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What's next for Albert Schultz and Soulpepper? A return to classical roots (hopefully)

No one disputes that Soulpepper has been a great success, but some still complain that artistic director Albert Schultz has drifted too far from the company’s mandate to ‘produce lesser known works from the classical canon.’

Della Rollins for the Globe and Mail

Albert Schultz celebrates two major life events at the end of the month, one right after the other. On July 30, the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company will turn 50. The next day, his production of American playwright Tony Kushner's six-hour, two-part epic, Angels in America, officially opens.

Angels is by far the biggest production ever mounted by Soulpepper. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is also the most challenging that Schultz – still best known as an actor and superb, silver-tongued fundraiser – has tackled as a director. "I'm in an exciting place, because I'm shedding a lot of shibboleths," he says, not betraying any nerves in a wide-ranging interview just before the show's first preview. "Turning 50 – now seems like a good time to be doing that."

What makes Kushner's metaphysical masterwork so demanding is that the man or woman at its helm must somehow conjure a world where otherworldly creatures and historic figures can co-exist, and where the action can leap from Antarctica to the Bronx and back again in a matter of minutes.

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While taking on Angels and that round-number birthday, however, Schultz must still attend to his demanding day job. He's the artistic leader of a company that has grown tremendously from its first two-show season of pre-20th-century plays in the summer of 1998. Remarkably, Soulpepper recently eclipsed Canadian Stage to become the most-attended not-for-profit theatre in Toronto – although Schultz has found it easier to woo audiences and private donors than secure a secure level of public funding.

At the same time, as Soulpepper's public face, Schultz is the target of critics who claim the drive for box-office success turned the company away from its original mandate (in words still on its website) to "produce lesser-known works from the classical canon."

Launched with Schiller and Molière, the company now finds itself anchoring a season with a play barely 20 years old. And last year, a brand-new play about a Korean-Canadian corner store became the most financially successful production in its history – the blockbuster Kim's Convenience is currently off on a six-city Canadian tour.

How can Soulpepper really still claim to be Toronto's classical theatre company? It appears Schultz, at least, is ready to finally admit that his baby has a new, broader identity. "I think we're a civic theatre company," he says, shedding one of Soulpepper's main shibboleths with surprising nonchalance. "We've evolved."

The nature of that evolution – and that of of Toronto's theatre scene in general – is particularly underlined by Angels because, when Kushner's plays had their local premieres in 1996 and 1997, they were at Canadian Stage. That company was devoted to contemporary plays, and it was the biggest not-for-profit theatre in the city, with annual attendance sometimes surpassing 300,000. Then-artistic director Bob Baker's Angels production was a critical and box-office success that held the record for having the longest run of any professional drama in Canadian theatrical history until War Horse trotted past it last year.

Flash-forward to today and, as Soulpepper is producing Toronto's first major revival of Angels, it has leap-frogged Canadian Stage – hitting a record 102,453 in attendance in 2012, while its competitor's has fallen to 86,000. Has the Soulpepper project expanded options for theatregoers – or has one company just supplanted another?

Behind the scenes, the audience fragmentation has set the stage for a battle over government funding. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, Canadian Stage gets about 30 per cent of its revenue from grants, while Soulpepper gets closer to 11 per cent on a similarly sized budget.

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Looking to hire a full-time "Government Relations Manager," Schultz and his executive director Leslie Lester are clearly revving up to push for a bigger share of the public cash. And given the fact that public arts funding has largely been frozen, Soulpepper will more than likely have to woo away some of its competitor's funding, having already seduced much of its audience.

Schultz is vocal in his opposition to the grandfathering of operating grants, which gives older organizations a distinct advantage. "I'm tired of hearing that there's no more pie," he says.

Of course, one could as easily argue that Soulpepper has made it to this point through its knack for private fundraising, and might not need as much taxpayer support. But Schultz has now lived through a year where Soulpepper ticket sales went backward – 2011 was an annus horribilis for theatres across the country – and that has renewed his push for a more reliably financed budget. "If this place went down, that would be by far the biggest blow of any not-for-profit," he says, citing the number of people hired by Soulpepper and its theatre, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

If Schultz is to convince funding agencies to shell out more, however, he'll have to make an artistic argument as well as an employment one – and that means fighting off concerns that Soulpepper has moved too far away from its original mission.

Holger Syme, a University of Toronto professor who, in his words, teaches "Shakespeare and friends," has been one of the company's persistent critics. In a blog titled "Requiem for a Dream" posted when the Angels-centred season was announced, Syme wrote that Toronto was basically back to square one in terms of classical theatre – he knew of no other major theatre market that was "as radically cut off from the historical roots of the art form."

"If the company started out 15 years ago hungry for a challenge and committed to making old texts newly exciting and engaging, they have now transformed themselves into a commercial enterprise offering an utterly conventional, very safe repertory of not-very-old plays staged with slick production values in polished and largely unchallenging performances," Syme writes in an e-mail.

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Schultz concedes that critics have a point, that the company has deviated perhaps too far from the work it made its name with – and he hopes to soon begin producing two major, meaty classics each season. But when it comes to challenging audiences the way Canadian Stage's latest artistic director, Matthew Jocelyn, has done of late, the impresario seems to be of two minds. "The fact is that companies are struggling just to survive and find an audience – the way not to get them is to do weird-ass shit," Schultz says at one point. But later he bemoans what he calls the "museum tradition" in Ontario theatre: "There's a preciousness about the way we approach certain texts that I think, both as a director and an actor, I would love to see change and shaken up – and I don't just mean in this company."

Regular visitors to Soulpepper will have noted that, in fact, Schultz has already begun shaking things up. His Hungarian mentor Laszlo Marton is no longer in charge of the one European-style production a year, while young, talented stage auteurs such as Brendan Healy and Alan Dilworth have been let loose on plays.

Also clear has been Schultz's own evolution into a director of note. Indeed, he has become his company's most reliable one in recent years – shepherding fine productions of David Storey's Home and Arthur Miller's The Crucible to the stage, and starting to develop a distinctly ethereal aesthetic in partnership with designer Lorenzo Savoini.

Schultz's colleagues believe he has the requisite directorial skills for Angels.

"Albert is kind of amazing – he has a fast mind and an incredible ability to retain and process information," says actor Diego Matamoros, a Soulpepper founding member who is playing Mephistophelian anti-communist crusader Roy Cohn in the Angels plays. "There's a public showman there, but there's also a mind behind the showman." Adds Nancy Palk, another founding member who's playing multiple parts: "Angels is the most theatrically challenging thing I've ever done with Albert – or, frankly, ever, including Shakespeare … You can really see that he's grown as a director."

Angels in America will be a test to see exactly how far Schultz and Soulpepper have come, and he knows it: "It's almost like Kushner said – 'How taxing can we make this on a team?'"

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More


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