Journeys drawn in our imagination

By Kelly Thornton
Journeys drawn in our imagination
Kelly Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Photo by Jerry Grajewski.

Time. Most often it seems like a rushing river pushing us endlessly forward with our manic schedules in tow. Waking to our alarms, we scramble out of bed, get food into ourselves and our children, then its school drop offs, and into our offices to embark on yet another day of important obligations. We know how to fill time, and because of that it moves very fast. That is, until recently. Now time feels like the endless summers of childhood. Two months of COVID-19 lock down feels like dog years and sheltering at home, a life sentence. But in this slowing down something special is also emerging for us, a concept we were becoming less and less familiar with, and that’s the idea of taking time. Neighborhoods are teeming with families, simply being together, reconnecting in a way we had not imagined. People are baking and gardening and breathing fresh air. When the world hit pause on the economic hustle and bustle, we lost so much, but what we did gain is perspective.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, as this week marks my first anniversary in Winnipeg. I’ve been replaying my final days in Toronto, the hectic, highly orchestrated schedule of packing up my house, my family, my dog and embarking on one of the most exciting adventures of my life. Becoming the new Artistic Director at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre was an astonishing dream come true. While I was leaving behind family and friends and a theatre community that I was deeply embedded in, I was focused only on my forward momentum, with ideas swirling through my head, carving out a vision for the future of this incredible institution.

On my first day I remember standing on the gorgeous stage in the John Hirsch Theatre, looking out over the empty seats and feeling the history in the room. I could feel the laughter, the tears, the awe of our audience, and underfoot I felt the legacy of great actors telling stories, of production teams realizing the beautiful designs of impassioned artists who imagined extraordinary worlds, of the beautiful and ephemeral nature of live theatre. The interchange between audience and actor, the collective experience in the darkened theatre, all of it has become even more sacred, now that we have this new-found perspective.

The wonderfully articulated vision of Royal MTC is described as “artists and audiences sharing in the act of imagining.” This profound and powerful idea resonates so deeply. Together, we gather to suspend our disbelief, and go on journeys drawn in our imagination. This collective experience is the culmination of an immense amount of time and energy. Whether it’s the actors who have investigated every detail of their character in rehearsal, or the scenic painters who have meticulously painted the stage to mimic the grain of a hardwood floor, or the patron who eagerly read the brochure with appetite for a new season of storytelling. All of us with open hearts are drawn to this fundamental experience of imagining, together.

One of the most vital things about theatre is that it allows you to be in the moment. If we are dwelling on the past or the future, we will get lost in the plot and miss out on the magic of this collective experience. Perhaps this is an important reminder as we grapple with uncertainty, unsure what the future holds. Be in the present moment. Listen to the story that’s being told. Cheer for the heroes, loathe the villains and pay attention. This is now, and it’s a profound tale.

As an Artistic Director this is a time of great challenge and immense responsibility, as I steward our beloved theatre through rough waters to ensure its longevity. But as an artist, I believe that every obstacle is an opportunity and that creativity blooms in the face of adversity, always seeking resolution. We have been given the gift of time, we have gained huge perspective and the story continues to unfold. All we can do is be in the present with open hearts and listen.

Kelly Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.