Less then a week after bringing home five Doras – that’s the Canadian version of the Tony Award – an immigrant troupe called Soulpepper begins a monthlong stand just off Times Square at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street. The timing is significant on its own merit: “Soulpepper on 42nd Street” begins Saturday, which is Canada Day, marking the sesquicentennial of the nation’s founding and celebrated, much like our own Independence Day, with great demonstrations of son et lumièr, barbecues, bands and brouhaha. With Come From Away packing the house just a few blocks north, there’s maple leaf in the Manhattan air, a welcome Canadian bulwark against the political farces that have gripped the native populace.
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The 20-year-old Soulpepper is an anchor of the theater community in Toronto, a city that closely matches New York in terms of global diversity, numbers of languages spoken, cuisines celebrated and cultures represented in the arts. The residency gets underway with “True North: A Concert of Canada,” billed as a concert that will use beloved Canadian songs as the spine of an examination into the values of a nation on its birthday.
A repertory series of plays, musicals and concert performances – among them Kim’s Convenience (which was adapted for TV and will begin its second season on CBC this fall, giving Schitt’s Creek a run for its money as the country’s most popular sitcom); and a singular adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – presented by a company of 65 artists, “Soulpepper on 42nd Street” runs through July 29, 2017.
“This is a huge test for the company,” Albert Schultz, a veteran actor who co-founded Souplepper in 1997, told me in a recent interview as the company was moving into the Signature complex (designed, as it happens, by the Toronto-based architect Frank Gehry with the late Hugh Hardy). “It galvanizes all of us. It’s aspirational for the artists. Everyone who’s come has been thinking about this for two years.”
Schultz said selecting the repertory for the $2.5 million New York season is a communal affair involving every part of the troupe. “I went to about 40 key stake holders, from longstanding members of the company to board members, administrators and donors, asking them to name 12 productions that uniquely represent Soulpepper, could only be done by Soulpepper. Five were in the top eight or nine: Kim’s Convenience, Of Human Bondage, (re)Birth, the e.e. cummings show, Alligator Pie and Spoon River. Many named our production of Angels in America. I’m not going to bring Angels in America to the Signature, that’s a little coals to Newcastle.”
I asked Schultz what he meant by “uniquely Soulpepper.” He’d recently seen Indecent on Broadway, which he described as the kind of meaningful ensemble piece that would be right at home on Soulpepper’s mainstage and academy in Toronto’s artsy downtown Distillery District.
“If you see four shows in New York, you will see a commonality in them,” he said. “What they have in common in terms of the creative teams – Spoon River, Of Human Bondage, Alligator Pie and (Re)Birth – two are entirely academy graduates and two are me working with my students. What infuses all of them is we’re a really, really strong company in terms of text, in delivering poetic text. Also, the understanding of design as a directorial device, organic to the process and not just a backdrop. It’s inside the work. We have a space that allows design to be organic in the creation of a work.”
Schultz, Canadian born of American parents (his father was from Hewlett, Long Island; his mother from Bronxville), was immediately struck by the Signature complex, which offers three theaters around a central public space that features a cafe with live music and a bookstore. He found the setup to be culturally and politically essential for these times.
“The commercial theater experience is to shove you back into the street, there’s eight feet between the entrance and the seats, it literally coughs you into the street, into the honking and sirens,” he said. “It’s critical that our cultural spaces give us more places to digest the necessary conversations, and to digest them communally.”
New York can be a tough test for visitors during the summer, when the competition from the Lincoln Center Festival and Free Shakespeare in the Park, among others, compete for bodies and eyeballs. Long-term visits will need support from critics and patrons alike to be economically feasible, even as exposure to New York’s producers, agents and other industry professionals searching for new talent can be invaluable.
For Schultz, however, the mission also is personal, a need to keep pressing himself and his celebrated company forward to the next challenge. “On the way in from the airport I found myself planning the next one,” he said. “It probably has something to do with the fact that my father died young, when he was 45. So I figure I’m living on borrowed time. I’m not interested in money, I’m interested in the creation of opportunity.”
