By ALON WEINBERG Sam McLean may be new to the position of general manager of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, but he’s no stranger to the organization, which opened its 35th season with Hannah Moscovitch’s musical, “Old Stock,” on October 29th. Officially taking over as GM August 1st with the departure of previous theatre head Ari Weinberg, McLean enthusiastically welcomed patrons back indoors to the Berney Theatre for Old Stock’s preview show on Oct. 27th for the first time since “Two Birds One Stone” played in February 2020 on the eve of the global pandemic.
McLean began with the WJT as its box office administrator in 2018, moving on to assistant producer and then up to a full producer in November 2021, before taking over as general manager in time for the launch of the new season. I asked Sam about whether taking over as manager so close to the launch of the first post-pandemic season created a challenging transition for the theatre, to which he explained the transition has been a smooth one:
“The main thing is we’re interviewing for our next artistic director and hopefully we’ll have some info to share about that soon but right now it’s still in that interview process. As it is, we had the fortune that (former manager) Ari (Weinberg) has always had a lot of long-term season planning. So, we had this whole season all locked down before everything changed with him moving to the new position at Stratford Festival. So the nice thing is that this is his last programmed season, and as the next artistic director comes on, they’ll kind of inherit that and have their own season announcement coming up.”
This 35th season features “Old Stock,“ which ended its run Nov. 6; “Narrow Bridge” in March 2023 by local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff (which had been scheduled for April 2020 and cancelled due to Covid-19); “Summer of Semitism” by Ori Black; and Deborah Yarchun’s “A Pickle,” which will be held in the theatre’s outdoor tent first assembled and used for shows in 2021.
I asked Sam about the sort of shows the theatre puts on, noting that “Old Stock” had a raunchy edge, with more gutter-talk than one might expect from a theatre with many older patrons.
“In the last 4 years that I’ve been at the theatre, we’ve always had a wide variety in the kind of shows that we put on, and that’s especially the case with this season. It’s this dark but also very light and silly musical to start things off, and then the different shows all bring something very different quality-wise. Our outdoor show A Pickle is really sweet and heartwarming. Narrow Bridge is really interesting because not only is the person discovering their identity through gender, but through their relationship to Orthodox Judaism. Summer of Semitism is a wonderful show for how it puts so much suspense into things that you have such grounded faith in with friendships being on the line based on how people want to highlight a crisis. Each one of them balances out a different flavour to the overall quality of the season.”
The last couple of years under pandemic-driven public health restrictions were not easy for any entertainment-based sectors of the economy, especially live theatre, but the WJT adapted like many others, producing both online and outdoor performances. Past popular show “Becoming Dr. Ruth” was screened digitally, as was “True Colors” during the 2020-2021 season, as much of the world moved online. “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” was the first outdoor live theatre show that WJT staged, in June 2021, followed by “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” and “Chutzpah and Salsa” returning to the tent in June of this year to conclude the 2021-2022 season, which also included “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” online.
After witnessing Sam’s enthusiasm during his show introduction to Old Stock before the first indoor show in over two and a half years, I asked Sam to expound upon his feelings on being back inside:
“It’s just such a wonderful thing… it’s as if we’d never been gone. Coming back to the Berney Theatre, it is WJT’s home base. And being there with the crowd giving the pre-show speech, as I’ve done before, as Ari had done before, everything just clicks and goes along – and it’s not to say that our shows didn’t run well in our outdoor setup; we’ll be doing one again this summer – but it’s just nice that we’ve got that reliable setup that we know so well and we’ve been missing in this time that we’ve been away. Indoor live theatre is just what we know best. So, it was really nice to return to that.”
Judging from the opening crowd of Old Stock, patrons of The Winnipeg Jewish Theatre were just as eager to return to the Berney Theatre, with nearly all patrons still taking care to mask-up. If you haven’t been back, an excellent season of theatre is well under way. Sam McLean and a creative lineup of shows are waiting to welcome you back.