The beleaguered Soulpepper theatre company has found a starry producer and arts administrator from England to become its new executive director: Emma Stenning, who will leave her job as chief executive of the Bristol Old Vic to take the position.
The theatre company’s board chair, Vanessa Morgan, said in a press release that the hire “represents an exciting future” for Soulpepper – and Stenning expressed her excitement for that future in an interview in advance of an official announcement on Thursday.
“This is clearly an exceptional theatre company,” said Stenning, who cold-called the company in the winter to see if they would accept an international application. “Certainly coming from the U.K., where we lost the [repertory] system in the 1970s, to have a company that has an ensemble of artists right at its heart is incredibly appealing.”
Stenning says she is “not, of course, naive to the phase of transition that the company is in.” She comes to the position of executive director almost eight months after Soulpepper’s board – in the words of a January press release – “severed” its relationship with her predecessor, Leslie Lester.
While the board never explained Lester’s seemingly forced departure, it came in the wake of civil lawsuits filed by four female actors against the theatre company and Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s founding artistic director and Lester’s husband. The suits alleged that Schultz had sexually harassed and assaulted the women, on stage and off, in incidents that spanned two decades.
Lester said at the time that no allegations “of any nature whatsoever” against Schultz were ever brought to her attention during her employment with Soulpepper – and Schultz said he would defend himself “vehemently” against the allegations. The lawsuits were settled out of court in July, however, with all parties declining to comment further to the press.
That’s the thorny, tight-lipped situation Stenning steps into – not to mention grappling with a pair of significant financial deficits.
"Transition leadership”, however, is a role that appeals to her, she says – and the theatre executive, whose impressive résumé includes work with top English companies from Complicite to the Battersea Arts Centre, has a track record of turning around theatres in troubled situations.
In partnership with the director Tom Morris, best known on this side of the ocean for his Tony-winning work on War Horse, Stenning took over the Bristol Old Vic as chief executive in 2009.
At that time, the Bristol Old Vic had been, according to The Stage magazine, closed by its board and was “in dire financial straits” after losing funding from the Arts Council England.
Ms. Stenning oversaw a £25-million ($42-million) redevelopment of the theatre’s 250-year-old venue, transformed its business model and helped re-establish its profile at home and abroad.
She now looks forward to beginning widespread consultations on a new Soulpepper strategic plan once a new artistic director is appointed by the board. (An interview process is under way and a hiring is expected this fall.)
The #MeToo movement has, of course, led to turmoil at many arts institutions around the world – not just in Canada. And while the Bristol Old Vic has not been directly related to London’s Old Vic for a long time, Stenning says she has been “very connected” to what has gone on at that West End theatre in the wake of sexual harassment allegations leveled against its former artistic director, Kevin Spacey.
The London Old Vic’s new Guardians program, for instance, has also been adopted by the Bristol Old Vic – and Stenning describes it as one that “empowers individuals within theatre companies and theatre communities to listen and speak and have their voices heard by people in authority.”
Soulpepper is also coming up with new policies to deal with what 30 artists – including interim artistic director Alan Dilworth – said in a statement last January had been an “unhealthy workplace culture for a long time.”
In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Morgan listed many new practices already in place – from a whistle-blower hotline to regular smudging circles – and said that the human-resources committee of the board has been conducting a review that will lead to a new Statement of Promises and Code of Conduct. It will be formally adopted in September and then made public.
Stenning says that from her first meeting last winter with Morgan and her fellow board member Robin Cardozo, she believed the board was dedicated to putting in place “best in class” protocols around codes of conduct.
But what about how Soulpepper’s powerful board dealt with these issues in the past – which, with lawsuits now settled out of court, remains fuzzy to outside artists, audiences and donors?
Soulpepper has, for instance, come under criticism for having employees sign non-disclosure agreements after they complained about sexual harassment back in 2015 and 2016 by the Hungarian director Laszlo Marton (who the company then cut ties with). One actress, subsequently released from hers, described the agreements in The Globe and Mail as being “written in the strictest possible language, making it illegal for me to speak to anyone about it at all.”
Will Stenning – who will now be in charge of human resources – commit to ending this practice? “My instinct is that in a company, transparency is a positive thing, but I would need to take advice from the board and legally about what’s appropriate,” she said. (Morgan did not respond to an e-mailed question abut the company’s policy regarding NDAs going forward.)
Stenning says she is not concerned about Soulpepper’s past inhibiting its future. "“I have what has always been my dream job in the U.K. – leading, in my mind, the country’s most beautiful, inspiring theatre in partnership with one of my very favourite artists,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t think Soulpepper was the most exciting place to be – and I mean that genuinely.”