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Continuing the lessons learned about nurturing artists and audiences to fulfill an organization's potential.

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Steven Schipper and his wife Terri Cherniack are seen celebrating at their kids' engagement party in Caracas, Venezuela (Photo: supplied)

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Plays happen when artists and audiences come together to share in the act of imagining. The stories we tell are usually about conflict and what makes each of us different, because playwrights know those stories are most engaging. However, when artists and audiences share in the act of imagining, we’re building bridges between people based on what we all have in common.  Steven Schipper 

Steven Schipper, who is Executive Artistic Director of the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Ontario has had an illustrious and satisfying career in the arts. After serving as Artistic Director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba from 1989 to 2019, Schipper says that he is now trying to establish Brampton as “a cultural crossroads in Canada and an entertainment capital in the GTA.”

“Artistic direction” he explains “is a leadership role. It’s all about nurturing artists and audiences and leading a team to fulfill an organization’s potential”. 

In his work, Steven “chooses the plays, concerts and other forms of entertainment, directing some himself, and overseeing all aspects of the company’s artistry”. And by necessity, “is also heavily involved in fund-raising, marketing and community outreach.” 

Indeed, his ascension to the helm of RMTC was part of enacting an economic recovery plan after annual deficits required a new approach. With that, Schipper developed a formula of balancing commercial and Broadway hits and film adaptations with new works, allowing fans of the former to become accustomed to the writers and performers of the latter.

Schipper’s parents, Jack and Regina, now 93 and 89 respectively, are Holocaust survivors from Rzeszów, Poland, who moved to Montreal after liberation.  Both were living in Montreal by that time but had never met before they were introduced at a dance there. 

Schipper recalls “When my mother asked ‘where are you from?’ Dad answered, “Rzeszow”. Mom thought he must have asked someone where she was from and  was  saying he was from the same town to get her to like him. After a few  dates, my Zeida , Mom’s Dad, the one grandparent my sister Debbie and I ever knew, asked Mom, “The man you are dating, what is his surname?” She answered,  “Schipper”. Zeida began dancing and repeating ‘There’s going to be a Chasana!’ The rest, as they say, is history. ‘’

Schipper grew up in Montreal, a city with a vibrant Jewish community. He attended a liberal arts program at McGill University, studied at Bishops University in Lennoxville, Quebec and then entered the National Theatre School in Montreal from which he graduated in 1978. At McGill, he met renowned theatre director and drama tutor James Dodding, who became his mentor and professional role model.

 Schipper made his Toronto directing debut in 1981 with Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand, for Toronto Free Theatre and spent three seasons (1982-84) at the Stratford Festival as an assistant director, culminating as Associate Director for Romeo and Juliet, starring Colm Feore and Seana McKenna. He also directed Tropical Madness at the Shaw Festival in 1985. 

In 1982 Schipper married Terri Cherniack of Winnipeg. They met at the National Theatre School when both were students there; over her 40 year career, Terri has performed leading roles at theatres across Canada and is a highly accomplished actress. They arrived in Winnipeg in 1987 as he took on the position of Associate Artistic  Director at the RMTC, becoming the sole Artistic Director in 1989. He and Terri found the Jewish community to be warm and welcoming. 

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Schipper was successful at the MTC at elevating the company’s artistry and  developing a new base of audience members and donors.  Establishing new relationships with artists and audiences throughout Canada, the United  States, Great Britain and Europe, while maintaining and expanding pre-existing ties, resulting in an enhanced national and international network  and reputation for the-then MTC (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II gave the theatre royal designation in 2010).

He attracted many esteemed actors to perform at the MTC, some of whom made their theatre debut there. 

Some of the excellent artists appearing included  renowned actor and stage director Len Cariou, famed American actor Judd Hirsch (of Taxi fame),  film and stage actor R.H. Thomson, Al (King of Kensington) Waxman, Stratford Festival legend Martha Henry, Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent, Due South star Paul Gross and Oscar nominee Graham Greene.

There are countless more with whom he enjoyed working on innovative and entertaining   productions.

In 1995, Schipper brought in popular film actor Keanu Reeves, fresh off a starring role in the $350M grossing action flick Speed to perform the lead in Hamlet in a sensational public relations success. The play was directed by Lewis Baumander, an acting coach who had worked with Reaves a decade earlier in Toronto. Drawing sold-out crowds every night with international fans flocking to see their idol, a way-off Broadway run intended to be purely an acting exercise for Reaves turned into an unprecedented cultural  event. Els Kavanagh, former chairwoman of the Manitoba Arts  Council wrote “I’m completely won over.  I found his performance riveting and exciting, with absolute flashes of brilliance.”  

