Embattled Soulpepper Theatre at risk of losing federal arts funding after sexual harassment scandal

Toronto's embattled Soulpepper Theatre is at risk of losing its federal funding, the Canada Council for the Arts said Thursday.

Canada Council for the Arts is reviewing the theatre company's federal grant

Soulpepper's former artistic director Albert Schultz resigned last month after four actors filed civil suits against him that include sex-related allegations. The Canada Council for the Arts said Thursday the theatre company's federal funding is now under review. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Toronto's embattled Soulpepper Theatre is at risk of losing its federal funding, the Canada Council for the Arts said Thursday. 

In its list of grant competition winners published this week, Soulpepper's status is listed as "under review."

"Our approach is to make sure that, if we give a grant to a company like Soulpepper, they can carry out their mandate. That they can do the work and the activities for which they are receiving a grant from the council," said Simon Brault, Canada Council chief executive and director. 

"There are a lot of signs out there right now saying it's anything but business as usual" at the theatre, he added.

Soulpepper has been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment, sexual remarks and unwanted groping against its former artistic director Albert Schultz in four civil suits launched by actors who worked under him. The theatre itself is named in the statement of claims of each suit.

The complainants are seeking $4.25 million in damages from Soulpepper and $3.6 million from Schultz.

"These claims make serious allegations against me which I do not take lightly. Over the coming time period, I intend to vehemently defend myself," Schultz said one day before he resigned his post last month. 

Just days later, Soulpepper announced it had severed ties with Leslie Lester, the theatre's former executive director and Schultz's spouse. It also cancelled its planned run of the production Amadeus.

Several weeks after Schultz's resignation, CBC's the fifth estate revealed that the theatre's management deliberately misled staff for 19 months about sexual harassment allegations made against a director that previously worked at the company. 

"When there are allegations by victims that are as serious as these were, we had no choice but to put [Soulpepper Threate] on concerned status," said Brault. 

Soulpepper, which opened in 1999, has received millions of dollars in federal government funding since its first Canada Council grant in 2000. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the theatre received $184,500. 

The bulk of Soulpepper's public funding comes from the Toronto Arts Council, which provided it with $461,625 last year. It also had a multi-year funding agreement with the province. According to Soulpepper's 2015 annual report — the most recent that is publicly available — government funding accounted for $1.5 million of its $9.7 million in revenue. 

'Very pointed and precise questions'

Brault said the review by the Canada Council will allow it to pose "very pointed and precise questions" to Soulpepper's management about the internal workings of the company. A decision on its federal grant will likely come within the next two months, according to Brault. 

Soulpepper's other government funders are waiting to see what happens in the coming months. 

A spokesperson for the Ontario Arts Council, however, said that because Soulpepper is going through a time of "flux," it will no longer receive provincial dollars on a multi-year basis. Instead, the theatre company's funding status will be reviewed by a group of peers annually. 

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the Toronto Arts Council said Soulpepper "is a significant cultural and economic anchor in Toronto" that employs 230 people and draws 130,000 guests each year. 

"As a key funder for Soulpepper Theatre, the Toronto Arts Council is monitoring the situation and is in close communication with the organization to ensure it complies with the terms of its funding," said Sarah Gladki, communications manager for the council.

The Canada Council for the Arts review of Soulpepper's funding grant follows comments made several weeks ago by Heritage Minister Melanie Joly. Joly told reporters that arts organizations that don't have "best practices" in place to deal with harassment and bullying may be blocked from federal funding, though did she not specifically say whether Soulpepper was at risk.

"This is an overall issue in the sector, and organizations are different from their directors," Joly said. "And we need to support the great work that is being done and we need to support the workers that are evolving in these workplaces."

For its part, Soulpepper has vowed to press forward in the wake of the Schultz's departure. Their performance calendar remains full, with a run of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance set to continue until Feb. 17.

With files from Kate McGillivary and Lucas Powers