Albert Schultz has moved himself to tears.
And no one here can blame him. It's a been a long emotional weekend. In the past 48 hours, the final auditions for his company's fledgling Academy have taken place. It is now a Sunday evening in December and the final group of 32 is gathered before him in a large circle. As the Soulpepper Theatre Company's founder and artistic director, Schultz is in the middle of delivering his closing remarks. "I'm getting sad now," he resonates. "Parting is such sweet sorrow, but there are glories ahead of us. The problem is, it's not enough, what we're doing here. To take 10 of you into safety so you can express your voices . . . I wish . . . I wish we could do more."
This is the part where he breaks down.
The Soulpepper Academy finalists range in age from their mid-20s to their 40s and are as diverse in culture, gender and discipline as a Toronto subway car at rush hour. Sprinkled among them are the instructors -- Nancy Palk, Martha Burns, Joe Ziegler and William Webster, all of whom are also founding company members.
The group is gathered in a large studio in the soon-to-be-opened Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto's Distillery District. The multidisciplinary industrial/modernist space, which will be shared by George Brown College's theatre program and Soulpepper, was the company's last great triumph. The Academy is its latest -- and according to Schultz, the success or failure of the entire company is riding on it.
"Philosophically speaking, this academy was the entire driving force behind Soulpepper from the beginning," he says. "Sure, we've put on some plays before, but this is really it."
"It" is an amazingly ambitious training program, unlike any theatre school in the world. Ten theatre professionals with a minimum of four years experience in their field are being selected from this group to study and work for two years under the tutelage and direction of the Soulpepper company.
Unlike most drama training programs (such as the National Theatre School, George Brown College, and so on) in which inexperienced students pay tuition in exchange for training and connections to the "real world," Soulpepper Academy is the real world, and its students working artists. As such, it reverses the financial equation. It will pay its students for their time. Each will receive an annual income of $30,000.
The dough is nothing to scoff at. Most reputable U.S. graduate programs cost more for tuition alone. And as Schultz points out, "It's sad to say, but $30,000 is more than a lot of trained and talented professionals earn in a given year working in Canadian theatre."
While most actors are poor, Soulpepper Academy is rich.
Funding for the project came from a seed donation of $352,500 from the George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation, a Toronto-based charity dedicated to the performing arts. Since then, Soulpepper has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in private and public support. The company is not far short of reaching its $12-million fundraising goal and it is about to launch a new season in the recently completed space.
Soulpepper is a fundraising powerhouse, but it's going to need every cent it can raise. The Academy's annual budget is already at $400,000 per year, and Schultz intends it to carry on and expand "in perpetuity."
"The point is not just to build Soulpepper, but the national theatre scene. In five years, if there aren't five companies competing for our audience, then we've failed," he says confidently. Asked where the audience is going to come from, he just laughs.
And perhaps Schultz is right to be so hopeful. Most things do seem to go his way. Already, seven Toronto couples have signed up for the new Soul Mentor Circle, a program that allows individual donors to support one Academy member at a minimum rate of $20,000 per annum. The rest of the money comes from the company's sizable corporate endowment.
The Academy application process began last October. Those applying were required to have a minimum of four years experience in professional theatre. They were also asked to write a short essay on one of two topics: Describe your mentor or outline your vision for the future of Canadian theatre. There was an application fee of $50.
The point, according to Schultz, was to cull the herd down to people who were "experienced and serious about the process."
It worked. While the Soulpepper company's general cattle call for prospective new members earlier in the year attracted 3,000 people, only 240 applied for the Academy spots.
From there, Schultz and his right-hand woman, Soulpepper producer Claire Sakaki, narrowed it down to the 85 most promising people on paper. Last November, they flew around the country interviewing and auditioning hundreds of young actors, writers, directors and designers, in the hope of building the perfect ensemble. They started in Vancouver and moved east, through Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. They flew people in from Edmonton, Fredericton and places much smaller. At the end of the tour, they had narrowed it down to 35 people. This group, in turn, was flown to Toronto in December (all participants were put up at the Cambridge Suites Hotel) to participate in what the Soulpepper company began jokingly referring to as "the 48-hour callback."
