By Dorothy Dobbie

Several months ago, I offered my support to the performing Arts in Winnipeg because I could see what a devastating effect COVID-19 would have on their audiences and their operating funds. I have pledged to continue this support until the pandemic is over and they are able to do something to get back on their feet.

Their executive directors have been keeping us up to date on their struggles and small successes since May through our no-strings-attached editorial space. It is our wish that this will help readers learn just what it has taken to keep their doors somewhat open, keep their many employees somewhat employed and keep our community enriched with their survival.

Particularly for the WSO, the Ballet, the Theatre and the Opera, this has been extremely challenging. Under COVID-19 rules, audience participation is a real problem. None of them can even pay the janitors on the money they earn from tickets but think about things such as rehearsals and preparation for a symphony or a play or a dance performance under COVID-19 rules! Even the film industry has had to undertake significant challenges to production issues to get the film rolling.

Yet each of these stalwarts, who enrich our community every day, has game-fully moved forward, accepting what comes and trying valiantly to overcome the obstacles. This fall, they are all trying to launch some sort of season, however truncated and virtual it might be.

I am thinking particularly of Trudy Schroeder who has the largest number of full-time employees to manage and care for. I have good reason to know that she is a bit of a genius when it comes to making things work that seem to be irrevocably broken. 

When I took on the challenge of chairing the WSO in 2006, it was very broken. Key staff had abandoned ship and the Board had hired a charming and creative but totally ineffectual manager. Knowing his own limitations, he hired an out-of-towner who hired her husband to take are of the management. Board members spent more time meeting in the parking lot than in the board room and the coffers were not only dry but the organization, by the time of my first meeting, was $750,000 in the hole and slated to dip to $1 million by the end of the season. Part of this was due to a change in Legislation that demanded the Concert Hall make money, putting it in competition with its principle tenant, the WSO. It also had a negative impact on the Opera and the Ballet, and to some degree on the Theater Centre which bought its power from the Centennial Concert Hall and whose rates skyrocketed.

The whole thing was a mess. Board members were dropping like flies, not wanting to associate with a losing enterprise. The icing on the cake for me was when a representative for the Canada Council came to town and informed me that perhaps Winnipeg should accept that it needed to scale back to an orchestra the size of that in Whitehorse!

My first meeting was in November. The chair resigned in May, just before the AGM. I took over as president. I did the job, trying to deal with the charming but hopelessly inept executive director, but it was clear we had different visions about money, so by the following March he announced his resignation (we remain friends).

I breathed a virtual sigh of relief. I already had his successor in my sights: Trudy Schroeder, at that time, ED of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. She had a classical music background and a stalwart reputation. I took her for lunch at Dubrovnik and the deal was sealed.

Trudy was the very best thing to happen to the WSO in the 20 years since I had previously served in the Board back in the 80s. 

Her perception and vision have kept the company on track ever since. No, it wasn’t all hearts and roses, and we butted heads from time to time during my five years as chair, but it was always in the interest of the orchestra. She fought to bring us back into fiscal balance, while being able to deal with the difficulties of having a dual leadership role with the artistic director. Her leadership helped take us to New York. Her leadership helped us create El Sistema. Her leadership has kept the orchestra in the black for the past ten years. Her leadership would have seen the orchestra in the Netherlands last spring, but for COVID-19.

So, hats off to Trudy. Long may the WSO be lucky enough to keep her. She always used to say, “Ten years and out”, but I know she loves the orchestra.

Hats off, too, to Camilla Holland, who though relatively new to Winnipeg, has become a stabilizing force in the theater community. She too, is a natural leader and we are so glad that Toronto let us have her. 

Larry Deroshers, stalwart, continues to quietly lead the Opera, a most improbable company in a small town like ours, but one we appreciate and enjoy, and which gladdens our hearts every time they hit the stage. 

Andre Lewis at the Ballet is doing the job for two as both Executive and Artistic director. What a very difficult time for the Ballet – they are a travelling troupe that cannot travel, but how we need them to carry our brand around the world as they have done for the past 80 years.

Then there is Nicole Matiation, ED of On Screen Manitoba, the industry that is putting Manitoba on the map as a movie capital, providing all sorts of jobs you would never dream of in the making of productions that are shown around the world.

Our community would not be the same without any of these companies, yet they have received the least support of any sector from any level of government. Indeed, the new chair of the Canada Council feels that his obligation is to “new and emerging” companies instead of these “legacy” companies. Where the heck does he think the new and emerging companies get their start?

So, once more loyal readers, lend your hearts and support to these folks, our quiet heroes. Without them our community would be so much the poorer. We would have a hard time attracting business investment and good people to come and live here and we would lose many more. 

They ask for so little, yet they give us so much.