Toronto

2 workers claim Soulpepper's 'unhealthy power dynamic' encouraged Albert Schultz's alleged sexual misconduct

Two women who spent years working for Soulpepper Theatre Company claim there is an "unhealthy power dynamic" within the company's management that might have prevented actresses from coming forward sooner with allegations of unwanted sexual contact and harassment against artistic director Albert Schultz.

Toronto theatre company's artistic director says he plans to 'vehemently defend' himself against accusations

Leslie McBay, left, and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster are longtime employees at Soulpepper Theatre Company. They say recent sexual misconduct accusations against artistic director Albert Schultz are part of a larger issue in the theatre industry. (Submitted by Leslie McBay and Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster)

Two women who spent years working for Soulpepper Theatre Company claim there is an "unhealthy power dynamic" within the company's management that might have prevented actresses from coming forward sooner with allegations of unwanted sexual contact and harassment against artistic director Albert Schultz. 

Actress Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, who has been performing with the Toronto theatre troupe for the last six years and serves as an artist in residence, says an insistence that Soulpepper be seen as a family is part of the dynamic that led four actresses to file separate civil lawsuits against Schultz and the company.

They are alleging unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace from 2000 to 2013.

"We're all just buddies and we're all having a good time and Albert's just part of the gang, which is completely ignoring the power dynamic at play — which he is ultimately in charge and has a lot of control over the careers and futures of the people that are working with him," Lancaster said in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday. 

Schultz described as 'a serial sexual predator'

This revelation about Soulpepper comes a day after the allegations against Schultz were reported by CBC News, as part of an investigation by The Fifth Estate, The National and The Current into sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. 

Actors Patricia Fagan, left, and Kristin Booth filed lawsuits alleging they were harassed by Soulpepper Theatre Company's artistic director Albert Schultz. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Actresses Patricia Fagan, Hannah Miller, Kristin Booth and Diana Bentley allege 30 separate incidents involving Schultz took place over a 13-year period. None of the allegations has been proven in court. 

"Albert is a serial sexual predator who … had well-developed methods for targeting actresses and luring them into situations that he considered optimal for sexually harassing and assaulting them," the lawsuits allege, adding that the methods were "facilitated by Soulpepper." 

Albert Schultz is the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company. On Wednesday, four actresses filed separate civil lawsuits that detail allegations of unwanted groping, harassment and sexual remarks in the workplace from 2000 to 2013. (Sian Richards)

Late Wednesday afternoon, the theatre's board of directors released a statement that said the board instructed Schultz, 54, to "step down from all his Soulpepper responsibilities" while it investigates the allegations.

The statement also said Soulpepper's policies prohibited harassment and it has processes to report any instances in a safe manner.

On Wednesday evening, Schultz issued a statement that said he is stepping aside, effectively immediately, while the investigation is underway.

"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.

'I believe him completely capable of the actions'

Actress Leslie McBay, who worked mostly behind the scenes at the company from 2008 to 2016 — during part of the time frame outlined in the lawsuit — says she didn't witness any of the incidents, but did see other behaviour from Schultz that made her uncomfortable.

"You know, lots of unnecessary touching, shoulder rubs, comments about what women were wearing and what they look like and their sexual attractiveness in his opinion," she told Metro Morning

Lancaster, who considered Schultz to be her mentor and a personal friend, even attending his wedding this summer, also says she's not surprised by the allegations and "unequivocally" believes the women's stories. 

"I believe him completely capable of the actions these women lay out," she said. 

"I'm feeling such a mixture of things right now and I am enraged and I am deeply saddened." 

Reporting sexual harassment 'not easy at all'

Soulpepper's executive director, Leslie Lester, is married to Schultz, which makes reporting his alleged behaviour to management "not easy at all," McBay said. 

"Bringing up his bad behaviour with his partner isn't really an easy option," she said. 

"Being a woman in this business, the jobs are very hard to come by and you don't want to jeopardize that. Someone like Albert can have so much power over whether you can have a career or you don't have a career."

This is something that the four actresses raised in the lawsuit.

The statements of claim allege Soulpepper's harassment policy, instituted in March 2016, is flawed because it requires that allegations of harassment be reported to the head of Human Resources and/or Lester, "to whom cast members could not expect to report harassment, particularly sexual harassment" about her husband.

In light of this, Soulpepper says it has hired an outside expert to review the company's anti-harassment policies, and according to a statement issued by the theatre's board late Wednesday afternoon, Lester has also agreed to take a voluntary leave of absence during the probe. 

"As a responsible organization, Soulpepper's priority is to create a workplace where all its employees feel safe," the statement says. "It therefore takes all allegations of harassment very seriously."

Men 'disproportionately hold power': McBay

For years, the four actresses said they did not speak out about the alleged harassment out of fear of reprisals or losing work since, as one of the statements said, Schultz had "such power and reach in the Canadian theatre world."

McBay says this is part of a larger issue that pervades the theatre industry. 

"One of the big things is that men still disproportionately hold the power in the industry," she said. "They still disproportionately lead organizations and make decisions about who gets to work and who doesn't." 

She adds that sexual harassment in the theatre industry begins early in training where "actors are groomed for abuse.

"I think some philosophies at theatre school include breaking people down before they can be built back up," she said. "Women especially are encouraged to not have boundaries and if they refuse then they're not taking risks and they're not being fully open to what could happen."

McBay asserts this philosophy "encourages abuse and allows predators ... to act without consequence." 

Schultz has been a titan in Canada's theatre scene for more than three decades and has received a long list of accolades, including a Gemini and the Order of Canada.

In 1998, Schultz co-founded Soulpepper which is now one of the country's most successful theatre companies, earning a reputation for cultivating up-and-coming artists, as well as shining the spotlight on diverse talent and work that challenges its audiences.

With files from CBC Radio's Metro Morning

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