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Soulpepper’s acting artistic director Alan Dilworth breaks silence on ‘upheaval and change’

Soulpepper’s acting artistic director Alan Dilworth has announced the theatre’s new season lineup and addressed the issues surrounding the embattled company’s future, including its problematic Academy, which will be put on hold.

Dilworth, formerly associate artistic director, stepped into the top job when founding artistic director Albert Schultz resigned in January after multimillion-dollar lawsuits were filed by four actors against him and the theatre company, alleging that Schultz was a “serial sexual predator.”

“The legal proceedings, to my knowledge, are under way so I’m not at liberty to talk about the allegations or the proceedings in any way,” he tells The Globe and Mail, in his first interview as acting artistic director. (Schultz vowed to “vigorously defend” himself against the allegations in the winter, and both he and Soulpepper filed notices of intent to defend, but no court date has materialized.)

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Dilworth – recently nominated for a Dora Award for outstanding direction for his post-Schultz Soulpepper production of Idomeneus – can speak in broader strokes about the “upheaval and change” at the city’s largest not-for-profit theatre, however.

There have been a lot of “good conversations” inside the company, he says, since the frenzy of last winter after one of the first major #MeToo scandals to hit English Canada. “I’m inspired and energized by what I’ve been seeing around me and the work that’s happening on stage and behind the scenes,” he says. “Change takes time – and so I’m also seeing a real commitment to that over a longer haul.“

One significant behind-the-scenes change involves the Soulpepper Academy – a multi-year paid professional training program for actors, directors and playwrights formerly headed by Schultz that came under scrutiny.

Normally, Soulpepper would be gearing up right now to admit a new 2018-2020 cohort of academy members – but the program, which had difficulty retaining female artists and artists of colour in recent years, is now on hiatus. “We’ll be spending a year doing a review process,” Dilworth said, to give time to “take the best of what’s there but move forward into the future with up-to-date best practices.”

In its annual report released last month, Soulpepper revealed that it had run a $556,000 deficit in 2017, the year leading up to the lawsuits – which a spokesperson said was due to a number of unspecified factors. (The company “severed its relationship” with long-time executive director Leslie Lester, Schultz’s wife, in January.) The company is further forecasting a deficit in 2018 – due to, as it said in a release earlier this year, “extraordinary one-time costs and revenue reductions.”

Despite that less-than-rosy financial picture, the 2018-2019 artistic programming that Dilworth announced Tuesday does not seem significantly curtailed.

From October to June, 15 shows will be presented at Soulpepper including the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, directed by Jennifer Tarver, in October; the world premiere in January of a new musical called Rose based on Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round, created by Mike Ross (Spoon River) and Sarah Wilson; and the first proper Toronto production of Tracy Letts’s large-cast family drama, August: Osage County, directed by Jackie Maxwell in May.

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“We are operating with such strong support from our board and our donors and our audiences,” says Dilworth. “So this is a confident season – and we feel compelled to continue to take risks and to offer our audiences what they deserve in terms of a robust season.”

There are certainly some safe bets in the season – an evening of Harold Pinter shorts, Michael Frayn’s Tony-winning play Copenhagen, holiday remounts of A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan adaptations.

But there is less familiar fare too: The Royale, a play by Marco Ramirez about the true story of world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson; Yellow Rabbit, a new play from the Silk Bath Collective set in a post-nuclear wasteland in English, Mandarin and Cantonese; and JAPANESE PROBLEM, an immersive piece about the internment of Japanese Canadians.

Dilworth himself will direct The Virgin Trial, Kate Hennig’s second hit Stratford Festival play set in Tudor times; and Wedding at Aulis, a new play by Sina Gilani based on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis.)

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, fresh off her acclaimed production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, will also be a major part of the season, directing two shows: Oraltorio: a Theatrical Mixtape, a collaboration with Obsidian Theatre billed as “part poetry slam, part house party”; and The Brothers Size, a 2007 play set in the Deep South written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who penned the Oscar-winning picture, Moonlight).

The Brothers Size is the second in the American playwright’s acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays trilogy – and Dilworth hints that he’d like to present the others in the future. Of course, one is all he can commit to right now: His contract runs to January and the hunt is on for a permanent artistic director.

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Could that be Dilworth? “My relationship to Soulpepper is an ongoing discernment of how I can be of service,” he says. “I’m engaged in various conversations about the best way in which to bring everything I have artistically and as a leader to helping the company.”

Sounds like he’s applied.

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