10 questions: Steven Schipper

1) What the fuck is going on?
We’re in deep prep for the 09-10 season. We like to have a penciled version done by Labour Day. We spend the next few months making countless changes toward a final version that comes with a balanced budget that goes to the Board for approval (the budget, not the playbill) in January. On the surface, we’re gearing up for the present season, which looks great on paper and should maintain the momentum we’ve got going.

2) What has been one of your most memorable professional moments since joining the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) as Artistic Director in 1989?
Representing hundreds of my colleagues at Winnipeg-based director/actor Robb Paterson’s bedside in ICU at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital in 2002. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and expertise at Sunnybrook, he’s since made a miraculous, if not fully complete, recovery (from bacterial meningitis caused by listeria), and the aforementioned colleagues and I are blessed to continue to work and play with him.

3) What’s the secret behind the MTC achieving record subscription and attendance rates for its 2008 season?
MTC achieving record subscriptions (20,428) and attendances (256,255) for its 2007-08 season is just a step along the way toward MTC achieving its vision, which is, “MTC’s theatres and our province will teem with artists and audiences sharing in the act of imagining.”

Our secrets are based on the values of our founders, John Hirsch and Tom Hendry, along with those of the laypeople of Winnipeg who helped them create MTC.

Our secrets may not be applicable to another theatre company, which is to say, different secrets might work just as well for different theatre companies.

Most of what follows I’ve learned from others. I first heard “a play is the shared act of imagining between artists and audiences” from Garland Wright, former artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Some of what follows is original, but of course, even what’s original is based on ideas I’ve learned from others. Our secrets are as follows:

A play only happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining. All the rehearsals, even the dress rehearsal, when all the sets and costumes, props, sound and lights, are in place, when the actors are at what we call “performance level”, that’s still a dress rehearsal for an event we call a play, which only happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre – it can be an auditorium as well appointed as MTC’s, it can be as rudimentary as Moliere’s “two planks and a passion” – to share in the act of imagining.

Plays happen in the moment. A play may be described in a text, or videotaped, but both of these are facsimiles, not a play. A play ONLY happens when artists and audiences come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining.

Many ideas and philosophies can be extrapolated from this understanding of what a play actually is. The first is that the quality of the play will be determined by the quality of both the artists and the audiences. It isn’t enough to develop artists, i.e., playwrights, actors, directors, etc. If we want the best theatre we must also develop audiences, through the articles in our programs, behind the scenes tours, development of students attending our theatre, eclectic playbills, etc.

MTC has been able to utilize our understanding of what a play is to determine the priorities for our theatre, which are foremost, and equally, artists and audiences. Another way of putting this is that the secret to MTC’s success is that we’re team players in a team art form, and our team at MTC prioritizes artists and audiences foremost and equally.

We like to say artists and audiences in that order because we sense that it’s appropriate for artists to lead, but we’re also aware that the key is in the equal balance between the two – that it’s not 51% for artists and 49% for audiences or vice versa – that we shouldn’t pay lip service to our commitment to audiences by choosing art solely for artists’ sake, nor should we be so market-driven that we allow audience surveys to make the final decision about which plays we will produce.

Since a play only happens when audiences and artists come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining, the essence of theatre is like a molecule with two atoms, those being artists and audiences.

The artists we refer to aren’t restricted to the ones we see on stage, i.e., the actors. All the designers, artisans, everyone who participates on the artistic side in the preparation for the event we call a play is part of the artistic process. The Box Office staff who answer the phone and speak to ticket buyers will contribute to the event we call a play, by helping us manage expectations. The House Manager and concession staff also contribute through their service to our audience, again, preparing the audience to be in the best possible frame of mind in which to “create” the play, to be the best possible audience it can be.

And an audience like MTC’s, that has experienced such eclectic programming at such consistently high standards over its 50-year history, will necessarily be a more sophisticated, enthusiastic audience and better able to create better plays.

Acting happens in the moment. Referring to Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, that written in iambic pentameter, Michael Langham, former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, referred to it as “the living thought – white-hot, freshly-minted off the brain.” Every word is a discovery, a revelation. Never does a character figure something out off-stage and enter only to declaim it. The playwright always meant for the actor to discover the thought in the very present tense. Think of “To be or not to be, that is the question.” If Hamlet figured this out previously, and comes on stage to deliver what he’s already figured out, that’s deadly. The living thought requires actors to discover the ideas and words in the moment.

