-> Forward Soulpepper: One Year On

Are we just coming up on one year since Globe and Mail critic Kelly Nestruck lobbed the first cannonball that shook the windows and rattled the walls at Soulpepper Theatre? It was just last October when Nestruck broke the news revealing that one year previously (in 2016), the Hungarian director László Marton had his employment with the company quietly terminated because of sexual impropriety charges in both Toronto and at his home base theatre in Budapest.

The news shocked the Toronto public and the theatre community particularly. Executive director Leslie Lester and artistic director, Albert Schultz, reacting to Nestruck’s revelations, immediately convened a meeting of the entire Soulpepper ensemble to acknowledge that the events described in the Globe article and by CBC news (reported simultaneously) were indeed true and further that no specific details of the charges would be revealed due to the signing of a confidentiality agreement between all of the parties involved. But this was only the beginning.

Over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, four women – all former Soulpepper ensemble members – met to share their own grievances against Mr. Schultz that dated back over two decades. Grievances that also involved sexual impropriety and harassment. They sought legal council and held a press conference in early January of this year announcing that they would seek significant compensation for damages suffered to their respective careers and emotional well being. This second direct hit on the company prompted Schultz’s resignation as artistic director and Lester’s termination of employment as executive director.

Much punditry and editorializing ensued, including one Toronto Star editorial that admonished the entire Soulpepper board of directors for harboring such an unhealthy workplace, calling upon them all to resign. This past August (with the Soulpepper board of directors all still firmly in place) Schultz’s legal counsel announced that the complaints against him had been resolved “in a manner satisfactory to Mr. Schultz.” The end. But thankfully not the end of Soulpepper.

During it all, the company soldiered on in spite of the sturm und drang swirling around it. Early on, there was some quick re-shuffling of the deck with regard to scheduled productions that had Schultz’s name on it. Amadeus, which he was in the middle of directing, was cancelled outright. A wise move given the play’s theme of oversized, power tripping artistic egos.

But all told the company acquitted itself well over the next several months, navigating a shifting cultural terroir that included arts council funding cuts, theatre community protests and no small amount of donor/patron queasiness. But still the season of plays continued to go into rehearsal and take the stage. 

With long time company member Allan Dilworth quickly installed as interim artistic director, the first production was Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which opened as planned (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/a-delicate-balance/4088). Given the prevailing headwinds, it was quite the achievement just to get the show on and the theatre filled for opening night.

But the show did go on, with many ensemble members present in a show of support for their colleagues. I think it is fair to say that this production of the play, directed by Diana Leblanc, was certainly up to the mark as far as production values go for a company that has consistently raised the bar over the years for every theatre in Toronto. “In all things – friendship, intimacy, civility – there is a balance that must be carefully maintained to avert disaster” said the program notes to A Delicate Balance. As one might expect the irony was not lost on those who attended opening night.

The opportunity to see Roland Schimmelpfennig’s, Idomeneus, was also very welcome (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/idomeneus/4089). Schimmelpfennig is a contemporary German playwright whose work is not well known in Canada. Again, the ironic metaphor derived from Greek mythology involving a contested narration of events that happened during the 10 year Trojan War had much resonance. People struggling against their wit’s end to figure out what happened and why was a good take away from this production that was ably directed by Allan Dilworth.

More divided in terms of audience reception was George Orwell’s Animal Farm as adapted by Anthony MacMahon and crisply directed by Ravi Jain (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/animal-farm/4090). I had to chuckle to myself walking out of the theatre at the play’s conclusion as I overheard one patron commenting: “Well, I certainly liked the first act better than the second act!”

The first act was a clear-cut iteration of Orwell’s short allegorical novel published in 1945 as a scathing critique of Stalinism that is still a required text on many secondary school reading lists. The problematic (for some) second act opens with the rise of the oligarchy and conflates elements of Orwell’s futuristic dystopia, 1984, into the story line. The failed socialist experience of act one and the cult of personality that surrounded the ham hock-in-chief, Napoleon,  has now clearly been replaced with the rise of the uber capitalist, neoliberal ruling class who have narrowed their principles to only one governing mantra: “all animals are created equal but some are more equal than others.”

