Actresses accusing Albert Schultz of sexual misconduct had to 'suffer in silence,' lawyer says

Four actresses who have filed civil lawsuits against the Soulpepper Theatre Company and artistic director Albert Schultz were made to feel they had to "suffer in silence" to succeed, one of their lawyers says during a morning news conference.

Soulpepper Theatre Company artistic director has said in statement he plans to 'vehemently defend' himself

Plaintiffs, from left, Diana Bentley, Hannah Miller, Kristin Booth and Patricia Fagan attend a press conference after filing lawsuits alleging sexual harassment by Soulpepper Theatre Company director Albert Schultz. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Four actresses who have filed civil lawsuits against the Soulpepper Theatre Company and artistic director Albert Schultz were made to feel they had to "suffer in silence" to succeed, one of their lawyers said during a morning news conference Thursday.

Patricia Fagan, Hannah Miller, Kristin Booth and Diana Bentley have alleged in separate lawsuits against Schultz and the company that they experienced unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace from 2000 to 2013. None of the allegations have been proven in court, and Schultz issued a statement Wednesday saying he plans to defend himself against them.

The four women sat side by side at Thursday's news conference as lawyer Alexi Wood spoke.

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"These women, who were all in their early 20s when they met [Schultz], were taught from day one to understand that in order to succeed, not just at Soulpepper but in Canadian theatre more broadly, they would have to suffer in silence," Wood told reporters.

The women were made to believe that Schultz was "above reproach" and "there was no point in speaking out," said Wood. "If they did, they risked their careers at Soulpepper, and possibly beyond."

Booth said it was "very difficult" for her to come forward.

"I did not bring these claims against Albert and Soulpepper lightly. But I did it now, and I do it and I would do it again because there is a window open for women like myself, Diana, Trish and Hannah, and all the other women that we have heard from that have suffered at Albert's hand and others like him," she said.

Actress Kristin Booth speaks to reporters about alleged incidents, including unwanted groping, by theatre personality Albert Schultz. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Wood alleged Soulpepper "failed to protect" the women and "failed to provide a safe work environment." She also said Schultz was a mentor, guide and teacher to the actresses early in their careers.

The allegations against Schultz were reported Wednesday by CBC as part of an investigation by The Fifth EstateThe National and The Current into sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

Canadian actor Albert Schultz has announced he is taking a leave of absence as artistic director of the Toronto-based Soulpepper Theatre Company. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Late that afternoon, the theatre's board of directors released a statement that said it instructed Schultz, 54, to "step down from all his Soulpepper responsibilities" while the company's board investigates the allegations. It also said its policies prohibited harassment and it has processes to report any instances in a safe manner.

On Thursday evening, the company made another statement that said Schultz had resigned, effective immediately.

"While I will continue to vigorously defend myself against the allegations that are being made, I have made this decision in the interest of the future of the company into which I poured the last twenty years of my life, and in the interest of the aspirations of the artists and administrators of the company," Schultz said in a statement.

Soulpepper's associate artistic director Alan Dilworth will serve as acting artistic director, the company said in a separate statement.

Civil suit 'gives them control'

Asked why the women filed civil lawsuits rather than criminal complaints, Wood said there are "a variety of options," but they felt the civil process "gives them control that was taken from them by years of abuse at Soulpepper."

The women and their lawyers were asked repeatedly by reporters why they chose to come forward now.

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Fagan said that in her case, the process began over Thanksgiving weekend, when she and some fellow actors began talking about the culture in the theatre and film industries. The conversation led them to open up about their experiences at Soulpepper, she said.

"I worked there for 12 seasons, so there were a lot of instances over the years of either unwanted touching or groping."

Plaintiff Patricia Fagan was present at a press conference after filing a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by Soulpepper Theatre Company director Albert Schultz. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Co-counsel Tatha Swann noted the "power dynamic" at Soulpepper did not favour young actresses.

"Albert Schultz was the face of Soulpepper," said Swann. "He trained and worked with the actresses there. He had the power to cast or not cast an actress."

'I can't work there'

The actresses were joined at their news conference by four Soulpepper members who announced earlier Thursday that they have resigned in support of the women. 

Ted Dykstra, Stuart Hughes, Michelle Monteith and Rick Roberts released their statement through Wood, who clarified to reporters that the four are not clients.

"These artists support and stand with the brave women who have come forward to end the culture of silence that has existed at Soulpepper under Mr. Schultz. They believe the allegations made by these women," Wood said in the written statement.

Dykstra, Hughes, Monteith and Roberts "support the choice of Alan Dilworth as acting artistic director, but until Mr. Schultz has no role with the company, they will not work there," the statement said.

At the news conference, Dykstra said they had no choice but to step down.

"I don't think choice is involved," he said. "I know I can't work there knowing what I know. And it is because I know these women and I believe their stories."

Asked how important it was for them to band together with their fellow performers, Dykstra replied: "It is our hope that we are the tip of the iceberg rather than the whole story. And, really, we're here to support these women."

'It was common'

On Thursday morning, Booth and Fagan spoke to CBC Radio's The Current about their allegations against Schultz. 

Booth described prolonged hugs from Schultz in which "he would come up behind and hug and press his groin into the back of my body.

"It was common, it was almost on a daily basis."

Booth claimed she would have to "prepare" herself to go into work after such incidents.

"I would have to be like, 'OK Kristin, suck it up,' because I was being groomed to think that this was all normal, that this was all what I had to do to work in the theatre. To be an ingenue in the theatre meant you were sexualized continually."

Fagan, who worked on the same production of Twelfth Night with Booth, accused Schultz of "bullying" during rehearsals.

"A lot of mocking, ridiculing, humiliating," said Fagan. "I remember most of that summer trying to work with a big lump in my throat, willing myself not to cry."

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With files from Shanifa Nasser