Theatre roles need to change following Soulpepper harassment allegations, Winnipeg directors say

Behind the scenes in Canada’s theatre community, a discussion about abusive behaviour has sprung up in the wake of allegations against one of the country’s most prominent theatre directors.

Myth of 'all-powerful' director, vulnerability of actors contribute to culture of abuse, say 2 local directors

Albert Schultz, seen here in the atrium of the Soulpepper theatre in Toronto in 2006, has resigned from the company following allegations of sexual harassment. Winnipeg directors Ann Hodges and Pablo Felices-Luna say it's essential for theatres to create safe spaces in which actors can work. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Behind the scenes in Canada's theatre community, a discussion about abusive behaviour has sprung up in the wake of allegations against one of the country's most prominent theatre directors.

Accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Albert Schultz, the co-founder and now former artistic director of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, highlight the unique power imbalance that exists within the world of theatre, Winnipeg-based director Ann Hodges said.

"I think what's unique about theatre is that we ask actors to be emotionally available, we ask them to take risks, we ask them to respond to the director. We give the director the mandate to create a situation, to create a role," she said in an interview Thursday on CBC's Information Radio.

The fact that many actors and directors are self-employed can make it difficult for people to speak out, Hodges said.

"You don't want to ruin your reputation and become known as a 'difficult' person or 'unco-operative' or anything like that.

"There are so many other things that are involved in theatre that place people in a more vulnerable situation."

Four women have filed separate civil suits against Schultz, who resigned Thursday as Soulpepper's artistic director, while vowing to challenge the allegations, which have not been proven in court. The women accuse him of unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace over a period of 13 years.

Despite the intimate nature of theatre work, where actors and directors work long hours on difficult scenes, the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is not as grey as it might seem, said Manitoba Theatre for Young People artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna.

In a statement of claim in her lawsuit against Schultz, actress Trish Fagan alleges that during rehearsals, Schultz inserted himself into a scene to demonstrate what he wanted the actors to do. It was at that point that Fagan alleges she felt him press his penis against her.

"Beyond the fact that some of these allegations point to inappropriate behaviour, it's also bad directing for a director to step into a scene and demonstrate how they want things done," said Felices-Luna.

"Ann and I as directors, we work on our craft and we try to communicate what is needed. We're also trying to create a safe environment for the performers."

New standards

The Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and the Canadian Actors' Equity Association have produced a set of standards for reporting harassment, called Not in Our Space.

Hodges says that while there have always been harassment policies in place through unions and various arts organizations, Not in Our Space provides clear guidelines with designated contacts for people to report problems.

On the first day of rehearsals, Felices-Luna says he tries to make everyone feel safe and empowered, and encourages his artists to talk to him and others at MTYP.

Hodges would like to see the industry abandon the "myth" of the director as this "all-powerful" person who is "like God in the rehearsal hall.

"That is not the job. The job as a director is to empower people and to help them make their best creative choices," she said.

Felices-Luna says he and many others have had conversations in recent years about people they admire in the industry who have created great work, but in the wrong way.

"Part of the process that I think we're undergoing as an industry is to really assess how we create the work, to ensure that — as Ann was saying — that we're creating safe environments for people to work in, that we're still creating excellent artistic work, but that we're doing it the right way."

With files from Information Radio