After 31 years at the helm of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (and its sister stage, the Warehouse), Steven Schipper is fast approaching his last curtain call. In six months, Canada’s longest-serving artistic director will be retiring (although he will have a hand in planning the 2019-20 season).
During his time in Winnipeg, Schipper not only has had a major impact on the theatre scene, but also has been a strong supporter of our city’s Jewish community and the State of Israel. It is therefore fitting that he will be going into retirement with one more accolade to add to his Order of Canada, which he received six years ago. He will be the 2019 JNF Negev Gala honouree.
“It is a tremendous honour,” says the soft-spoken and modest Schipper. “I am so grateful.”
Ariel Karabelnicoff, Jewish National Fund (JNF) Canada’s executive director for the Manitoba and Saskatchewan region, says that Schipper was chosen because, “by all accounts, he is a mensch and he loves Israel unconditionally. By accepting this honour, Steven is taking a leadership role in inspiring everyone who supports the work of the JNF and, by extension, the State of Israel.”
One of the factors that originally brought the Montreal-born Schipper to Winnipeg was his wife, actor Terri Cherniack, who was born and raised here. But Schipper also had his own family connection to Winnipeg.
Schipper is the son of Holocaust survivors Jack and Regina Schipper. When Jack Schipper first arrived in Canada, he lived in Winnipeg, where he was sponsored by the Grubert family. It was a work opportunity that led him to move to Montreal in 1950, which is where he met and married Regina.
“My dad kept in touch over the years with his friend, Sol Fink, in Winnipeg,” Schipper says. “They met in a displaced persons camp. Teri and I are very close friends with Sol’s daughter, Shayla, and her husband, Kinzey (who were two of the original members of the former Winnipeg-based klezmer group, Finjan).”
Schipper’s first interaction with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Royal MTC) was in the fall of 1986. “I was invited to direct Brighton Beach Memoir,” he recalls. “We were living in Toronto at the time. Before the play opened, I prayed that it would be an unquestioned success. There was an opening for a new artistic director here and Terri and I were hoping to start a family and become involved in Jewish life here.”
Schipper’s prayer was answered: the play received overwhelmingly positive reviews and he was invited back in 1987 as the theatre’s associate artistic director. After two years, he was appointed as the sole artistic director.
Among the highlights of Schipper’s tenure at the Royal MTC were the Canadian premieres of Angels in America, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, as well as numerous plays written by local playwrights.
“We have tried to stage plays that met or exceeded the high expectations of our sophisticated audiences,” he says.
He credits his success over the years to all the people with whom he has worked.
I felt that it was time to pass the torch and give someone else the opportunity that had been given to me over the years.
– Steven Schipper
“It feels good to be retiring,” Schipper says. “I felt that it was time to pass the torch and give someone else the opportunity that had been given to me over the years.”
Within the Jewish community, Schipper is a founding board member of StandWithUs Winnipeg, a group that helps enable Jewish students to fight against anti-Israel activity on university campuses. He is also a supporter of Technion university in Israel and Winnipeg’s major Jewish organizations.
For his JNF project, Schipper has chosen to support Beit Halochem, an Israeli organization that runs rehab facilities for soldiers and civilians who have suffered catastrophic injuries in combat, or as a result of terrorist attacks. The organization is raising funds to build a fifth facility in Ashdod.