In 1990, the theatre gods did not smile kindly on Harry Rintoul and his new stage company exclusively devoted to stage the work of Winnipeg playwrights, actors, directors and designers.

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This article was published 3/11/2014 (2634 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1990, the theatre gods did not smile kindly on Harry Rintoul and his new stage company exclusively devoted to stage the work of Winnipeg playwrights, actors, directors and designers.

The similarly mandated Agassiz Theatre had folded the previous year and Manitoba Theatre Projects stepped hopefully into that local void, but first the upstart would have to change its name because of its similarity to crosstown institution Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The founding of Theatre Projects Manitoba -- which celebrates its 25th anniversary with its season kickoff Thursday-- was accompanied by a nasty run of beginner's bad luck.

TPM was to debut in October with Michel Tremblay's Albertine in Five Times, but when an actress bailed, Rintoul was forced to postpone to early 1991. January turned out to be the cruellest month, as the implementation of the federal government's Goods and Services Tax (GST) made patrons reluctant to open their wallets. Even worse, the outbreak of the Gulf War, during Albertine's opening week at Prairie Theatre Exchange's Colin Jackson Studio, became must-see television as missiles pounded Baghdad nightly.

"Theatre Projects was ready to compete with all the other (theatre) companies in town, but not competition like the Gulf War," Rintoul said at the time (he died in 2002). "It slaughtered us. It was live Nintendo. There were more people standing around watching TV downstairs (in Portage Place) than I had in the house one night."

Total attendance barely topped 700, or less than a full house at MTC, and led to a first-season deficit of $2,400. It wouldn't be the last foray into the red during TPM's mostly hand-to-mouth existence. There were more lean years, but a stubbornly loyal string of artistic directors passed the torch, which has flickered at times but ultimately lit the way for an impressive Who's Who of Winnipeg theatre.

As TPM reaches its milestone season with the opening of Proud by Michael Healey, the organization with the intensely local mandate has produced, in the last quarter-century, more than 50 new Manitoba plays.

During the decade-long tenure of current artistic director Ardith Boxall and general manager Rea Kavanagh, box-office revenue is up 325 per cent while private sector support has jumped 245 per cent. Onstage, it has become not just than an incubation house for young Manitoba talent, but also a dependable presenter of the most topical plays. While Boxall is thrilled with the new era the company is entering, she can't help but look back at TPM's accomplishments, which have been achieved with the most modest of means.

"I see an exciting record of work," says Boxall. "I see the beginnings of a lot of careers, of people who have made a big impact. I see what a successful entry point it was."

The first full season included the homegrown work of Michael Nathanson, a Governor General's Award nominee and former artistic director of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, followed by Vern Thiessen, now a GG Award winner and the newly installed artistic director of Workshop West in Edmonton, and Yvette Nolan, who went on to head Canada's leading aboriginal company, Native Earth Performing Arts, in Toronto from 2003 to 2011.

JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 
Tom Keenan and Daria Puttaert in The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz

JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Tom Keenan and Daria Puttaert in The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz

"Just by being there, it has shifted the landscape of Manitoba theatre," says Rick Chafe, whose play The Secret Mask is a finalist for a 2014 Governor General's Award. "Its dedication to Manitoba plays gave us a place to get produced first."

Boxall was studying at University of Winnipeg when TPM debuted and she quickly identified a perfect fit for a newbie like herself. She was still in school when she made her professional acting debut in Ce Weekend La, with fellow U of W students Michelle Boulet and Julia Arkos among the cast of 16.

The Rick Skene script was TPM's first hit, selling out every single performance. Perhaps more importantly, it wiped out the company's deficit just before it might have had to close the doors. The organization's allegiance to new local work was seen favourably by the Canada Council, which began providing operating support.

TPM lost that key backing in the fallout of Rintoul's resignation in 1994, amid accusations that he had been deposed in an internal coup.

"He was never ousted," says Skene, who was associate artistic director at the time. "He turned in an angry letter of resignation. He was waiting for the salary to arrive but we didn't have the money. Harry hit the ceiling and told stories of being kicked out of his own theatre."

Actor B. Pat Burns took over for what turned out to be a bridge season before playwright Bruce McManus began his five-year run in 1996. It was his turn, he said, to hold the theatre in trust for the rest of the community. Whomever has been at the helm has felt that responsibility to step up and maintain this legacy.

"That's why I'm on the board now," says actress Ellen Peterson, who was also the first Winnipegger to have her work presented by TPM. "It's my turn to do what I can to keep this going."

It was there for Chafe in 1998, when McManus sat him down with a beer and demanded he write an accessible comedy for the company.

"So, as with a lot of local writers, Theatre Projects handed me a huge turning point -- my first production with an established professional company, my first play over 70 minutes, with an intermission, a subscriber audience and an opening night advertised six months in advance," he says.

In the last decade, TPM has grown into a company nationally recognized for being artistically vibrant, innovative and fiscally responsible. Two seasons ago, it got back its operating support from the Canada Council. Attendance last season was 2,850, generating a 68 per cent increase in box-office revenue.

Says Boxall, "We've picked up the mantle and have built something that can stand on its own."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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