While it was not the first Canadian company to be founded by actors, Soulpepper is the most widely celebrated and successful. In 1988, a group of actors — Martha Burns, Susan Coyne, Ted Dykstra, Michael Hanrahan, Stuart Hughes, Diana Leblanc, Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk, Albert Schultz, Robyn Stevan, William Webster and Joseph Ziegler — who had trained and performed under director Robin Phillips at the Stratford Festival’s Young Company, received a Guthrie Award from the festival to start a company of their own. It would take ten years for the project to come to fruition. The company’s mandate was threefold: to present classics of world theatre with a Canadian perspective; to train the next generation of theatre artists; and to foster mentorship programs for youth.
Founding artistic director Albert Schultz was strongly influenced by Robin Phillips, and invited him to select and direct the company’s first summer season at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in 1998. It featured only two shows: Schiller’s Don Carlos (starring Nancy Palk, Brent Carver and Peter Donat) was a success with critics and public alike; while Molière's The Misanthrope was a more qualified one, softening the play’s cynicism with jokiness.
The season broke with tradition on two counts: not only was a Toronto company basing its whole repertoire on the classics, it was also performing in the summer, when most local theatres were idle. Nevertheless, the season sold out, though the company found itself shut out of the winners’ list at the Dora Awards, leading to an uproar in the theatre community (see also English-Language Theatre). The second Soulpepper season featured Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Chekhov’s Platonov, Beckett’s Endgame, and Molnár’s The Play’s the Thing.
Soulpepper’s Reputation Grows
With the assistance of government and corporate grants, Soulpepper’s repertoire and season grew from year to year. The company presented a range of Shakespearean, European and American drama, but almost no contemporary Canadian drama (except for that of David French). Soulpepper gives theatregoers opportunities to see works rarely performed in Canada. Its pre-eminence is such that it has attracted to its seasons leading actors such as William Hutt, Peter Donat, Brent Carver, Kenneth Welsh, Fiona Reid and Yanna McIntosh.
Soulpepper also attracted eminent foreign directors such as László Marton, Tim Albery and Herbert Olschok. Critical reception of their work ranged from the magnificently poignant (Marton’s Uncle Vanya, 2001) to the superbly taut (Endgame, 1999) to the bizarrely uneven (Albery’s The Threepenny Opera, 2007) and the downright awful (Olshock’s Miss Julie, 2002).
The company does not remain rooted exclusively in Toronto. Its productions of A Streetcar Named Desire (1999) and Betrayal (2000) played at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montréal, and the company toured the Joseph Ziegler production of Hamlet (2004), starring Albert Schultz in what may be considered his finest classical performance, to Manitoulin Island.
Relocation and Expansion
Artistic Director Albert Schultz quickly proved himself an adept publicist, administrator and liaison between the theatre and the public. His tireless public appearances and appeals for funding yielded positive results. Soulpepper moved into its current premises at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District in January 2006, where Soulpepper has the use of three theatres. There it launched its first winter season, growing to a nine-show, year-round schedule.
Since relocating to The Young Centre for The Performing Arts, Soulpepper has expanded its repertoire to include more productions of classic and contemporary Canadian theatre. Some highlights include Sharon Pollock’s Doc (2010), John Murrell’s Waiting for the Parade (2010), the remount of Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas (2011), David Young’s Glenn (2014) and Michael Hollingsworth’s Trudeau and the FLQ (2014). The most financially successful show produced by Soulpepper to date was Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience (2012), a family comedy set in a convenience store in Toronto. Kim’s Convenience has since toured extensively throughout Canada and in 2016 it was adapted into a television series for CBC.
In 2015, Soulpepper announced a five-year initiative to build a National Civic Theatre. Albert Schultz has stated that the National Civic Theatre “should create seasons that listen to the world while focusing on our national voices, including the voices of our First Nations and the myriad cultures that have collectively defined the vibrant artistic life of this country.”
In June 2006, Soulpepper launched the Academy, Canada’s only year-round training program for actors, directors, designers and playwrights directly linked to a professional company. The two-year program combines studio training, academic study and an applied apprenticeship with the main stage company.
in 2017, Schultz led an ambitious campaign called Soulpepper on 42nd Street. After years of trying to entice American producers to come and see Soulpepper shows in Toronto, Schultz took Soulpepper to New York. The month-long engagement, with Canada 150 as its theme, brought 12 productions to the Pershing Square Signature Centre at a cost of $2.5 million. The New York Times gave the productions of Spoon River and Of Human Bondage favourable reviews and named them among their “critic’s picks.”
