I was moved into the reviewing chair after my predecessor, Randal McIlroy, quit to write a book. It wasn’t a difficult transition — I had been writing about theatre as part of my arts beat for several years.

Back then I found mainstream theatre in transition, mostly scuffling along. Newbie Manitoba Theatre Centre artistic director Steven Schipper — now himself a Winnipeg institution — was grappling with pulling the city’s flagship company out of the red after a disastrous 1988-89 season that cost previous helmsman Rick McNair his job.

"It’s been an honour to write about theatre for an audience that has always been appreciative, even when bashing me over a harsh review or a perceived bogus recommendation."–Kevin Prokosh

That year, Prairie Theatre Exchange welcomed new artistic director Michael Springate. Upstart Theatre Projects Manitoba, dedicated to presenting locally written plays performed by local actors, made its welcome debut. Actors Showcase staff was still getting used to its new moniker, Manitoba Theatre for Young People. Even the city’s fourth fringe festival that year saw ticket sales drop for the first time, raising concerns about the concept’s long-term staying power.

Schipper’s first, but not last, masterly marketing move was to include the debut run of Les Misérables, the globe-trotting mega-musical, as part of MTC’s regular-season playbill despite opening in July. As expected, thousands of new subscribers signed on to ensure themselves Les Miz tickets, and MTC kept them coming back through the 1990s with patron-pleasing playbills.

It was the first mainstage production I reviewed. It was irresistible, a game-changer that exposed Winnipeg audiences to the rousing power of big-time live theatre.

It was the start of an exciting age of Winnipeg theatre and I had the good timing to have a front-row seat. Half the theatre world wanted to be at MTC for the opening of Hamlet in 1995, starring Keanu Reeves as the melancholy Dane.

MTYP artistic director Leslee Silverman consistently created some of the best theatre for kids in the country. The fringe festival steadily grew into a source of civic pride — for 12 days every July, it offers a glimpse of a bustling downtown that everyone wishes existed year-round.

It has always been a privilege and often been a thrill to see what theatre artists came up with behind the curtains. Witnessing the development of special talents such as Jeremy Kushnier and Samantha Hill — who literally grow up in front of our eyes on local stages — into Broadway stars has been special.

My personal top 10 productions would include:

  • Picasso at the Lapin Agile (MTC);
  • Comet in Moominland (MTYP);
  • Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare in the Ruins);
  • Bondagers (Prairie Theatre Exchange);
  • The Drowsy Chaperone (RMTC);
  • FareWel (PTE);
  • Quills (MTC Warehouse);
  • Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story (PTE);
  • Wicked (touring);
  • Shirley Valentine (MTC).

My favourite locally produced plays were:

  • Rick Chafe’s Shakespeare’s Dog;
  • Maureen Hunter’s Transit of Venus;
  • Bruce McManus’s Selkirk Avenue;
  • Ian Ross’s FareWel;
  • Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen.

Even more interesting has been the long parade of memorable interviews with articulate, passionate stage artists, including Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Hannah Moscovitch, Marcel Marceau, Neil Simon, Nicola Cavendish, Ronnie Burkett, Seana McKenna, Rick Miller, Tomson Highway and Cameron Mackintosh.

"Bravo, Kevin Prokosh, for your five–star performance covering the theatre beat for the Winnipeg Free Press. We, the artistic directors of Dry Cold Productions, Le Cercle Molière, Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Rainbow Stage, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Sarasvàti, Shakespeare in the Ruins, Tara Players, Theatre by the River, Theatre Projects Manitoba, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Winnipeg Studio Theatre and zone41 theatre, are grateful for the extraordinary enthusiasm and diligent interest Prokosh showed in the theatre artists and companies in our city. His constructive and insightful contributions as a cultural journalist have made Winnipeg a great theatre town."–Steven Schipper, Artistic director, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

I especially want to thank the Winnipeg theatre community, which has nourished and challenged me with its onstage creativity and skill. I’ve long forgiven playwright Bruce McManus for that pie in the face. I tried to impersonate an actor for a fundraiser several years ago and failed spectacularly, leaving me with egg on my face.

It’s been an honour to write about theatre for an audience that has always been appreciative, even when bashing me over a harsh review or a perceived bogus recommendation. Most of the gripes fell between the telephone death threat from a drunken actor and the wordsmith who whipped up an impressive two-page poem outlining his disagreement with my assessment of Hunter’s Atlantis.

It’s an ugly sight when critics turn their gaze to judge their own performance. It almost always is found wanting, but if I and this newspaper have had any success, it was in keeping theatre present — as Death of a Salesman’s Linda Loman said, attention must be paid — in an era when it is frequently under threat of being ignored.

And so I sign off with this: There’s never been a better time to attend theatre in Winnipeg. See you there.

 

Kevin Prokosh can henceforth be reached at kevinprokosh@gmail.com.

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