What Shakespeare realized, and what holds true for acting today, is that for an audience, there’s nothing more engaging than getting inside another human being’s mind.

“Truth is beauty, beauty truth.
That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

– Keats, Ode Upon a Grecian Urn

These lines from Keats’s poem inform our choice of plays at MTC. We don’t think any one kind of play is more beautiful than another. We think every play that contains TRUTH is equally beautiful. A musical comedy like GUYS AND DOLLS isn’t any less beautiful than a great tragedy like KING LEAR. Similarly, plays that reflect the squalor of human existence can be beautiful if they contain an essential truth.

Once again, human beings find truth to be innately engaging. One hears often that the truth is very powerful, and it’s truth’s power that we harness on stage. It’s truth that engages an audience to look longer at a painting and read deeper into a poem. The fluffiest comedy and the most substantial drama are both equally beautiful if they reveal a truth that resonates with us as human beings.

A play is the most effective way we know to create a more loving, peaceful world.

Although the stories we tell in theatre are usually about conflict and what makes each of us different, because playwrights know that these stories are the most entertaining, when audiences and artists come together in a theatre to share in the act of imagining, we’re building bridges between people based on what we all have in common.

4) How important is it for the Manitoba Theatre Centre to present work that reflects the province’s ethno-cultural diversity?
It’s of paramount importance for MTC to both reflect and inform the community we serve.

MTC Artistic Director Steven Schipper and Artistic Co-ordinator Melinda Tallin
share a desk and, for photos like these,
squeeze in as many MTC staff into their office as possible.

5) How much of the MTC’s work is currently dedicated to presenting the work of the region’s First Nations people?
It’s never out of mind. Our next production of one of our region’s First Nations people will be Doug Nepinak’s The Life of Ruth.

6) How would you describe the overall health of the theatre industry in Manitoba?
The not-for-profit theatre scene in Manitoba is vibrant. As part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, we determined to showcase every other professional and non-professional theatre company in the province, so as to celebrate 50 years of theatre in Manitoba. We offered each company the opportunity to speak to our audience at Opening Night, to feature a self-written article about their company in our program, and we provided display space for their photos in our lobby. The professional companies that participated were:

The community groups and amateur companies that participated were:

7) What was it about Keanu Reeves’ acting style that made you think to invite him to perform in the MTC’s 1995 production of Hamlet?
I was aware of Keanu Reeves’ passion for Shakespeare, that he worked on soliloquies as part of his prep for film work. Because one never programs Hamlet without beforehand figuring out who will play the title role, I thought Keanu would make the most exciting choice.

To this day, of the dozens of productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, his is the only one I never slept through, and the only Hamlet for whom I cried at the end because such a vital soul of limitless potential was dying tragically young. Some of that might have been the music underscoring the moment, and of course, the director, Lewis Baumander, deserves much credit.

My only regret, and I attribute it to my lack of experience at that point as an Artistic Director, was not providing the company more than five and a half weeks rehearsal, which included a week of student matinees. In hindsight, we should have rehearsed for at least seven weeks, had the same week of student matinees, as well as a week of general public previews before opening. Keanu was understandably just a bit nervous on Opening Night, and I take full responsibility for putting him in that position. I would remind your readers that British theatre critic Roger Lewis for the London Sunday Times who saw a performance during the run wrote, “He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen.”

8) If you had to recommend just one person to fill the Artistic Director/Producer vacancy at the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, who would it be?
I’d like to say Gail Asper, only that might make her unavailable to eventually serve us all as Prime Minister.

MTC Associate Artistic Director Robb Paterson and Steven Schipper.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Canada, generally?
It’s all good.

10) How would you describe “Canada’s national theatre” to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?
Having lived through a childhood in the care of foster parents, having achieved independence through our adolescence, we’re now young adults and the world’s our oyster.

10 questions: Philip Graeme

Photo by Tony Hoffmann.

1) What the fuck is going on?
Words, words, words . . . and more words. The next evolution of a rehearsal process that has been exhausting, exhilarating, fraught with discovery and failure. And now, as the ensemble bristles with the energy of the run, I can’t help thinking how wonderfully dangerous and visceral it is to perform when you’re surrounded by a group of actors, designers and directors who attack the work without fear and challenge you to rise with them.

