Albert Schultz yielded to widespread calls for his resignation as artistic director of Soulpepper on Thursday, just a day after four women launched civil lawsuits against him and the Toronto theatre company he co-founded, alleging decades of sexual harassment and assault both on stage and off.
In less than 36 hours, Mr. Schultz was toppled from his perch atop one of the country's most prestigious theatre companies after the four former Soulpepper performers claimed that the director and actor was a "serial sexual predator." On Wednesday, his theatre company's board of directors said it had "instructed him to step down" from all his responsibilities while an investigation was conducted, which Mr. Schultz characterized as a "leave of absence." But pressure mounted for his complete ouster as a group of colleagues resigned, while dozens more theatre artists signed an open letter or tweeted their support to the plaintiffs with the hashtag #BelieveHer.
"While I will continue to vigorously defend myself against the allegations that are being made, I have made this decision in the interest of the future of the company into which I poured the last 20 years of my life, and in the interest of the aspirations of the artists and administrators of the company," Mr. Schultz said in a statement provided by his lawyer Peter Wardle, who will be representing him in court.
It's the end of an era for a theatre company that had been relentlessly grown by Mr. Schultz – an ambitious artist equally noted for his preternatural ability to fundraise – over two decades from an initial two-play season into a year-round not-for-profit theatre that had become Toronto's largest. Soulpepper had recently toured triumphantly to New York for Canada's sesquicentennial and had even begun to branch out into television with a CBC-TV sitcom spinoff of its most popular play, Kim's Convenience.
On Thursday morning, four artists who resigned from coming shows at the theatre vowed not to return until Mr. Schultz was gone, while an open letter to Soulpepper's board began to circulate in the theatre community also calling for his removal – and had amassed almost 100 signatures by the afternoon.
Over the course of the day, visitors to the Soulpepper website began to notice that Mr. Schultz was being scrubbed from the company's online presence. His picture was removed from a page that had previously shown the theatre's 12 founding members, while his credit as director on a coming production of the play Amadeus vanished.
By the end of the day, Soulpepper's board of directors had sent out a statement announcing that they had accepted Mr. Schultz's resignation "effective immediately."
"While this has been a tremendously difficult chapter in Soulpepper's history, today's decision ensures the organization is able to move forward with confidence and remain a leading Canadian theatre company," the statement read, adding that Alan Dilworth, formerly associate artistic director of the company, had accepted their invitation to become the acting artistic director.
The resignations earlier in the day came from Stuart Hughes and Ted Dykstra – who co-founded Soulpepper with Mr. Schultz and nine other artists in 1998 – as well as actors Michelle Monteith and Rick Roberts, who announced their move at a news conference alongside Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller, the actors suing Mr. Schultz and the theatre company.
Late on Thursday, Alexi Wood, a lawyer who is representing the artists who resigned from the company as well as the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Dysktra, Mr. Hughes, Ms. Monteith and Mr. Roberts could not un-resign, but would now return to their roles at Soulpepper "if the company will take them."
In separate suits, the women are seeking damages totalling $4.25-million from the theatre company and $3.6-million from Mr. Schultz. None of the allegations have been proved in court. Mr. Schultz has not responded to e-mailed questions sent to him by The Globe.
The boardroom at the Levitt LLP law office in Toronto was packed with media and cameras, while friends and colleagues from the theatre community gathered in the reception area to show support for the actors.
Asked whether the plaintiffs are concerned about "destroying" Soulpepper, Ms. Miller, one of the plaintiffs, responded that the company in its current state "is not a safe environment."
"There is a sanctity of the theatre that is being … violated," she said. "The implication that we are ruining something is maybe the reason why it's so hard [to come forward]."
The decision to stand behind Ms. Miller and her co-accusers, however, was not a difficult one, Mr. Dykstra said.
"I don't really think choice is involved," the actor and director said of his decision. "I know that I can't work there knowing what I know. And it's because I know these women and I believe their stories … it just follows that, if that's true, I can't work there."
For Ms. Booth, the inspiration to come forward came after reading comments from the theatre company in a newspaper article in October, outlining its sexual-harassment policies in the wake of its revelations that it had cut ties with Hungarian director Laszlo Marton, a mentor to Mr. Schultz, in early 2016 after receiving complaints against him. "In my time at Soulpepper, I never once saw a policy on sexual harassment," Ms. Booth said. "Knowing the culture there, the hypocrisy of that statement was what motivated me to come forward so this does not happen to one other young woman coming up into that company."
Ms. Fagan said that a seeming cultural shift, including recent movements such as #MeToo, helped to reassure her that "for the first time, people are listening, and people care."
"We realized we were not alone and that our fear of being alone was in fact unfounded," Ms. Bentley added. "When we started to have these conversations [with each other], we found power, strength and we found a unified voice. And with our colleagues here, we have all found that, and we feel really safe and really supported in that," she said. "And we hope that sends a strong message to the community."
Mr. Hughes noted on Thursday that it is not his wish to see the theatre company collapse.
"I'd hope that the theatre returns to the ideals that are positive there and that the workplace becomes an environment where people can speak freely about their fears and their concerns," he says.