One year after the Albert Schultz scandal, can Soulpepper get its groove back?

One year after allegations of sexual misconduct against its founder and artistic director Albert Schultz cast a shadow on Toronto's critically hailed Soulpepper Theatre, the theatre has managed to survive, thanks to steady audience support and continuing on-stage excellence provided by the artists remaining in the company.

New year starts with an expensive new musical and 2 women in the leadership roles

Hailey Gillis, right, is pictured rehearsing her lead role in Rose at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. The world premiere runs from Jan. 17 to Feb. 24, 2019. (Daniel Malavasi/Soulpepper)

One year after allegations of sexual misconduct against its founder and artistic director Albert Schultz cast a shadow on Toronto's critically hailed Soulpepper Theatre, the theatre has managed to survive, thanks to steady audience support and continuing on-stage excellence provided by the artists remaining in the company.

Now three months into its 2018/2019 season, Soulpepper is ushering in the new year with a bang — with its most expensive original musical, Rose, a big-budget production based on a story by Gertrude Stein.

"We're not holding back, we're still striving for ambitious, creative work that's innovative," says Soulpepper's newly minted artistic director Weyni Mengesha, as she takes in a rehearsal of Rose  alongside executive director Emma Stenning, who was hired three months ago.

Mengesha's and Stenning's appointments are also a big part of Soulpepper's very public reset — two women with international resumes in the top leadership positions once occupied by Schultz and his wife, then-executive director Leslie Lester. They face a Herculean task: To convince the public and the theatrical community that Soulpepper's internal culture is now safe, while continuing to mount the daring, cutting-edge plays on which the company built its reputation.

Loyal audiences

Schultz resigned and Lester was let go from the company in the wake of the January 2018 lawsuit by four actresses who alleged Schultz was a "serial sexual predator" and that Soulpepper "failed to provide a safe work environment." The suit was settled out of court this summer, with undisclosed terms.

Artistic director Weyni Mengesha has new ideas for Soulpepper Theatre, including more diversity and community involvement. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

"I'm aware, of course, that people are going to have questions. They're going to, you know, wonder as they come to Soulpepper," says Stenning of the company's public image. 

"But actually, what we saw through the course of last year is audiences flocking to this theatre."

The numbers back up her claim. Soulpepper did lose $375 500 of promised additional funding by Canada Council for the Arts, which was rescinded in the wake of the Schultz scandal, a sizeable income they are hoping to regain. But in terms of ticket sales and fundraising, the company reached its 2018 goal.

in 2018, the theatre saw a 15 per cent decrease in the number of subscription tickets sold, but sold more individual tickets than in the year before. Overall, its box office outperformed 2017 slightly. And while some donors withdrew their support, many of those who stayed "redoubled their contributions," according to Stenning.

Theatre actor and director Ravi Jain says the audiences were able to make the distinction between Schultz's alleged actions and the company's on-stage product. Jain, who directed and acted in a number of Soulpepper productions and was its associate artistic director in 2016, left due to, in his own words, disagreements with Schultz about the best way to bring diversity to the company. Since leaving, he has been running his own Why Not Theatre. 

"I think everyone wanted what was best for the company. In terms of audiences, they kept seeing the shows and they have a relationship with the company," Jain said.

Soulpepper's solid lineup of shows in 2018 probably helped that relationship. Toronto theatre critic Glenn Sumi says it was "more diverse and inclusive than any previous season" and singles out critical hits like The Royale, Escaped Alone and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Attracting the artists

To continue that track record of on-stage excellence, Soulpepper will have to continue to attract top level actors, playwrights and directors. That, too, is a relationship that will require mending.

Actors rehearse the new musical Rose. Some subscribers didn't renew after the scandal, but individual ticket sales rose. (Daniel Malavasi/Soulpepper)

As the Schultz scandal broke, some artists who have been key collaborators of Soulpepper stepped away from the organization, including founding members Ted Dykstra and Stuart Hughes, and top actress Michelle Monteith. Other actors staged silent protests or said they would boycott working with Soulpepper as a show of solidarity with Schultz's accusers. So how does the artistic community feel about Soulpepper now?

Aislinn Rose, the creative producer of Toronto's Theatre Centre, says she is thrilled about the appointment of Mengesha, who she calls "a brilliant artist and a brilliant human being." But she says that the stories of unhealthy work culture that emerged during the Schultz scandal lead her to believe further work might be needed.

"The other thing that a lot of other poeple talked about was just a toxic workplace," says Rose. "It's important that if the leadership is being changed, a systemic change needs to be made throughout the organization."

Some theatre critics and insiders have criticized Soulpepper's board for not launching a major, third-party investigation into the alleged abuses that took place there during the Schultz years, and not making the findings public, as London's Old Vic has in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against its former artistic director, Kevin Spacey. 

Emma Stenning says some of the findings of the investigation done by the board have already been made public, as they're reflected in the company's new Code of Conduct and Statement of Promises, with more documents to come.

"I feel like there are some people in the community who still may feel that the board hasn't necessarily accounted for what happened," says Jain.  "But I think there's a big, huge part of the community who feels differently, that feels, you know, by choosing Emma, by choosing Weyni, they are really taking steps to make the changes necessary to account for what happened."

More diversity, more tours abroad

Mengesha's and Stenning's backgrounds certainly seem to hold clout with a lot of people in the theatre community. Mengesha is an alum of Soulpepper Academy, who attracted an international reputation for directing diverse stories that would become mainstream hits, including Da Kink in my Hair, and Soulpepper's own Kim's Convenience.

While Mengesha leaves behind Los Angeles, where she's been working and raising her young family, Stenning also travelled a long way for her job. A seasoned British theatre administrator, Stenning led Bristol Old Vic theatre from the brink of financial ruin to a creative and commercial renaissance.

Soulpepper executive director Emma Stenning helped the Bristol Old Vic in London to a renaissance. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

One of the other things the two women share is the desire to shift the conversation back to Soulpepper's on-stage work. The current season was programmed by the interim artistic director Alan Dillworth, who took over when Schultz resigned in 2018, and the musical Rose had the beginnings of its development during Schultz's leadership. 

Both Mengesha and Stenning think the company can not only match, but exceed, some of its artistic high points of the past. 

Stenning, who first heard of Soulpepper while visiting a friend in Toronto a few years ago, hopes to boost the company's international reputation. 

"I feel really confident, within the next few years, as the program that we're delivering starts to progress and succeed, that we will see Soulpepper work out on the road, so that by the time I'm back visiting the U.K., everyone will know Soulpepper."

For Mengesha, that means including more diverse stories you typically don't see in Soulpepper's "Chekhov-and-Pinter" repertoire. Words like "community" and "collaboration" frequently come up in when she describes her vision for Soulpepper — a less hierarchical organization where the artists and even fans have their say in the programming.

"If you create the meeting point, if you create the freedom, if you create the excitement, people will come and people will be inspired," says Mengesha.  "I mean, that is how the renaissances happen."

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.