An American ‘Reckoning’ With Sexual Assault Crosses Over Into Canada
When Toronto’s celebrated theater company, Soulpepper, was preparing to spend a monthlong summer residency in New York, I warned artistic director Albert Schultz that he was playing against long odds. Absent a London pedigree, I said, New York City can be cruelly hostile to interlopers. We may not be partial to Maple Leaf interpretations of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and W. Somerset Maugham’s buzzkiller Of Human Bondage.
Schultz forged ahead, raising the $2.5 million budget of its July residency at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre complex on West 42nd Street. The company itself put $1 million from its own coffers into the venture, despite some skepticism on the part of board members and the press. They wondered whether the New York showcase was all just an ego trip for Schultz, a popular Canadian actor-turned-impresario who’d co-founded Soulpepper two decades earlier and cultivated it into the leading light in Toronto’s vibrant theater scene.
Shortly before arriving in New York, Soulpepper had walked off with five Dora Awards, the most of any theater troupe, at Toronto’s version of the Tonys. Soulpepper also was riding high on the success of Kim’s Convenience, which began as a play produced by the company and evolved into one of Canada’s most popular TV comedies.
By the time Soulpepper left at the end of July, Schultz’s gamble had paid off in ways he’d dared not dream of. Not only were the shows earning high accolades from New York critics, but they were selling out as well. Soulpepper, Schultz told me afterward, had turned a small profit on the trip.
And then, late yesterday, this: “Today, the Board of Directors of Soulpepper Theatre Company accepted the resignation of Albert Schultz, effective immediately.”
The announcement came in the wake of two damning reports, one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the other by the Toronto Globe and Mail, that included testimony from four women, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley, Patricia Fagan and Hannah Miller, Soulpepper members or former members who are jointly suing Schultz and the company for $6.2 million, charging him with being “a serial sexual predator,” through sexually inappropriate behavior and harassment over a 13-year period. Before stepping down, Schultz said he will “vigorously defend myself against the allegations that are being made.”
Schultz’s wife, Leslie Lester, the company’s executive director, has taken a voluntary leave of absence while the Soulpepper board continues its investigation and prepares its response to the lawsuit.
“Albert’s gone from being a messiah to a monster in five seconds,” one of the Canadian theater’s most knowledgeable leaders told me today. “I feel for the women, who certainly showed courage,” this person said. “But it’s hugely sad and tragic. There’s a lot of jumping-on-bandwagonism after Weinstein. People are not distinguishing between serious assault, rape and lesser actions.”
Canadian playwright Erika Reesor has called for artists and audiences to boycott Soulpepper. “It’s the only effective way that we have to show our support for women coming forward,” Reesor said. “We have to put it in action. As an audience member, I won’t go see any shows produced by Soulpepper, and I don’t mean just until this court thing is resolved. It is my intention to put my money where my mouth is. And as an artist, I won’t myself work with them and I won’t encourage other artists to work with them.”
That position reflects a wider feeling that institutions – whether a nonprofit like Soulpepper or a Hollywood powerhouse like The Weinstein Company – turned a blind eye to abuses of power and also must be held responsible for the violations of predators. Sorting out the finer gradations of abuse in arts-related fields, where intimacy – between teacher and student, mentor and protégé, director and actor – is essential to the process of artistic collaboration and growth will be among the greatest challenges of this post-Weinstein era.
I spoke with Albert Schultz before, during and after Soulpepper’s extraordinary New York stand and watched him interact with a company that was clearly psyched by the welcome it found here. His rapport with the company, and with audiences who attended the free nightclub performances that closed out each day of performances, was infectious. He has been the public face of Soulpepper, inseparable from an institution comprising many artists whose work I won’t soon forget, from the actors and musicians who’d come up through Soulpepper’s academy, to the designers who gave the company a strong sense of mission and artistic ownership. Will they survive this ignominious departure?
“There should be a balance that should match the crime,” the observer said to me. “How will this affect the company’s credibility? What will happen to their fund-raising, their subscribers? Will this lead to the demise of the company – is that fair?”
The four women, along with other women who have come forward, addressed that very issue. It’s just such fear – that somehow they’re responsible for widespread consequences of malignant actions by others – that has prevented women from speaking out. In the end, it’s not their problem.
Something Schultz said to me when we first met, about bringing Soulpepper to New York, haunts me today.
“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.”
Opportunity came, but with a price tag. That was not fair.