Twenty years ago this spring, a press conference was called in downtown Toronto to announce the formation of a new organization, Soulpepper Theatre Company. The founding artistic director was a young actor named Albert Schultz, and he felt strongly that the city of Toronto needed a new classical repertory company whose mandate—though firmly rooted in the classics—could also encompass actor’s training, the presentation of popular contemporary plays, and the creation of new works for the stage.
Schultz further announced that former Stratford Festival director Robin Phillips would act as guest director in the upcoming inaugural season, leading a strong acting company that included Brent Carver, Nancy Palk, Susan Coyne, Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis, and William Webster, among others. They would kick off with two productions: The Misanthrope by Molière and Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller.
Writing in Variety, theatre critic Mira Friedlander mused that “launching a summer season with Frederich Schiller’s obscure Don Carlos is either madness or an act of supreme faith in Canuck audiences; whichever, those audiences will be missing much if they stay away.” Friedlander was correct: Both productions were embraced enthusiastically by critics and audiences alike. Soulpepper was on its way.
Two decades years later, what strikes me as I walk into the atrium of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, now the home of Soulpepper, in Toronto’s historic Distillery District, is the spacious lobby and the youthful energy of the place, juxtaposed against the 30-foot-high vaulted ceiling with its thick, 19th-century wood beams; they recall its origins as the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, once a derelict, run-down part of the city’s east end.
Massive revitalization of the area was underway when a major Soulpepper donor, the Michael Young Family Foundation, stepped up to the plate to support the idea of the Distillery District as a heritage site, in particular with Soulpepper as a critical component within that renaissance. Today the entire restoration comprises a bustling combination of shops, restaurants, and cultural activities.
On this chilly March morning, the place teems with life as actors arrive for rehearsals and youthful millennials set up their laptops to use the venue as ersatz office space and gathering place for meetings over coffee and muffins. As I wend my way through the lobby, past two performance spaces—the 208-seat Michael Young Theatre and the larger Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre—I’m reminded why Soulpepper’s home is the envy of many in the Toronto theatre scene. On two floors are situated a library, administrative offices (including space for technical staff), several rehearsal/studio spaces, a cabaret performance space, a fully outfitted carpentry and paint shop, a costume shop, prop room, two green rooms (one of which opens onto a brick patio in the summertime), and a spacious dressing room area along with classroom space, where members of the Soulpepper Academy (a fully subsidized two-year program for 16 students) can meet for lectures and workshops.
What began as a two-play season two decades ago has blossomed into a year-round rep company that last year employed 353 artists on contracts for varying lengths (including Soulpepper Academy members), 69 administrative employees, plus 99 volunteers (which includes the board of directors). The operating budget for 2016 came in at $12.5 million.
Touring has become a staple of Soulpepper’s mandate over the years, and this summer the company will mark an historic milestone when they set up shop with 65 artists in New York City, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, for a one-month run, July 1-29, which will include some of their most celebrated productions from the past several years, all originating with Soulpepper as either new plays or adaptations. Billed as “Soulpepper on 42nd St.: Canada Crosses the Border,” the New York run coincides with Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations this year.
As an actor, a much younger Schultz played Romeo at the Stratford Festival and later took on Hamlet with Soulpepper, as well as numerous other roles onstage and in TV. Lately he’s taken on a much more expanded role at the company: His office, lined as it is with pictures, awards, letters, and mementos, testifies to the remarkable journey and achievements of his company over the years.
And to the latest: Packing up sets, costumes, and props and heading down the New York Thruway from Toronto with such a large number of company members is not an inexpensive proposition. When asked why he thinks it is important to invest in a month-long run in New York, Schultz is quick with an answer: “It’s just elemental for any of us who grew up in the theatre. Your aspirations, your professional DNA, all of it just pulls you to one day wanting to play in New York City. And in our case, we are eager to share the work that we created right here in this company—some pieces actually originating with students while they were studying in the Soulpepper Academy—with a broader section of the populace in North America. New York is an ideal place to do that kind of networking.”
It’s also something of a homecoming. A dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, Schultz was raised in Port Hope, Ontario, but he’s descended from a Pittsburgh family that three generations ago built a number of the bridges that span the “three rivers” intersecting the city. “Yes, I have Pennsylvania roots,” he continues, “German on one side and Irish on both.”
The company will present five major productions, two smaller plays, and three Soulpepper concerts. The mainstage plays are Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, Of Human Bondage by Vern Thiessen, adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; the musical Spoon River, adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz from Edgar Lee Masters’s famous anthology, with original music by Ross; Cage, an homage to the composer John Cage created by Soulpepper founding member Diego Matamoros and designers Lorenzo Savoini and Richard Feren; (re)Birth, a musical based on the poetry of e.e. cummings; and Alligator Pie, created from the children’s poems of Canada’s “Father Goose,” Dennis Lee. The Spotlight programming includes CRASH, written and performed by Pamela Mala Sinha, and A Brimful of Asha created and performed by Ravi Jain and and his mother, Asha Jain (with Why Not Theatre). The Concert Series includes True North, a Concert of Canada; and New York: The Melting Pot.
A turning point for Soulpepper came after another trip abroad, to Hungary, in 2006. It was then that Schultz developed a business model that would see Soulpepper move to year-round programming within a repertory system. It is now not uncommon to see three or four plays any given week on the theatre’s playbill calendar.
“I was invited to Budapest, a city about the same size as Toronto, by László Marton, who is artistic director for one of the major civic theatres there,” Schultz recalls. “He had worked with us at Soulpepper and became a strong mentor for me. To understand the notion that a theatre company needs to go beyond just creating one play at a time within a season, but rather to create a cycle of plays that will play for a cycle of audiences, and in repertory on a year-round basis, is a much more creative and economically viable way of producing theatre. It really raises the bar for everyone. That was a real eye opener.”
Schultz understands that an urban theatre today has to live within and reflect the cultural life and environment of the city it inhabits. It exists not only for the many donors and patrons that support it, but also for students, youth, and working-class people. It can be a delicate balance intersecting the linguistics of race, class, and gender, but that remains at the core of Soulpepper’s philosophy and mandate. This understanding and commitment puts Schultz more in league with theatre visionaries and innovators of earlier eras in the 20th century—folks like Roy Mitchell, Joan Littlewood, and Eva Le Gallienne.
Living accommodations for company members while in NYC have been arranged in available dormitory space at City College of New York. “It’s 15 minutes on the express A Train to 42nd Street,” says Leslie Lester, Soulpepper’s executive director, who is overseeing logistics and negotiations for the tour. “Everybody is really excited about it. It’s been a mind-boggling experience putting it all together. Basically, we want to recreate this wonderful creative life that we live every day here at the Young Centre in Toronto while we are at the Signature in New York.”
To which Schultz adds with a broad smile: “I love New York. And I don’t mean that as a cliché. I really do: I love New York.”
Now we’ll see if it’s mutual.
Robin Breon is an independent arts journalist based in Toronto.