Allegations of sexual harassment against the artistic director of one of Canada's most successful theatre companies have sent shockwaves through the arts community — with some saying the alleged behaviour of Soulpepper Theatre head Albert Schultz is heartbreaking, if not a complete surprise. 

None of the four lawsuits against Schultz — now on a leave of absence at the company's behest, pending its investigation — have been tested in court and he has vowed to "vehemently defend" himself. 

But the fallout is raising questions about the future of the Toronto company, known for cultivating up-and-coming artists and shining the spotlight on the city's diversity.

The statements of claim also name the company itself, alleging Soulpepper either knew or was "willfully blind" to the alleged behaviour. The company has said its policies prohibit harassment and that it has processes to report any instances in a safe manner.

Despite that, four artists announced their departure from the company Thursday saying they would no longer work there until Schultz has no further role at Soulpepper.

Longtime fan 'heartbroken' 

It all felt like a "punch in the gut" to longtime fan Rachel McMillan. 

McMillan attended Soulpepper shows for more than a decade, even travelling to New York this past summer for its production of Kim's Convenience, the play-turned-hit CBC show.

Upon hearing of the allegations, she said her heart went out to the various artists, stage hands and all those who'd flourished through the company, now with a cloud hanging over their work.  

"I'm heartbroken that this kind of thing happens at all because it ruins it for the people involved and it ruins it for the people who are ticket-holders who just want to see the magic," she told CBC News. 

Abuse and harassment

But while the allegations came as a shock to many, for veteran actor Martin Julien, they mirrored the kind of behaviour he says he's seen in the industry in his decades-long career.

"I have seen many examples of abuse, harassment, belittling behaviour, and so forth," he said. 

Nor were the claims against Schultz himself entirely revelatory.

THEATRE Spoon River 20170327

Cast members rehearse at Soulpepper's Young Centre for the Performing Arts on in March 2017. The fallout from the accusations is raising questions about the future of the Toronto stage company, known for cultivating up-and-coming artists. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"I'm not that surprised," Julien said.

"Through the years there have been several private conversations — including one with one of the complainants in this case — where things have been shared with me," he said, while acknowledging his own interactions with Schultz were limited.

In the fall, Soulpepper revealed that it had severed ties with longtime guest artist Laszlo Marton, an award-winning director who was facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault in his home country of Hungary.

Following an investigation, the company determined Marton had "engaged in sexual harassment" and that their relationship had to be "immediately and permanently terminated." The company also said it was not aware of any further allegations beyond those against Marton.

With the spotlight now on Schultz, the big question remains, can the company that was a bright spot of inclusivity and work that challenged its audiences in often unconventional ways, survive? 

Rising star

It was only months ago that Soulpepper's star had risen to international heights with the off-Broadway Kim's Convenience production — a significant and successful gambit, says Julien, not only for the company but for its many actors, artists, playwrights and others.

"The profile of the company had only recently taken a great leap if you're talking about international recognition and reception," he said.

But more than that, he says, is the feeling among many in the community that the allegations by actors Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley, Hannah Miller and Patricia Fagan should be taken seriously.

"There is also a concern… for Soulpepper's future and existence, but most strongly that these issues need to be addressed, taken seriously, believed," said Julien, adding that Schultz stepping down is "the right thing to do."

Patricia Fagan and Kristin Booth

Patricia Fagan and Kristin Booth pictured here are two of the four women who launched civil suits against Soulpepper and Schultz alleging sexual harassment and assault over a period spanning 13 years. (Evan Mitsui/CBC, Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Flood of calls

The allegations against Schultz follow high-profile exposés about sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in early October, which snowballed into a global phenomenon in which powerful men in entertainment — as well as in publishing, broadcasting, politics, technology and beyond — faced accusations of sexual misconduct.

Last year the Canadian Actors' Equity Association launched a campaign called Not in Our Space in conjunction with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT). The campaign followed a review of the organization's policies and bylaws and a survey of its members about harassment in the industry. 

"We were fairly confident that we were not hearing about a large percentage of inappropriate behaviour that was taking place," said executive director Arden Ryshpan, about the reasons for the review.

The results supported that feeling. Nearly 50 per cent of respondents said they had been "on the receiving end of some kind of inappropriate behaviour," spanning sexual harassment, bullying or other kinds of harassment outlined in under Ontario's human rights code.

Whether because of the campaign or the Weinstein debacle, this fall, the floodgates burst open.

Ryshpan estimates she received more calls since the fall than in the last 10 years combined. 

"There's no question, I think, that having this issue discussed so openly in the media, the bravery of the women who have come forward in order to tell everyone their story, has certainly encouraged people to come forward and take a different approach."

For ticket-holders like McMillan, the question remains as to whether to continue supporting Soulpepper.

She isn't ruling it out just yet though.

"I think there are many artists who can make something good turn out of something bad. Perhaps it will mean looking at who they have in charge, how they support women in their community. How they can use this as a positive and turn it around into something that empowers equality on the stage?"

With files from Derick Deonarain, Salimah Shivji and Jessica Wong