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Soulpepper’s board needs to step up – or step down – for the theatre company to move past #MeToo

Soulpepper's board of directors wants to look to the future.

The #MeToo-rocked Toronto theatre company settled the four civil lawsuits filed against it in July, hired a starry new executive director last week – and will announce a new artistic director in the fall.

Unfortunately, for many audience members and donors and artists, there are still too many questions unanswered about the past to turn the page so easily. Now, the board is running out of time to deal with them before these old problems become an albatross around the neck of the new leaders.

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The sudden surfacing of sexual harassment and assault allegations, sometimes decades old, has no doubt been a huge, unanticipated challenge for arts boards worldwide – but a look at how theatre, dance and opera companies in New York, London and Ireland responded to similar #MeToo crises shows how, comparatively, Soulpepper’s board has lacked transparency in its actions and avoided public accountability.

Other arts organizations faced with allegations against past or present leaders have launched external or internal investigations, released the conclusions of the investigations or full reports and/or apologized to past victims of harassment and misbehavior.

By contrast, in January, Soulpepper said it had launched an “immediate investigation” upon being served with four lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and assault by (now former) artistic director Albert Schultz (against which he vowed to defend himself "vehemently").

But since then, neither then-chair Shawn Cooper nor current chair Vanessa Morgan has said anything more about that investigation – about who conducted it, the scope of it or what its conclusions were.

There has been no public apology from the board, either – only defences of its past oversight and what reads like a heavily legalled one-line acknowledgment that “we understand why many artists in the Soulpepper community felt that raising concerns about the safety of the Soulpepper workplace was very difficult."

Compare and contrast the Old Vic in London, which was confronted with a series of public allegations of sexual misconduct against Kevin Spacey, its former artistic director, last fall.

On Oct. 31, 2017, that theatre's board hired an external investigator and, by Nov. 16, the theatre company released the conclusions of the resulting investigation – which led to the collection of 20 personal testimonies of inappropriate behaviour by Spacey that took place between 2004 and 2015.

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Nick Clarry, chairman of the Old Vic, then apologized. “Despite having the appropriate escalation processes in place, it was claimed that those affected felt unable to raise concerns and that Kevin Spacey operated without sufficient accountability,” the company said in a news release. “This is clearly unacceptable and The Old Vic truly apologises for not creating an environment or culture where people felt able to speak freely.”

Not every theatre company was been able to deal with allegations as swiftly. In November, 2017, the board of the Gate, a major theatre in Dublin, appointed a workplace relationship expert named Gaye Cunningham to conduct an independent review to “deal in a confidential but transparent manner with any complaints and allegations in relation to inappropriate behaviour and abuse by former director Michael Colgan.” She was given complete and total autonomy and had full editorial control of the review’s output.

In February, the board released the recommendations of that review cataloguing “what Ms Cunningham reports as ‘credible and consistent testimonies’" and apologized “unreservedly” to those who “experienced the behaviours reported to Ms Cunningham.” It reiterated that apology in March when it released the full report, amended only to protect individual confidentiality.

If theatregoers in London and Dublin don't have the whole story, they at least have part of one.

Of course, it's fair to note that Soulpepper was dealing with allegations against a current artistic director, rather than a former one. But, on this side of the ocean, when a pair of prominent American arts organizations found themselves dealing with #MeToo allegations against leaders still in their employ, they, too, launched investigations – and then released their (starkly different) conclusions.

In February, the New York City Ballet said that a two-month investigation by outside counsel into its former chief Peter Martins, who had retired a month earlier, after accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse, did not corroborate any of the allegations against him.

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In March, meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera fired conductor James Levine – then music director emeritus and artistic director of its young artist program – after an internal investigation "uncovered credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers, over whom Mr. Levine had authority.” (Levine is now suing the Met for breach of contract and defamation; the Met is suing him back.)

Soulpepper's community lacks a report that says anything about what happened – and, with the civil suits being settled out of court, gossip again is filling the vacuum. Is it any wonder donors are reportedly divided on the departures of Schultz and Leslie Lester, former executive director and Schultz's wife?

No doubt there are legal and insurance concerns tying tongues. But it remains unclear why Soulpepper's board could release a statement last fall saying that, following a formal investigation in 2016, it had determined that Hungarian director Laszlo Marton had engaged in sexual harassment, but not release one saying what its unspecified investigation determined about Schultz.

No one would benefit more from an arm's length report than the board itself. If the directors did indeed “not know that Albert Schultz was alleged to have engaged in any harassment,” as it has said repeatedly since January, why not bring an outside investigator in to confirm that? (The Old Vic's investigation's conclusions included: "The Trustees were unaware of the allegations.")

It's a recurring dilemma with how arts organizations are structured: Who can hold a board of directors to account when they will not do so themselves?

I respect the board’s decision not to step down under pressure in January – it would have been a disaster for Soulpepper to lose its board, executive director and artistic director all at once.

By all accounts, the powerful, well-connected women and men at the board level have worked hard since to keep shows in front of audiences and artists employed – and the new policies being put into place appear, as they say, "best in class."

But, with its lawsuits and grace period over, the board should also be "best in class" in terms of transparency about what transpired – and, if need be, bring in an external investigator to issue a public report.

The past also needs to be redressed through an apology – and it would be ideal if artists who were alienated by or pushed out in the past owing to the theatre's acknowledged "unhealthy workplace culture" were explicitly invited back into the theatre.

Moving forward doesn't have to be a solemn parade of mea culpas and statements about policies. We're talking about a theatre here – why not use its power to heal? How about a Glengarry Glen Ross starring the four women who sued Soulpepper? Or a new production of Asking for It by Ellie Moon, one of two other women who spoke on the record to The Globe and Mail about how Schultz allegedly contributed to that "unhealthy workplace culture"?

If Soulpepper’s board won't or can't do what other international companies have done in the wake of #MeToo, its members should announce their intentions to replace themselves as they reveal the new artistic director this fall – and allow people unencumbered by past failures of oversight and a close and complicated history with Schultz and Lester to take over.

The company deserves a genuinely fresh start.

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