Prairie Theatre Exchange
Prairie Theatre Exchange began in 1972 as Manitoba Theatre Workshop (MTW). It was created to replace the recently closed Manitoba Theatre School (run by the MANITOBA THEATRE CENTRE), which had provided performance classes for children and teenagers. Under director Colin Jackson (1972-76) and then a series of short-term appointees, MTW's activities went far beyond acting classes. It produced a considerable amount of children's theatre (see THEATRE FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES), much of it directed by Deborah Quinn. MTW also helped to found local companies such as the Manitoba Puppet Theatre and Confidential Exchange (the only significant outlet for local playwrights at the time), and played host to many touring groups from other Canadian cities.
Manitoba Theatre Workshop Becomes PTE
In 1981 the organization changed its name to Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) and announced a new emphasis on productions for adult audiences, though the educational work continued. Colin Jackson returned to become executive producer and Gordon McCall was appointed artistic director. The first 2 seasons had mixed success; they included a notable production of George RYGA's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in which First Nations characters were - for the first time - played by First Nations actors.
In 1983 McCall was succeeded by Kim McCaw. McCaw's lively production of Wendy LILL's The Fighting Days in March 1984 marked the beginning of PTE's most successful period.
Under Jackson and McCaw, PTE's seasons consisted entirely of Canadian works, most with a Prairie emphasis and many new and locally written. Perhaps most popular were small-scale realist works set in ethnic or rural Prairie communities and written by authors such as Kelly Rebar and Ted Galay. Local playwrights fostered by PTE include Bruce McManus, Patrick FRIESEN, David Arnason and Sandra BIRDSELL. The company developed a fresh production and acting style, notable for its simplicity, warmth, and cultural sensitivity, perhaps best exemplified by actors Laurel Paetz and Maggie Nagle.
By the late 1980s, PTE's subscriptions approached 6000. Its theatre and school were still located in the historic but dilapidated Grain Exchange building, insalubriously situated on Princess Street behind the Public Safety Building; its theatre was a makeshift affair, a low-ceilinged room with most of the audience sitting at the sides of the stage.
PTE Moves from Princess St to Downtown Mall
In 1989 PTE moved to new facilities in the Portage Place shopping mall in downtown Winnipeg, which featured a new 364-seat thrust-stage theatre (later reduced to 323 to improve sightlines), a smaller studio theatre, and extensive additional space for offices, production shops, and the school. Some felt that the new theatre lacked the intimacy of the old one and that the glossy commercial atmosphere of the mall was inimical to the spirit of PTE.
The Springate Years
Kim McCaw left in 1991; his last season included a production of Wendy Lill's Sisters featuring Paetz and Nagle in leading roles that epitomized the special qualities of the theatre under his regime. Colin Jackson left the following year, and the position of executive producer was eliminated.
Under McCaw's successor, Michael Springate, the theatre had a less populist tone. The number of subscribers dropped precipitously, though important new works by Carol SHIELDS, Patrick Friesen and Margaret Sweatman (among others) were produced. Ian Ross's fareWel, a gritty portrayal of life on a Manitoba reserve, was among the most significant productions of this period; it was presented with an all-aboriginal cast in March 1996, after Springate had resigned from the theatre.
Allen MacInnes Restores Financial Stability
Facing up to financial problems, Springate's successor, Allen MacInnis, put aside the theatre's traditional emphasis on new and Canadian work. A highlight of his first season was a production of the musical My Fair Lady. His playbills for subsequent years consisted of an eclectic mix of classics, small-scale musicals and newer Canadian plays, with the occasional premiere of a locally written work, such as Brian Drader's The Norbals or Ian Ross's The Gap. He was successful in gradually rebuilding the subscription list, though it never attained the heights of earlier years.
Robert Metcalfe Brings Partial Return to PTE's Roots
MacInnis was succeeded in 2003 by Robert Metcalfe, who adopted a similar eclectic policy with perhaps more emphasis on Canadian work. Like McInnis, he produced only a few new works (Drader's Liar, Sharon Bajer's Molly's Veil). Metcalfe did however show greater interest in new play development, and introduced the annual Carol Shields Festival of staged readings of new works in 2004.
Another initiative was The Playwrights Unit, formed in 2007. Originally comprising 7 playwrights, the Unit is a collaborative group that offers its members feedback and support. PTE provides office and administrative support to the Unit. PTE also hosts occasional readings and workshops. Although PTE has produced a number of plays that came out of the Unit (Sharon Bajer's Burnin' Love, Rick Chafe's The Secret Mask and Ellen Peterson's The Brink), playwrights are not limited to home productions. Joseph Aragon's Bloodless had a 2012 production by Theatre 20 in Toronto. The Secret Mask has also had a production with Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company. Bajer's Molly's Veil has had numerous productions.
Although Prairie Theatre Exchange has held its own financially in recent years, its artistic identity remains somewhat uncertain. Like other medium-to-large theatres in Canada, its programming has lately steered mostly on the safe side, ceding the more daring and innovative ground to local companies such as Theatre Projects Manitoba, Theatre Incarnate, Theatre by the River and Zone 41--although PTE's 2012 Carol Shields Festival, subtitled Theatre in Dangerous Times, presented a reading of Michael HEALEY's Proud. The play had created controversy when the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto dropped it from its season, allegedly over concerns that it might offend the prime minister. One can also see the influence of PTE's early theatre esthetic in these and other local companies.
Another enduring legacy of Prairie Theatre Exchange is its support and fostering of smaller performing arts groups. From its beginning PTE has been hospitable to other groups. Theatre Projects Manitoba in its initial years had its offices in PTE and used its smaller stage for its productions. Shakespeare in the Ruins and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra rent office space. These and other mutually supportive arrangements have helped to foster the spirit of collaboration for which Manitoba has become famous.