Bullying pays off for local theatre company

There are many reasons why plays have been written for Theatre Projects Manitoba over its 20 years, and a threat of physical violence is one of them.

Rick Chafe was a fledgling fringe festival playwright in the mid-’90s when TPM artistic director Bruce McManus strong-armed him with a demand for a script, or else. The result was his first full-length work, The Last Man and Woman on Earth (1998), a dark comedy in which Chafe explored large questions in his personal life. That play gave him the confidence to adapt Homer’s Odyssey and to pen his most successful work Shakespeare’s Dog, which debuted in 2008 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and subsequently at the Manitoba Theatre Centre and earlier this fall in Calgary.

“I don’t know if I would have even wandered down that path if it wasn’t for Bruce telling me he’d beat me up if I didn’t give him a play,” Chafe says.

Michael Nathanson did not encounter such coercion when TPM founding artistic director Harry Rintoul came to him in 1990 and promised the theatre would produce his next play. That turned out to be To Kill the Weatherman (1991), an important stepping stone for Nathanson, who was recently nominated for a 2009 Governor General’s Award for drama. After Weatherman, Nathanson directed The Resurrection of John Frum by Vern Theissen, another local playwright wannabe who won a GG in 2003.

“It was the great luxury of knowing our work would be done, that there was a theatre in Winnipeg that absolutely believed in us as playwrights and gave us early opportunities,” says Nathanson, WJT’s current artistic director.

As TPM begins its 20th season tonight with Linda Griffiths performing her solo work The Last Dog of War, its production history reads like a who’s who of Winnipeg theatre. Most were unknown quantities when TPM first focused the spotlight on them. There’s a lot more independent made-in-Manitoba work currently on the boards but that was not always the case.

“For a long time, Theatre Projects was the only company consistently commissioning and producing new Manitoba work every season,” Chafe says. “So it was putting a lot of playwrights’ work up in front of a non-fringe audience for the first time and doing the same for a lot of actors and directors and designers and technicians.”

TPM was born in 1990, the dream of playwright Harry Rintoul, who saw the deep need for a company dedicated to staging plays written and performed by Manitobans. The last troupe to try it, Agassiz Theatre, had closed in 1989. This time the theatre community fell in behind Rintoul, who died suddenly in 2002.

“There needed to be a place for Manitoba artists to get their feet wet,” says TPM’s fifth and present artistic director Ardith Boxall. “It was necessary then and still is.

“The problem with doing developmental work is that it’s not sexy. No one is throwing corporate sponsorships at you.”

Last season TPM played to 1,734 people, with the most popular production being Age of Arousal by Griffiths. Its 2009-10 budget is $210,000, a total that includes a new creations grant received to support next spring’s première of North Main Gothic by Winnipeg’s Carolyn Gray (The Elmwood Visitation).

“If Harry was alive today he would be excited,” says Boxall. “I think he would say we’re kicking ass.”

Getting such a prominent Canadian theatre figure as Griffiths (Maggie & Pierre) back here twice in one year is a coup for TPM. Last March she was here for a public reading of The Last Dog of War, a true story of a trip the Toronto actress/playwright made with her father to England for the last reunion of his Royal Air Force squadron. When she offered to take questions from the audience the first one was, ‘Can you read some more?’

“We had to find out how the mission ended,” says Boxall, who is staging Last Dog cabaret style at the Costume Museum of Canada, 109 Pacific Ave. “We thought it would be appropriate around Remembrance Day.”

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