2) What do you like about Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play Hamlet?
I think that the relationships are highly contemporary: a young man is distressed by the recent and sudden death of his father and then his mother marries his uncle; he has a girlfriend whose father and brother interfere with his relationship; he’s had to leave school to come back for his father’s funeral and now he’s stuck, out of his comfortable element, trying to reconcile how quickly people move on. I look at how fast everything moves around us and I connect strongly with where Hamlet begins – he wants time to grieve.

The play is an extraordinary unraveling of human experience, heightened to great effect by the supernatural elements, and Hamlet himself is a great deal of fun to play. He’s dense, complex, dangerous, funny, naïve – he’s everything all at once, which is, of course, unplayable and yet it opens infinite possibilities of playing to an actor willing to let the character in.

3) Why is the production called The Prince Hamlet, instead of its more traditional title, Hamlet?
The actual title of Shakespeare’s play is The Historical Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, so in some ways calling the play The Prince Hamlet is no less arbitrary than reducing the title simply to Hamlet, but I like our title because it reminds us that this is a play about a person.

For me, the title Hamlet conjures over-studied ideas of the play as a literary entity rather than a performance text. A notion that is reinforced by dull English teachers and the egotism of so-called theatre practitioners who think that Shakespeare is sacrosanct and believe they provide the world a service by simply putting on the play and claiming universal relevancy.

Luckily, underneath all the crap is a good story.

4) What insights does the story offer about the nature of corruption and revenge?
I think of what Hamlet says to Gertrude in the closet scene when he tells her not to comfort herself by focusing on his behavior:

“Lay not a flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks. It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, whilst rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen.”

Deception is constantly related to questions of honesty and authenticity throughout the story and I think in this moment Hamlet sums up the psychological cost of deceiving oneself.

He is obsessed with honesty and I think his revenge is slowed at first by his distrust of his father’s spirit (there is a much longer point here about what exactly Hamlet’s relationship was to his father – I choose to believe that his father was distant and indifferent and there is a clear hero-worship toward his father that, for me, belies a need to earn his father’s acceptance). Hamlet cannot, however, bring himself to act against Claudius until he has more proof and that leads to the play within the play. Revenge, at least for Hamlet, must be highly motivated and based on a certain conviction or “the pale cast of thought” weakens the resolution to act decisively.

Liz Pounsett and Philip Graeme in The Prince Hamlet. Photo by Tony Hoffmann.

5) Having played the character of Hamlet twice now, have you arrived at any conclusions about the character or the text that may not be obvious to the casual observer?
I haven’t actually performed the role twice, but I was in rehearsal for a production that was cancelled because of SARS. I feel incredibly fortunate to now have the opportunity to play Hamlet. The first time I rehearsed it I was very much stuck in my head with ideas about the play and who I thought Hamlet was and ultimately I’m glad to have been able to get a lot of my own bullshit out of my system in that process because it has made this rehearsal process much more free, challenging and exciting for me. This play comes with an unbelievable amount of baggage, but you can’t play ideas – the only things that matter are the story and the truth of the moment.

6) How do you feel about your time at the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute at Harvard University?
Scarred. Rapturous. I learned the difference between art and banality and the emotional cost in pursuing this work. But I am but mad north-northwest . . .
7) What one thing would you change about theatre in Toronto if you could?
I defer to Marquez: “But when the moment arrived he realized that anything might say would compromise his destiny.”

8) How important is it for theatre artists to be out there seeing lots of shows?
Theatre is discourse. If we don’t see other people’s work or remind ourselves of what it is to be part of an audience then we are operating in a self-serving vacuum and, unless you like the sound of your own voice, I see no point in acting in a vacuum.

9) Why are the cynics wrong?

10) Do you have any unifying theories that inform your approach to making theatre?
I constantly remind myself that I have to choose to allow myself to be bold, be brash, be brave, be physical, to remember that every utterance is a character’s act of survival, and that the stakes are always life or death. In the program notes for Peter Brook’s 1968 production of The Tempest at the Round House there were a series of fundamental questions the production set out to examine. The questions are: What is a theatre? What is a play? What is an actor? What is a spectator? What is the relationship between them all? What conditions serve this relationship best? Ultimately, I believe these are the only questions worth exploring.