Here’s a rundown of the Soulpepper shows that will be on offer beginning tomorrow. See soulpepper.org for details.
TRUE NORTH: A CONCERT OF CANADA
Opening on Canada’s 150th Birthday (July 1, 2017) this concert will use beloved Canadian songs as the spine of an examination into the values of a nation on its birthday.
Several of Canada’s greatest Ladies of Song will perform a truly unique concert of American Standards and Canadian Originals backed by at All-Star Canadian Jazz Ensemble. Don’t miss these exceptional artists on stage together for two nights only!
NEW YORK – THE MELTING POT
A love letter from Toronto’s artists to the city of New York. It traces the contributions of immigrant cultures to the creation of the soundtrack of the 20th century right here in Manhattan.
OF HUMAN BONDAGE
Written by Vern Thiessen, Directed by Albert Schultz and Designed by Erika Connor, Mike Ross, and Lorenzo Savoini.
W. Somerset Maugham’s epic tale of lustful obsession and the pursuit of art is adapted for the stage for the first time anywhere. This highly theatrical production is the most awarded show in Toronto history, winning Dora Awards (Toronto’s Tony) for Best Production, Best Play, Best Direction, Best Set Design, Best Sound Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Ensemble performance.
Written by Ins Choi, Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Designed by Ken MacKenzie, Thomas Ryder Payne, and Lorenzo Savoini.
The most successful new Canadian play of the last decade, Kim’s Convenience – set in a family-run Korean variety store – is a hilarious and heartwarming ode to generations of immigrants who have made Canada the country that it is.
Adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, Composed by Mike Ross, Directed by Albert Schultz and Designed by Ken MacKenzie.
“Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!” An immersive, life affirming, graveyard musical. In a suspended moment during the burial of one who died too young, the dead come forth and share with us the unfiltered truth of their smalltown existence. Spoon River was named Best Musical by both the Dora Awards (Toronto’s Tony) and the Toronto Critics Association.
Created and Performed by Diego Matamoros, Lorenzo Savoini, and Richard Feren.
A stage, even the one within our mind, is a cage….that defines, limits, and reveals. Inspired by apes, Zen Buddhism, and the ideas of avant-garde composer John Cage, this experimental meditation on time, space, memory, and the human animal is performed by Soulpepper Founding Member Diego Matamoros and his co-creators and designers.
LESSONS IN TEMPERAMENT
An Outside the March Production, created and performed by James Smith, directed and developed by Mitchell Cushman.
James Smith tunes a piano while exploring the concept of equal temperament as well as his three older brothers’ mental illnesses: obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. Smith attempts to grant balance to the instrument that has both kept him grounded and kept him company throughout his life. Part memoir, part performance art, part tune-up, this site-specific show offers a unique theatrical experience, and a singular glimpse into the lives of those living with strange, beautiful, distempered minds.
Created and Performed by Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest, and Mike Ross. Poems by Dennis Lee.
Generations of Canadian children have grown up to the poems of Dennis Lee, “Canada’s Father Goose”(also known for his lyrics to Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock). Five of those children, now grown-up creators, have made an absolutely delightful award-winning musical that celebrates the written word and the very notion of “play”.
(RE)BIRTH: E.E. CUMMINGS IN SONG
Created from the poems of e.e.cummings by Ins Choi, Tatiana Cornij, Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest, Karen Rae, Mike Ross, Jason Rothery, and Brendan Wall.
A whimsical and visually gorgeous musical celebration of the works of one of America’s great 20th century poets.
Written and performed by Pamela Mala Sinha.
After the loss of a loved one, a woman must face the shattering memories of a past trauma. CRASH by Pamela Mala Sinha is the fractured unraveling of memory; blending projections, myth, and dance into a riveting narrative about family, faith and love.
A BRIMFUL OF ASHA
Ravi and Asha Jain
After winning over crowds around the globe, A Brimful of Asha makes its New York City debut. Soulpepper Resident Artist and Baillie Fellow Ravi Jain shares the stage with his real life non-actor mother, Asha, to tell each other’s side of Asha’s attempt to arrange Ravi’s marriage.
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