WINNIPEG — In what can appropriately be described as a dramatic move, the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (WJT) announced last week that it has fired artistic director Michael Nathanson and is cancelling Shiksa, by local playwright Cairn Moore, which was to be its final production of the current season.
Nathanson has headed the 26-year-old company for the past seven years.
The Feb. 18 moves came as a result of declining attendance and finances. In a statement posted on its website, the board said that it’s “examining our financial position and considering how we may proceed forward. We apologize to our patrons, supporters, donors and to all of the artists and theatre practitioners who have helped us grow over the years for this abrupt end to our season. We look forward to returning to the stage in the future.”
The WJT board is not commenting on Nathanson’s firing, which reportedly is the subject of litigation. He did not respond to The CJN’s calls for comment.
WJT board president Judith Putter was hopeful that the shutdown is temporary. “The theatre is a precarious business,” she said. “We hope we will be able to bounce back. We are working hard at finding a solution.”
In a short report on the situation in the local Jewish Post and News, editor Bernie Bellan noted that “there was a fair bit of discontent from long-time theatregoers over the diminution of Jewish content. Season ticket sales especially had declined drastically in recent years.”
The WJT was in its 26th season. When it was founded by music teacher Bev Aronovitch and a group of friends and supporters in 1987, it was the first new Jewish theatre in Canada in many decades. Its mandate was to present professional theatre of high artistic quality that reflects the Jewish experience of the past, present and future and to encourage the creation of new Canadian plays of Jewish interest.
The WJT started as a non-profit community theatre producing two plays a year. In 1992-93, WJT became a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, operating under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Theatre Agreement negotiated with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.
In both the 1998-99 and 2000-01 seasons, attendance surpassed 6,000 tickets sold. Box office revenue surpassed $100,000 for the first time in 2000-01.
Nathanson was hired as artistic director for the 2006-07 season, succeeding longtime artistic director Kayla Gordon who left to pursue other ventures in the theatre world. A former Winnipegger, Nathanson had been living in the United States, where he was trying to make it as a playwright.
He came aboard at an earlier low point in the WJT’s financial health. Over his first four seasons, the WJT enjoyed an artistic revitalization. Productions of Death of a Salesman in January 2008 and Lenin’s Embalmers in October 2010 were the two best-attended shows of the past decade.
“Our shows enjoyed rave reviews and, despite competing with theatres whose budgets are between six times to 26 times as large, have been hailed as being as good as, if not the best, theatrical productions in Winnipeg,” Nathanson told The CJN in 2012.
WJT was also the first theatre in Winnipeg in the past decade to have presented a new play – Nathanson’s Talk – which was subsequently named a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in Drama in October 2009. (Talk has since been staged by Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre and at the National Arts Centre Festival in Ottawa and in Israel.
In the spring of 2012, Nathanson and the WJT staged the ambitious and costly Angels in America: Millenium Approaches. While the production received much critical praise, it lost money – as did Perestroika, which kicked off the theatre’s 25th season the following fall.
Gordon, Nathanson’s predecessor, said the WJT’s precarious financial situation is not unusual. She was the WJT’s artistic director for 11 years.
“Every couple of years, the board would say that we lacked the funds to stage a second or third show,” she said. “But we always found a way to survive.
“It happens with other Jewish theatres as well. Such is life in small theatre with small audiences.”
She said she hopes the current shutdown will be a temporary hurdle and that the theatre will be able to carry on.