In total, Schipper directed over three dozen plays, including the Canadian premiere of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and the world premiere of Maureen Hunter’s Atlantis.  As described in the TMTC programme, Martin’s first comedy for the stage “places Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in a Parisian cafe in 1904 just before the renowned scientist transformed physics with his theory of relativity and the celebrated painter set the art world afire with cubism.”

He is especially proud of having commissioned Niki Landau’s adaptation of Gone With the Wind.

The run in 2013 broke the previous box office records, and as Niki said, “I have not been afraid to alter  certain details to provide a more truthful or inclusive portrayal of African  American characters and, indeed, I believe the story and all the characters benefit from this approach.”

Four years in development, “The entire Gone With the Wind story is there,” wrote one reviewer, “from the glory days of the Old South to the horrors of the   Civil War, including the burning of Atlanta, to the upheaval of the Reconstruction.” Reviewer Paul McCulloch pronounced the preview night world premiere “practically flawless – sets, costumes and acting included… The cast is uniformly excellent…. and Terri Cherniack is formidable as the hypocritical Miss Merriweather.”

Steven Schipper with mentor James Dodding in his hometown of Garstang, UK (Photo: supplied)

Over his career at MTC Schipper was particularly proud of having been able to work with two exceptionally great Winnipeg-born actresses, the late Evelyne Anderson and Nancy Drake.

“Evelyne Anderson, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 89, was a star in every sense of the word” he said. “She really set the bar as high as anyone for having it all, as they say — for being both a consummate professional actor and a simply beautiful, decent human being.”

Schipper directed her in some RMTC appearances and said her ability to take direction and her versatility were extraordinary. She also left a legacy for other Winnipeg actors as a passionate advocate for local performers.

Nancy Drake’s profound contribution to the Winnipeg arts community as a performer, teacher, director and leader is an unmatched legacy.  She died at the age of 77 in September of 2020.

“Nancy Drake was a strong person with fierce convictions, “ Schipper recalled fondly. “Her combination of courage and empathy made her a great mother and friend, and an actor of remarkable range. Equally adept with both classic and contemporary texts, her onstage voice was clear and straightforward. Nancy was grounded, earthy, and innately comedic. She could find the needle of humour in a haystack, and needed no assistance sharing it with an audience.”  

Upon departing RMTC to accept his new position at the Rose Theatre in Brampton in 2019, Schipper expressed his immense gratitude to the staff, actors, trustees and audiences for their decades of support. In particular he praised Gail Asper, who was chair of the board. “She became a guiding light, was very generous and a tremendous leader,” he said, adding that “her vision and determination gave us the opportunity to reach the high goals we set for ourselves.” 

Unlike the RMTC, The Rose does not produce plays but does present them.

However, they feature dance and a variety of other performing arts. “We’re working to ensure that all of Brampton’s diverse communities see themselves reflected on our stage,“ says Schipper,” and that the artists on our stage look out and see all of Brampton’s mosaic.”

Upcoming entertainers, post pandemic, will be Broadway star Bernadette Peters, the Canadian Tenors, Winnipeg vocalist Burton Cummings and actors Ahad Riza Mir, who is originally from Calgary, and his wife, Sajal Ali.  A power couple in Pakistan, they have over 9 million Instagram followers between them and will be performing a new production of Hamlet directed by Haysam Kadri. While live presentations cannot be held during Covid, Schipper is utilizing live online presentations to reach an extraordinarily large number of audiences, including students. He feels the theatre has made ” an indelible mark on young people who have participated with us online.”

On a personal note, Schipper and his wife are pleased to be living in Brampton where they have found a small but friendly Jewish congregation to connect with. As happy as they were living in Manitoba, they are enjoying life in their new home and try to visit their parents, children and grandchildren whenever the opportunity arises.

Judy Weinryb is a published author who facilitates a Creative Writing class on zoom at the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living. She has been a freelance writer for the Canadian Jewish News, the Jewish Tribune and the Markham Review. A social worker for many years, she has an interest in Jewish Community from both a professional and personal perspective.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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