Soulpepper regularly fine-tunes its programs to find and develop young audiences. Its youth outreach programs are threefold in their aims: the TSX Group Youth Access Program gives young people, regardless of their economic background, opportunities to be exposed to the arts; the Youth Rush Program offers all tickets unsold 15 minutes before show time to anyone under 21 for a lower price; and the Bring a Parent to the Theatre enterprise reserves one row of seats for people 21 years of age or under in a combination of one student-priced ticket and one free adult ticket.
In 2016, Soulpepper announced a playwriting project, “Project imagiNation,” to commission at least 30 theatre artists or theatre companies throughout Canada to develop new works that explore contemporary perspectives of the country.
Soulpepper is also known for its humanitarian efforts (it has raised substantial sums for the Daily Food Bank in Toronto) and education programs. Co-founder Martha Burns has worked with teachers and actors to create unique programs for youth, and has introduced Shakespeare to many ESL and elementary school students across Toronto.
Sexual Harassment Allegations
In early 2016, Soulpepper privately cut ties with longtime guest artist Laszlo Marton due to two sexual harassment allegations levied against him. The company then employed a third-party expert to conduct a review of its harassment policies, and in October 2017, Schultz and his longtime partner, Soulpepper’s Executive Director Leslie Lester (whom he married in the summer of 2017), held a company meeting to reinforce their standards and publicly announce that they had cut ties with Marton. However, this announcement, made at the height of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, struck many at Soulpepper as disingenuous. As actor Kristin Booth told Global News, “I never once saw a policy on sexual harassment. Knowing the culture there, the hypocrisy of that statement is what motivated me to come forward so that this does not happen to one other young woman coming up into that company.”
On 3 January 2018, Booth, Patricia Fagan, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller filed civil suits against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre alleging that Schultz had sexually harassed and assaulted them and that Soulpepper was complicit in the assaults. The allegations, which span 13 years and describe Schultz as a “serial sexual predator,” include bullying, inappropriate sexual touching, unwanted sexual advances, lewd and demeaning comments and that Schultz repeatedly exposed himself.
On 3 January 2018, Soulpepper’s board of directors announced that it had asked Schultz to step aside while it launched an investigation into the allegations. Leslie Lester agreed to take a voluntary leave of absence. On 4 January, the board accepted Schultz’s resignation. Schultz said in a statement that he would “vigorously defend himself” against the allegations.
On 6 January, Soulpepper announced that the upcoming production of Amadeus, directed by Schultz, would be cancelled at the request of the artists involved in the production. At the same time, the company announced that it would cut ties with Lester. Ted Dykstra and Stuart Hughes, both co-founders of the company, and actors Michelle Monteith and Rick Roberts resigned in solidarity with the four complainants. On 8 January, a letter signed by 280 artists, including Sarah Polley, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Mia Kirshner and Daniel MacIvor, was released in support of the four women, who are suing Schultz for $3.6 million and Soulpepper for $4.25 million in separate claims.
On 30 August 2018, Soulpepper announced that it had hired British arts administrator Emma Stenning as it’s new executive director. Stenning had served as chief executive of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in southern England and was scheduled to begin at Soulpepper in November. On 11 October 2018, the company announced that Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-based theatre director Weyni Mengesha would take over as artistic director in January 2019. Mengesha had a successful track record directing such acclaimed plays as trey anthony’s ’Da Kink in My Hair, Kim’s Convenience and the Dora Award-winning Father Comes Home From the Wars.
Mengesha told the Toronto Star that, “’My responsibility as a director is to create a safe space so people can do exciting work, so they can take risks, so they can experiment. It’s the same thing [with being an artistic director], I have to make sure that the company feels like a safe space so that we can flourish.’” She also noted her interest in “more open mics, more audience engagement, more experimentation with new ideas, and continuing Soulpepper’s Project imagiNation commission series of new work by artists across Canada, and its multi-platform projects across film, TV, radio and podcasts.”