Soulpepper kept previous sex harassment scandal quiet for 19 months
Theatre company had said director Laszlo Marton left because of ‘work visa’ problems
In the wake of a sex harassment scandal that sent shockwaves through the theatre community and forced the departure of artistic director Albert Schultz, Soulpepper Theatre Company said its "core mission" has always been "to provide a safe community for its exceptionally talented group of professionals."
But an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate raises questions about how the company has handled similar sexual harassment allegations in the past.
Interviews with actors, internal Soulpepper emails and audio recordings of meetings obtained by The Fifth Estate indicate that management — and Schultz — misled staff about the 2016 departure of theatre director Laszlo Marton.
The company kept secret the real reasons for his departure for 19 months until a scandal broke overseas, forcing it to go public about sexual harassment allegations that had been made against Marton while he worked for the Toronto-based company.
In a letter to The Fifth Estate, Soulpepper said: "Given the small size of the Soulpepper community and the import of confidentiality to those involved, management identified a risk that if the reasons for Mr. Marton's termination were shared with the broader community, it would jeopardize the anonymity and Soulpepper's agreement of confidentiality.
"As a result, the reasons for the end of Mr. Marton's relationship with Soulpepper were not broadly disclosed at that time."
Two weeks ago, four former Soulpepper performers filed civil lawsuits seeking $4.25 million in damages from Soulpepper and $3.6 million from Schultz.
The allegations accused Soulpepper of "negligence" and failing to provide "a workplace free of harassment" and accused Schultz of unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace over a 13-year period.
Within days of the lawsuit, Schultz was forced to resign and Soulpepper announced it had "severed all ties" with Leslie Lester, the company's executive director and Schultz's wife.
None of the allegations has been tested in court and Schultz has vowed to "vigorously defend" himself.
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In the wake of the allegations, the executive committee of Soulpepper's board of directors issued a statement vowing to "listen, act and make meaningful change."
The company singled out its handling of Marton's case as evidence that it had "the right policies and procedures in place to maintain a safe and healthy workplace."
But that's not how longtime actors and staff at the company see it.
'Laszlo was his mentor'
Marton, an Internationally acclaimed director, began working at Soulpepper in 2000.
"Albert talked all the time about how Laszlo was his mentor," said Richard Lam, an actor at the theatre company for four years.
Suddenly in the middle of production for the play A Doll's House in March 2016, Marton was abruptly replaced with another director.
In an email obtained by CBC, the cast and crew of the play were informed of "a necessary change to the creative team."
The email, written by Schultz, said: "Due to complications with his work visa, Laszlo Marton will not be able to direct."
What members of the community were not told was that Soulpepper had dismissed Marton because two women had come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, one in Toronto and one on a Soulpepper trip to Budapest, in his native Hungary.
'I wanted her to escalate her complaint'
In a letter to The Fifth Estate, Lester confirmed that in 2015 one of the women, a company member, told her about incidents involving Marton.
"The first complainant and I were out at a bar having a drink," said Lester. "I told her I wanted her to escalate her complaint, and adamantly persuaded her to make a formal complaint, which she finally did."
Shortly after, a second company member came forward to Soulpepper management, also alleging sexual harassment by the guest artistic director.
Soulpepper launched an investigation, which led to Marton's dismissal.
But in exchange for a copy of its investigation report, Soulpepper asked the first complainant to sign a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding her from speaking about the incident with others at the company.
Still, word quietly spread and whispers of the allegations circulated throughout Soulpepper, company members said.
"I was disgusted. I was very disappointed. I was very angry," Lam told CBC..
'A very fatty dinner to celebrate an extraordinary man'
More than a year after Marton's departure from the company, Schultz organized a dinner in his honour. In an email obtained by CBC, Schultz invited present and former members of the company "for a very fatty dinner to celebrate an extraordinary man."
When Trish Fagan, an actress who worked at Soulpepper for 12 seasons and would become the driving force behind the lawsuit against Schultz, received the invitation, she wasn't surprised.
"I knew how much Albert loved Lazlo," Fagan said.
"It seemed to me that he was probably devastated at having to fire Lazlo and this was his way of saying I still love you and he wanted to round us all up to do that with him."
But Fagan refused to attend the dinner "because I was asked to go and honour a man who was fired for sexual harassment at the home of the man who sexually harassed me."
For actress Kirstin Booth, who would also file a lawsuit against Schultz and Soulpepper, the company's continued silence on the matter spoke to a deeper problems at the company.
"There is a culture there that still celebrated Laszlo," she told CBC.
Scandal in Hungary
It would be another six months before Soulpepper would be forced to break its silence over the Marton affair by a scandal that started making headlines thousands of kilometres away.
Hungary's #MeToo movement exploded in October 2017 when a high-profile Hungarian theatre actress, Lilla Sarosdi, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Marton.
In an interview with CBC, Sarosdi said it started with a Facebook post she wrote about a "famous director" asking her to perform oral sex on him when she was 17 years old.
Marton denied Sarosdi's allegations. But as Sarosdi's story became a national news sensation in Hungary, several other women come forward with similar allegations against him.
In an open letter published in Hungarian media outlets, Marton apologized for any harm he might have inflicted.
'There was no reckoning'
Back in Toronto, the news quickly circulated on social media among Soulpepper artists.
Within days of the Hungarian media storm — after nearly two years of remaining silent about Marton — Soulpepper held an emergency company meeting where it announced the real reasons behind his dismissal.
According to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Fifth Estate, Schultz told the members of the company that it "kept the investigation and its results confidential in order to protect the complainants."
For the first time, Soulpepper told the public about the allegations against Marton in a statement that reaffirmed the company's dedication to "creating a safe place of belonging for artists, audiences, and aspirants."
Lam, who at that meeting, felt he was listening to a scripted message that rang hollow.
"There was no reckoning, there was no reflection," he said. "It just seemed so fake."
The meeting was a real turning point for Fagan, who said it ignited her desire to speak out against what she saw as the company's hypocrisy. To her, it felt like the company was trying to hide issues of sexual harassment rather than actually dealing with them.
"I just didn't know if I believed that things were being handled the way they should," Fagan told CBC.
"Here was Albert, you know, saying we don't condone this behaviour, we don't, we got rid of [Marton] because we support these women," said Booth. "Reading the statement that Soulpepper released to the press ... made me sick to my stomach. And I said, this is hypocrisy at its finest. And I said, I can't be silent."
It also proved to be the last straw for several other women at the company who decided to finally come forward.
"Silence is what breeds more predatory behaviour," said Booth. "The more we stay quiet, the more it will happen."
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- An earlier version of this article said that both alleged incidents of sexual harassment involving Laszlo Marton happened in Hungary. In fact, one of the incidents took place in Toronto.Jan 19, 2018 11:22 AM ET