Soulpepper "severed its relationship" with long-time executive director Leslie Lester and cancelled a season-opening production of Amadeus on Saturday, as Toronto's largest not-for-profit theatre company continued to reel in the wake of four civil lawsuits filed against it and former artistic director Albert Schultz, alleging years of sexual harassment and assault by Mr. Schultz both on stage and off.
"We have today severed our relationship with executive director Leslie Lester," the Soulpepper board's executive committee said in a statement. "We have also, by request of our artists, cancelled the production Amadeus."
Additionally, 30 artists who work at the Toronto theatre company put their names to a statement alleging that "there has been an unhealthy workplace culture [at Soulpepper] for a long time." The signatories included Diego Matamoros, who co-founded the company along with Mr. Schultz and 10 other artists in 1998; Alan Dilworth, the acting artistic director; and Leah Cherniak, associate director of the Soulpepper Academy.
Mr. Schultz resigned as artistic director at the request of the board on Thursday, but Ms. Lester, who is married to Mr. Schultz, had been on a voluntary leave of absence since the lawsuits were filed on Wednesday. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
In an e-mailed statement on Sunday, Ms. Lester said that no allegations "of any nature whatsoever" against Mr. Schultz were ever brought to her attention at any point during her employment with Soulpepper.
Former Soulpepper performers Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller are seeking damages totalling $4.25-million from the theatre company and $3.6-million from Mr. Schultz – who is described as a "serial sexual predator" in their statements of claim.
The plaintiffs allege that because the company's workplace violence and harassment policy requires employees to report complaints in writing to the executive director – until Saturday, Ms. Lester, Mr. Schultz's long-time partner – they could not expect to do so "without the perception of bias and fear of reprisal."
According to a copy of the policy obtained by The Globe and Mail, Soulpepper employees can also report incidents to the director of human resources, Sarah Farrell – who also holds the position of general counsel at the theatre company.
Saturday's statement from the executive committee of Soulpepper's board – comprised of chair Shawn Cooper, David Fleck, Vanessa Morgan, Rob Brouwer and Eric Wetlaufer – was a striking change in tone from the company's earlier statements that said their policies and procedures provided "a clear process to report harassment, in a safe, private and respectful way."
Now, instead, the five directors stated: "We understand why many artists in the Soulpepper community felt that raising concerns about the safety of the Soulpepper workplace was very difficult."
Still, Soulpepper's board members stated they were not aware of any harassment allegations against Mr. Schultz prior to the lawsuits and defended their commitment to oversight responsibilities – stating that the board had made "extensive inquiries" about harassment after earlier complaints were made against Hungarian director Laszlo Marton, a frequent guest artist and Mr Schultz's mentor with whom the company cut ties in 2016, and that an independent review by a workplace policy expert in the fall of 2017 had "assured" them they had the right policies and procedures in place to "maintain a safe and healthy workplace."
"That said, this situation has brought home to us that policies alone do not create such a culture," the board statement continued, before revealing that it had "severed our relationship with executive director Leslie Lester."
In a statement on Sunday, Ms. Lester said: "No allegations of any nature whatsoever were ever brought to my attention against Albert Schultz at any time throughout my employment. If they had been, they would have been immediately investigated, as they were in 2015, when sexual harassment allegations about Laszlo Marton were brought forward to me. I am, obviously, devastated to have learned of the allegations now made against Albert, and the insinuations destroying my life's work."
In an internal e-mail dated Dec. 12, obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Lester and Ms. Farrell – who were at the time conducting a "workplace culture review"– wrote: "Please know that we are not aware of any allegations of sexual harassment at Soulpepper aside from those against Laszlo Marton two years ago – which were investigated and which resulted in the immediate termination of Mr. Marton."
Mr. Schultz has vowed to "vigorously defend" himself against the allegations that have been levelled against him in the lawsuits. He has not responded to e-mailed questions sent to him by The Globe.
On Saturday, however, 15 actors and designers who had been rehearsing Amadeus under the direction of Mr. Schultz until his departure from the company said that they had reached a consensus to ask the board to cancel the production of Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning drama about composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.
"We believe Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth, Patricia Fagan, and Hannah Miller, and stand with them," stated the Amadeus actors and designers, a group that included Mr. Matamoros and Mr. Schultz's long-time designer, Lorenzo Savoini.
"We have a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty," read the statement signed by all 30 Soulpepper artists. "But we are determined to reimagine the future at Soulpepper by grappling with where the company has come from, facing difficult questions, in order for healing and transformation to take place."
On Friday, the federal government said it was reviewing its funding policies for organizations in the cultural sector in order to promote safe work environments.
The Ministry of Canadian Heritage did not explicitly refer to Soulpepper or Mr. Schultz in a statement it issued on ensuring safe workspaces, but said "recent events" have prompted it to reaffirm a zero-tolerance approach to harassment on the job.
It says it's currently reviewing its funding policies to ensure that "recipient organizations promote healthy and harassment-free work environments."
It says recipient organizations already must comply with the public sector's ethics code.
"In view of current concerns about harassment in the cultural sector and beyond, we reiterate that respect for human dignity and the value of every person governs all of Canadian Heritage's activities," the ministry said in the statement. "We stand with artists, actors and creators across industries in saying that there is no tolerance for harassment. All Canadians deserve to have safe environments to conduct their work and safely come forward to report instances of harassment."
With a report from The Canadian Press