EXCLUSIVE: New York isn’t always kind to theater strangers from away, especially in the summer, when local festivals produced by Lincoln Center and other venues tend to big-foot outsiders angling for critical valuation and sufficient box office appeal at least to cover the costs, which can be high. So I was dubious when Toronto’s 20-year-old company Soulpepper announced a monthlong residency offering 10 different shows at the Signature Theatre’s three-stage complex on West 42nd Street. I recalled an ambitious plan to showcase top nonprofit theaters at the Joyce Theatre some years back, to which ticket-buyers, not to mention critics, responded with a collective yawn.
And while the 20-year old Soulpepper is one of Canada’s most highly regarded companies, it was unknown here. Just before the group opened at the Signature in early July, Toronto Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck questioned the $2.5 million undertaking: “As Soulpepper executive director Leslie Lester notes, before signing on, the theatre’s board of directors wanted to know what the possibility of damage to the company’s strong brand in Toronto would be if U.S. critics’ and audiences’ reaction was, as she puts it, ‘Canadians stink.’ ” The price tag was covered by $1 million from Soulpepper’s own coffers, along with another $1 million from targeted fundraising and the remaining half-million from the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario provincial government. (Yes, that’s Canadian dollars, roughly $2 million U.S.)
“What’s the purpose of spending so much money to take shows to New York for limited runs?” Nestruck wondered. “Is this just an ego trip?”
I wondered the same thing when I interviewed Soulpepper co-founder, leading light, chief cook and bottle washer Albert Schultz on the eve of the company’s New York debut. He’d mapped out a monthlong slate of mainstage shows including Soulpepper’s stage-to-TV transfer, Kim’s Convenience, along with the weightier Of Human Bondage and Spoon River, along with concerts, group works and, after every performance, a cabaret in the Signature’s inviting café space. If he was nervous, he wasn’t showing it, but in truth, on the eve of opening, Soulpepper had moved just 10 percent of its ticket inventory and the outlook was chancy at best.
“The audience had no preconceptions,” Schultz told me, when we did a debrief last week via telephone from Toronto. “We were received purely on our artistic merit.” Which, as it turned out, proved to be a very good thing. The productions were extraordinary – and wisely chosen for the Soulpepper DNA that informed them; no need to bring coals to Newcastle with revivals of shows the New York audience would be familiar with. Critics, including myself and, crucially for the box office, the New York Times, were enthusiastic. Most important, ticket buyers were having a good time, for which credit the combination of good shows, reasonable ticket prices and the great vibe of the Signature space (designed, as it happens, by Canadian superstar architect Frank Gehry).
“There was a tremendous amount of buzz,” Schultz said. “People who came were having a remarkably good time and they were vociferous about their pleasure and excitement. Some people came back 10 times.”
There was plenty of support from the Canadian community, Schultz noted, but also from the Theatre Development Fund, which promotes shows and distributes discounted tickets, and outreach to the arts community. “Soon I was having conversations with people from New Jersey and Connecticut. Getting Times “critics’ picks” two days apart provided another boost,” he said. “By the last two weeks, there was nothing available.”
Schultz insisted that the gamble proved overwhelmingly worthwhile, both financially and in terms of company morale. “They were just overjoyed,” he said, adding that the trip had given the troupe “a real sense of confidence – and part of that is because you’re doing it in New York.”
There will be more benefits to come, he added. “It certainly will be meaningful in terms of fundraising,” he said. “People who have been so supportive, understand what it means in the grander scheme.”
And the bottom line?
“We covered it and then some,” Schultz said. “We overshot our target, and came in under budget.”