The Lorraine Kimsa
Theatre for Young People

Profiled by Joel Greenberg

When you are offered $1.5 million dollars with no strings attached, then altering the name of your business is not so hard to deal with. That's what is happening with Young People's Theatre, Canada's largest theatre operation for young audiences.

Located in its charming, city-owned facility that was previously a bus barn, the company is soon to be known as the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. And with a modest change like this you can be sure that the donor values the enterprise far more than he values the sight of his mother's name in lights.

In a business where timing is everything, both onstage and off, the gift is a blessing. YPT, as it has been known for more than 35 years, used to be a more substantial theatre presence in the city. In any given year, there was a mainstage season of four or five plays, a school touring season of three smaller shows that covered junior-high school audiences, and a studio operation that presented smaller scale productions and workshops of writing in development. I worked there pretty steadily through 80's, and the energy was inspiring. (I was also happy to return earlier this season to direct one of their major projects.)

In recent years, though there is as much energy and genuine commitment to the work as ever, YPT has suffered under reduced arts funding to such a degree that the mainstage season is now three plays, the studio operates largely by hosting or sponsoring 'outside' productions and school touring is a memory of a more prosperous past.

In a sense, the world within the walls at 165 Front Street East reflects most of the arts world in southwestern Ontario, where corporate fundraising continues to drive the marketing engines in every administration. Where YPT has been concerned, the mandate for creating work dedicated to young audiences has limited the corporate fundraising potential. While some sponsors get behind the vision of a company dedicated to developing future audiences by introducing our youth to the live theatre experience as early as possible, it is pretty clear that the lure of big, bold marquee names attracts the substantial money elsewhere.

And so, the Kimsa donation becomes that much more valuable. In addition to the fact of the money, Pierre Tetrault, the theatre's artistic director, says that he hopes this public acknowledgement can help to generate similar announcements in the future. There is no doubt that the network of arts donors, both private and corporate, responds to one of its own making a public endorsement of this kind. It is a vote of confidence that, with luck, will trigger others to re-evaluate the urgent need for a theatre for young people -- and in this context, young people refers to kindergarten through high school.

Having just been at the Stratford Festival, let me tell you that the need for this kind of audience development is already past due. Have you sat in any of the three theatres there lately and tried counting the number of young audience members? If you have, then you know the task is too damn easy. There are generations missing from the audience because theatre is not what government sees as an educational value. There is a lot the government does not see, but the state of funding for the fine and performing arts speaks to a cultural blindness that is now past the dangerous stage. And for the past decade, YPT has been as hard hit as any other constituent.

That brings us back to Tetrault's excitement about the Kimsa announcement. Though the specifics about where the $1.5 million will be directed are yet to be determined, there is no question that the morale boost from even having such discussions as part of the day-to-day activity is greeted happily. "Slow and steady," is the phrase that Tetrault uses more than once as he considers the theatre's immediate future.

Play development will probably be among the areas to invest in. After all, arts councils tend to look kindly at new works by Canadian writers. But when your budget is already too thin, risking a new play without the time and resources to properly nurture it can threaten to undermine an entire operation. And in this, YPT is a veteran, having produced both award-winning successes and critical and box office failures. So, part of the donation probably should ensure the future of play development.

And like most other operations of its kind, YPT has an accumulated debt to resolve. Paying it down will not be among the items on the final Kimsa list, however, because pay-down money doesn't replenish itself in the way that endowment funds do. But the new excitement this gift has generated will provide the company's fundraisers with energy to focus on handling the debt without having the debt work itself into the decision making.

However the funds are invested, you know that the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People is about to re-invigorate the idea that Susan Rubes initiated so many years ago, the idea of establishing a theatre for young audiences who would, eventually, become adult audiences. And the city will be the better for it, for without a future audience to value theatre, among other cultural events, we can count on nothing better than what the current climate tolerates. (The photo of Premier Mike Harris at the opening of The Lion King made it pretty clear where he thinks theatre should be headed.)

If Kimsa's money can inspire the people at YPT to imagine and dream without budgetary nightmares as they do so, then this gift will be the greatest investment in the company's history. And best of all, it will translate into a long-term investment for the rest of us, too.

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