In order to better reflect today’s sociopathic political reality the creators have cleverly placed burning contemporary issues such as economic inequality, discrimination against women and minorities, immigration, tightly controlled media outlets and the rise of the techno-autocrat into the central core of the narrative.

As he did with his localized adaptation of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist several seasons ago at Soulpepper, Jain moves all of this ahead with fast pacing, humorous physical comedy and biting political satire. The oligarchy is politically fronted by a Trump-like Napoleon who has learned to walk upright and reflect the ways of his successor, Farmer Jones. The oleaginous Napoleon controls a heavily privatized (but still state controlled) corporate economy that doesn’t hesitate to call out the police and the army to smash any incipient insurrection by the working folks who remain the same anthropomorphized characters who appeared in the first half of the play.

And speaking of class, I’m sure there was a broad band of pay grades in the audience the night I saw the show, and whether or not you were sitting in the cheap seats or the expensive ones may well have impacted your feelings on how you viewed the second half of the play as opposed to the first half.

Over the years, Soulpepper certainly has demonstrated the capacity to effectively adapt the novel form to the stage. Vern Thiessen’s compelling work transposing Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, several seasons ago was a good example of that. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the feminist classic, Orlando: A Biography (adapted in 2003), which, as a novel, contains all of the elements of a spritely paced historical romp through the centuries featuring a poet who changes sexual orientation and crosses time barriers as well as physical ones.

The actors really shouldn’t be faulted here, (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/orlando/5784) for a script that is slow when it should be fast paced and accelerated when it needs to slow down and have some breathing room. We are also not helped by a set design that features 10 ft French doors that occupy the end of a thrust stage with audience on three sides. Although costume design by Gillian Gallows was helpful (especially the liberating scene that saw Orlando lose the corset!), we needed more changing scenic effect, which could have easily been produced digitally, to see us through the time traveling from one epoch to the next. More and varied set pieces reflecting the decorative arts of each period would also have been helpful. Add to this a  soundscape using period music from one country and one time frame to the next, and we really would be on our way in helping to overcome the script’s meanders and many longueurs.

When August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/ma-rainey-s-black-bottom/4091) premiered at the Yale School of Drama in 1984, directed by Canadian-American Lloyd Richards (who was also dean of School at the time) it was an immediate success and soon found its way to Broadway’s Cort Theatre that same year. The third play of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which contains ten plays – one for each decade of the 20th century, it is the only one not set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black, Hill District neighborhood. The single two room set depicts a Chicago recording studio and the small rehearsal room that sits beneath it.  The studio caters to producing “race records” of the period. Billed as “The Mother of the Blues” in the 1920s, Rainey released over 100 records in five years.

The obvious popularity of the play and the deserved longevity of its life in the international repertory for over 30 years, exhausts any further superlatives that I could muster here. I will say though, that this super talented Soulpepper cast, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Oto, was the finest production of the play that I have ever had the pleasure to witness. Full stop.

La Bête (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/la-bete/5640), David Hirson’s Moliere inspired romp, was also received well as was Mark Crawford’s, Charles Ludlam-like two-hander, Bed and Breakfast (https://soulpepper.ca/performances/bed-and-breakfast/5799), that had its world premiere at the 1,000 Islands Playhouse three years ago in a production directed by Ashlie Corcoran, now director of Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver.

Despite this impressive track record over the past year, the future of the company will depend heavily on the direction that will be taken by the new leadership group that is coming on board this flagship Toronto civic theatre. Emma Stenning, a British arts administrator, has been in her new job as executive director at Soulpepper for just about one month as I write this retrospective. The search committee has announced that it is continuing to hunt for a new artistic director to replace Albert Schultz.

Over the past year, a number of friends and colleagues have leaned in a bit at social gatherings to ask, “What do you think about the situation at Soulpepper? Do you think I should continue to go down there? We used to have season tickets.”

My answer is an emphatic yes, I do think the theatre going public should continue to support Soulpepper. It is an organization that has survived a crisis and is committed (we trust)  to putting together a better future for the many people who are employed there. They deserve our support. But they also deserve a hard public scrutiny to ensure that the events of the past remain in the past.

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