The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC) launched its season programmed by new artistic director Kelly Thornton. There is a clear shift in direction from previous seasons, highlighting stories from and about women and BIPOC.
“When I was still going through the hiring process (to become) the artistic director at RMTC, I articulated three priorities,” Thornton says. “One is ‘cultivating our voices’ ... I really believe in putting Canadian playwrights on our stage and as many local playwrights as possible.” Seven of the shows this season are by Canadian playwrights, including Calpurnia by associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer.
The second was “captivating our audience (by) creating a balanced playbill that has beloved classics,” Thorton says, like The Sound of Music, which has salient and contemporary themes. “The von Trapp family were displaced. They were wartime refugees ... this is a story which sadly continues to resonate.”
Another classic, The Three Musketeers, adapted by Catherine Bush, will conquer the mainstage. “My mandate with that one is to bring some of the most exciting swordplay onto our stages,” Thornton says.
This season will also have a large opportunity for young women actors. Sarah Delappe’s The Wolves, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about a girls’ soccer team, will be produced at the Tom Hendry Warehouse.
“It is such a gift to have a play like The Wolves, because it is the ensemble of nine soccer players and one soccer mom,” Thornton says. “I love the opportunity. We are going to (cast) nine young women, local Winnipeg actors, next-generation actors, and really show their stuff.”
“The last goal is ‘connecting with our community,’” Thornton says. This is most apparent with The Bridge, a new festival which will replace the Master Playwright Festival, which ran from 2000 to 2020. The festival featured one RMTC production and a non-juried selection of plays produced by independent theatre companies in the community. Each year focused on a particular “Master Playwright,” including John Patrick Shanley, Caryl Churchill, Stephen Sondheim and ending with 2020’s ShakespeareFest.
“The Bridge is a new initiative, (an) annual festival that unpacks some of the issues that are on our stage. In 2021, (the theme is) Art and Reconciliation,” Thornton says. Children of God, a musical about an Oji-Cree family in a residential school, will play the mainstage, and two shows will play on alternate nights at the Warehouse. The festival will also feature a series of panels and cabarets but won’t feature the independent theatres that the Master Playwright Festival did.
“I’m seeing the gap now for independent theatre,” Sami Desiree, the artistic director of Beau Theatre Co., says. “The Master Playwright Festival has always been a great opportunity for independent theatre or community productions to mount something and still get some of that audience base that goes and makes these houses full. (Often) it is really hard to reach those audience bases.”
Thornton says The Bridge is not meant to be “a cookie-cutter replacement” for the Master Playwright Festival. She plans on doing some kind of town hall to engage with smaller theatre companies to find out what their needs are.
“I do have ideas in terms of what I see as the needs of the community. (RMTC has) a responsibility for people’s livelihoods, which is why I’m trying to get as much local Winnipeg talent onstage (as possible), including local designers. I’m interested in helping build capacity for independent companies,” she says.