Skip to main content

Albert Schultz Soulpepper Theatre's artistic director, top right in blue jacket, poses with several of the artists who will benefit from imagiNation, the $1.25m in new theatre commissions. imagiNation will fund 30 to 40 Canadian artists/companies it what is being billed as the largest theatre commissioning project in the history of Canada.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

It's hard to know where to begin with all the major news Soulpepper revealed publicly on Thursday evening at its annual general meeting. The new $50-million building, the $1.25-million in new commissions … or New York?

"The last six months have been mad," acknowledges Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz, meeting a few days ahead of the meeting in his theatre company's library to spill the beans.

Schultz was talking to The Globe and Mail first because I had sniffed out his New York plans – what, in the end, are only the first flakes of a flurry of activity sparked by the stunningly quick completion of a $10-million "creative capital campaign" announced just a year ago. At the risk of burying the lead, let's start there.

To kick off Canada's sesquicentennial year and Soulpepper's 20th year of existence, the Toronto-based theatre company is taking the show on the road. For a month starting on July 1, 2017, Soulpepper will occupy the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, a gorgeous off-Broadway theatre designed by Toronto-born starchitect Frank Gehry, located close to the action on 42nd Street.

Schultz doesn't want to go into details yet – there's a proper announcement coming in mid-June to tantalize the American press, orchestrated by New York press agent Sam Rudy, the man currently handling the marketing for the megahit musical Hamilton.

But this much is clear: Soulpepper intends to present multiple productions, likely in repertory, in a month-long showcase similar to the ones the much bigger British institution Royal Shakespeare Company has recently started doing. Schultz has a short list of shows to take down, but, given that this is timed to Canada's 150th birthday, "the only things on that list are things that have a Canadian pen."

That means there's a "very good chance" that Ins Choi's hit Kim's Convenience (soon to be a Soulpepper-produced TV series on CBC) will get its New York premiere. Vern Thiessen's adaptation of Of Human Bondage and Mike Ross's moving musical Spoon River are other probable candidates.

The acclaimed Canadian troupe's first trek to New York – announced, fittingly, while Jitters, David French's comedy about our artists fear of and desire for American approval, is still on stage at Soulpepper – will be paid for by money that came in through the creative capital campaign specifically for this purpose.

"It's a great opportunity for us to open up partnership opportunities and touring opportunities outside of Canada," says Schultz, who is also bringing Spoon River to the Charlottetown Festival this summer and has a Western Canadian tour of the Dennis Lee-inspired kids show Alligator Pie in the works. "We'll be in a place where people will take notice."

Soulpepper's aspirations to transform into what it calls "A National Civic Theatre" are even more apparent in its other major sesquicentennial plan: Project imagiNation, a $1.25-million spending spree the company is calling "the largest theatre commissioning project in the history of Canada."

Between 30 and 40 theatre artists or theatre companies across the country have been asked to develop new works that "reimagine or represent" Canada – or rework a classic from a Canadian angle. "We've asked them to think about the resources in this building, make a piece that you would not be able to make [usually], but could with Soulpepper," Schultz explains.

And so, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland is developing a musical adaptation of Kathleen Winter's novel Annabel, about an intersex child raised in Labrador; Calgary's Old Trout Puppet Workshop is working on a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's epic Peer Gynt; and Toronto playwright Djanet Sears is writing a play called The Dumpling and the Drum, about a romance between a black woman and a Hasidic man in Toronto's Kensington Market.

Other commissioned artists include contemporary dancer Peggy Baker, director Soheil Parsa, Quebec experimentalist Marie Brassard and the up-and-coming Cree playwright Cliff Cardinal.

A major chunk of Soulpepper's future programming will come out of this huge investment. "Between 2017 and 2020, we'll stage at least a dozen [of the commissioned projects]," Schultz says.

But where, exactly, will all this new work be staged?

Soulpepper wants to add a building costing $50-million to $75-million to its physical footprint and is looking at several sites near its current home in the Distillery District. Only a third of the price tag will fall to Soulpepper: Schultz expects the new theatre to be a multipartner project like the company's Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which also houses George Brown College's Theatre School.

Conversations are in progress with potential partners – educational institutions, media, production and broadcast companies.

A larger announcement is expected by the end of 2016, but Soulpepper has secured an anchor contribution of $1-million from devotees Charles and Marilyn Baillie – the couple whose name is on the Young Centre's biggest performance space – and Charles Baillie has also been appointed as the building campaign chair.

Soulpepper's second home should include a theatre with about 600 to 650 seats – a size that has long been desired by local companies stuck between intimate spaces and oversized barns. And Schultz wants this one to be fully wired for digital broadcasting, so that it can transmit plays as the National Theatre of Great Britain – whose cinema screenings have become popular in Canada – does.

"It's so wrong that our audience are going to see plays and literally saying, 'I saw the National Theatre' and what they're seeing is someone else's national theatre," Schultz says.

Last year, I praised Soulpepper for putting its awe-inspiring fundraising muscle behind artists and art instead of bricks and mortar. But, the way Schultz puts it, the early completion of the creative campaign led to sped-up plans for an extra building. "The response to the creative capital campaign was so overwhelmingly positive that it has pushed the agenda forward so that we need to immediately start thinking about where we are going to house all these things," he says.

It's hard to deny that the company is bursting at the seams of the Young Centre: Soulpepper moved some holiday programming to the 868-seat Bluma Appel Theatre this year, plans to produce even more off-site in the coming year and has been renting space to holding rehearsals across town because of a space crunch in the Distillery District.

"Our audiences aren't shrinking, we don't have any debt," Schultz notes. "We've never had a debt on any of our projects."

Indeed, there's only one potential problem looming on the horizon for Soulpepper as an institution. As the board of directors puts it: What if Albert Schultz gets hit by a bus?

Artistic director since Soulpepper was founded in 1998, Schultz is now the head of Toronto's biggest not-for-profit theatre – whether by attendance (95,912 in 2015) or budget ($9.9-million) – and employed 225 artists and 58 staff members in 2015. So his board wouldn't approve the latest expansion of activity until the leadership was expanded and was locked down.

Long a part of Schultz's informal artistic director's circle, directors Alan Dilworth and Ravi Jain are now taking on three-year full-time positions as Soulpepper's first associate artistic directors.

And while Weyni Mengesha, director of Kim's Convenience, who split her time between Los Angeles and Toronto, was unable to commit to a full-time gig, she will be coming on as resident artist and part of the leadership team.

"Those three are people that have been with us for a long time, understand the organization deeply from the inside," Schultz says. "And they all have a strong sense of their own individual artistic expression and their own place within a broader community."