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Celebrated Winnipegger returns to direct at Montreal theatre

Steven Schipper directs the Segal Centre-Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production of My Name is Asher Lev, here from Sept. 11 to Oct. 2 MANUEL SOUSA PHOTO

Steven Schipper never dreamed, when he was deciding on a career, that he’d later return to Montreal bearing such honours as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contribution to Canadian theatre, the Order of Canada and honorary degrees from the universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba.

“Were my parents thrilled when I decided to go into theatre? Does anyone know of any parents who are happy to hear that their 17-year-old wants to pursue a life in the theatre? Mine were always 100 per cent supportive of me but understandably concerned,” says Schipper whose Montreal education at Herzliah High School, then at McGill and Bishop’s universities and the National Theatre School of Canada, would eventually lead to the artistic directorship, from 1989 onward, of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC).

Of course, that came after working at such venues as the Huron Country Playhouse and the Stratford and Shaw festivals.

“I was serious and I stuck with it,” he says. “Along the way, my father’s credo, ‘If you take a job, try to do it well,’ has been enormously helpful, as has what my mother taught me through her love for good stories.”

He is directing Chaim Potok’s very good story, My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner and set to play at the Segal Centre from Sept. 11 to Oct. 2. It’s about a young man on a career path his parents wish to block, but there’s a difference.

Asher Lev’s longing to be an artist is not only anathema to his parents, but also to his entire chassidic community, which sees it as sacrilegious.

“It’s a play about a gift that, as Asher says, is simultaneously from the Master of the Universe and from the Other Side. It’s both divine and demonic. It isn’t just demonic possession, but angelic possession,” Schipper says.

“Asher doesn’t say, ‘Even though it upset my family, I decided I wanted to be an artist.’ He never decided. He never had a choice. He is saying, if you can learn who you really are and what you have to do, then you do it, not because you choose it, but because it’s the only way you can really be alive.”

Schipper is quick to point out that the story, though set in a religious Jewish community, speaks to people from all cultures. The cast will speak best to the three demanding roles in the play.

David Reale is Asher Lev, portraying him from childhood onward. The wonderful Ellen David is in the role of the mother, as well as taking all the other women’s roles, while Alex Poch-Goldin, lately in Soulpepper’s The Dybbuk, plays the father and the other male roles.

The director has also been working closely with set designer Martin Ferland, who, Schipper says, based his scenery on “the number three, which is very important in the play, the triangle between the son, the father and the mother.”

Hugh Conacher is lighting designer and Louise Bourret creates costumes true to the play’s 1950s era.

The entire production will be packed up at the end of the run and trucked out west to Schipper’s RMTC for a run Oct. 12 to 29.

“The play came about through many conversations with [Segal Theatre artistic and executive director] Lisa Rubin about what we might co-produce,” says Schipper. “So it plays Montreal until Rosh Hashanah and opens in Winnipeg right after Yom Kippur! We timed it just right.”

Just as he did when he directed Cabaret for the Segal, Schipper is spending four weeks with his parents, who still live in Montreal, and will also see his sister in Ottawa.

He leaves the production in the capable hands of stage manager Luciana Burcheri when he flies back to the RMTC on Sept. 16.