Soulpepper pauses training program amid ‘culture change’ at theatre


TORONTO — Normally, the Soulpepper Academy would be ramping up for a nation-wide audition process to find the finest thespians, directors and playwrights to join its prestigious paid training residency.

But as acting artistic director Alan Dilworth can attest, little has been normal about the past six months for the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

As the Toronto-based cultural institution reckons with sexual-misconduct allegations against one of its founders, the Soulpepper Academy is putting its training program on a one-year hold to conduct a review before admitting a new troupe of artists.

Between a costly legal battle, a six-figure deficit and hiccups in government funding, the not-for-profit would seem to be besieged on several fronts.

Dilworth doesn’t see it that way. To him, the theatre is in a “bridging phase” between the old Soulpepper and the new.

“We’re in the midst of quite a culture change here, and as you know, real change takes time,” Dilworth said in a recent phone interview.

“We’re kind of working our way through, step by step, to get it right.”

In January, four actresses filed separate lawsuits against founding artistic director Albert Schultz and the Soulpepper Theatre Company alleging he groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them or otherwise behaved inappropriately.

Schultz, who has resigned from Soulpepper, has said he would “vigorously” defend himself against the allegations, which have yet to be tested in court. Both he and Soulpepper have filed notices of intent to defend in the case.

In her claim in Ontario Superior Court, one of the actresses said Schultz created a “culture of fear” during her time in the Soulpepper Academy, and to remain in the program, she felt she was expected to put up with his alleged bullying without complaint.

A lawyer for Schultz said his client would not comment specifically on any of the allegations detailed in the lawsuits, other than to reiterate that he denies them.

Dilworth, who declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings, said that among past and present academy members, there has been “unanimous articulation” of the program’s value.

Twelve academy members are expected to graduate from the two-year program next month.

With admissions on hold until the review is completed and new leadership is in place, the academy has decided to not request federal funding in the next fiscal year, said Soulpepper communications director Brad Lepp.

The academy is still slated to receive $110,000 in 2018-2019 funding from Canadian Heritage, according to federal officials.

Lepp said a portion of those funds will go towards the last six months of training for the current academy members. For the latter half of the funding period, the money will be spent towards maintaining “ongoing relationships” with graduates, he said, in addition to the program’s year-round costs.

In April, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly declared that in order to received funding, all arts and culture organizations must commit to workplaces free of harassment and sexual misconduct. It’s part of what she described as the department’s “zero-tolerance” approach to the issue.

Not long after the measure was billed, Canadian Heritage released half of the $110,000 in funds allocated to the Soulpepper Academy under a multi-year contribution agreement, according to a spokesperson for Joly.

In a phone interview, the minister’s press secretary, Simon Ross, said the payment was held for two months until department officials were satisfied that Soulpepper was following through on its commitments to providing a safe work environment.

Canadian Heritage sent officials to the theatre to get a sense of the picture on the ground, Ross said, and based on this and other consultations, decided go forward with the contribution agreement as planned.

“Our message is clear: we want to work with the arts sector to ensure safety for all creators, but we have zero tolerance for those who do not respect our strict conditions,” Ross said in a statement.

“We received assurances from the Soulpepper Academy that changes were made to ensure a safe work environment and we verified with students that it is indeed the case.”

The rest of the funds are expected to be released later in the fiscal year, he said.

Nearly $2.4 million has been allocated to Soulpepper under various Canadian Heritage programs since the early 2000s, according to a February briefing note prepared for Joly. The document was obtained by The Canadian Press under freedom-of-information laws.

This funding is separate to the roughly $185,000 a year that Soulpepper has received from the Canada Council for the Arts in the past, according to the public institution’s CEO.

The arms-length Crown corporation, which reports to the heritage minister, announced in February that it was rescinding a planned funding increase for Soulpepper but also maintaining its base funding at previous levels.

Soulpepper said that grants accounted for around 16 per cent of its $12.5 million in revenues in 2017, but the theatre company still ran a deficit of $556,000.

It is currently projecting further losses as it faces “extraordinary” costs this year, said Dilworth. But he said Soulpepper has been buoyed by benefactors in the private and public sectors, as well as the theatre’s box office, during this “unusual” financial period.

Dilworth said he expects Soulpepper will be in the black within two years.

The first half of 2018 has been “tricky” for Soulpepper, he acknowledged. But in the wake of the Schultz scandal, he said Soulpepper has been forced to have tough but vital conversations with people across the theatre community.

This shift is reflected in the steps Soulpepper has taken to cultivate a safer and more inclusive artistic space, Dilworth said, including providing crisis counsellors, setting up a whistleblower hotline and adopting a new code of conduct.

“I do believe we’ve come out better,” said Dilworth. “This has been an opportunity to look deeply at our values, and take stock of the best that Soulpepper has … (and where) we haven’t been as strong.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press