The stakes are high, but you'd never know it. In a large studio in the Young Centre, the group is in the middle of practising the Alexander Technique. About a dozen people in stretchy clothes wander aimlessly around the room making vaguely disgusting sucky-kissy noises with their mouths and tongues.
"School of silly walks!" commands instructor Kelly McEvenue, a small, rounded woman with glasses. The group falls silent as the participants abandon their noises. One young woman limps. Another scuttles sideways like a crab. A dark-haired boy in a tank top moves in the painful, jerking manner of a person afflicted with a degenerative neurological condition.
The instructor claps her hands and the performers go back to normal, no sign of self-consciousness registering on their faces.
At the side of room sits Nancy Palk, an actress known for her regal onstage demeanour.
"They have to be present in their body and in their voice," she says as the performers file out of the room for a short break. "The more free they are, the better. You know it sounds very artsy, but we want people who are very open, mentally, physically and emotionally."
Not only are these people uninhibited, they're impressive. The finalists for the Soulpepper Academy are hardly a bunch of wide-eyed drama-school hopefuls. Nearly all have credentials from places like the National Theatre School, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Canadian universities such as Simon Fraser, McGill, Queen's and Concordia, and other respected schools in and outside of Canada.
"We're trying to make professionals see beyond being professional," says William Webster, the bearded senior statesman of the company (he will play King Lear in this year's season). "This is not about merely teaching people how to act. It's about getting beyond the next soapsuds ad and back to the work that counts."
These artists are not just successful by local standards, they're successful by anyone's standards. The group includes: d'bi young, a Toronto dub poet who was critically lauded for her role in Mirvish's 'da kink in my hair, Michael Blake, a National Theatre School graduate who spent two years playing the lead in the Toronto production of The Lion King, and Jennifer Villaverde, who starred in the Stratford Festival's last production of Measure for Measure. And that's just for starters.
Blake, an affable 31-year-old Jamaican-Canadian actor who got his start with a role in the original Degrassi Junior High, says that in all his time in working in theatre he's never seen a program like Soulpepper's. "I've been doing this for a long time, and it can be really cut and dried. You know, go to auditions, wait for the phone to ring. It take so long to crack that nut."
Although Blake has had more success than most struggling actors, he admits that, prior to this opportunity, he was getting to the end of his rope with the Canadian theatre scene. "I've always felt that theatre in this country, and Toronto in particular, is far too elitist and exclusionary. We're too attached to the old European traditions. No one was allowing young people to become part of the process.
"When I showed up for my first interview, Albert was like, 'You've done so much, why are you here?' and I was like, 'Dude, I'm never, ever going to stop learning.' This is actually the perfect opportunity for a working actor."
The program, which is scheduled to begin in June, will include classes with all of Soulpepper's founding members, as well as instruction from other veterans, such as playwright Daniel Brooks and choreographer Peggy Baker. In addition to learning, the students will be responsible for overseeing the company's growing Youth Outreach program (which brings theatre instruction into the public-school system). At the end of their first year, they will stage what Schultz describes as "a creative collective performance" of their own making. The show will have a run at the Young Centre's main stage. Ultimately and ideally, many of the academy members will eventually join the permanent company. The plan, according to Schultz, is for Academy members to spend "half their time on Soulpepper's stages."
"We've wanted to do something long-term like this for ages, but we just didn't have a space," the artistic director continues, looking very much the Sunday-afternoon Dad.
It is now day two, 40 hours into the 48-hour callback, and he has abandoned his blazer for a fleece and a pair of black jeans.
The process is loosening up as well. Today, the participants have been divided into groups and given images, from which they are to create a piece of theatre. It's an open-ended assignment, one that allows the company members to observe the participants not just as performers, but behind the scenes, working in a group.
"What we're looking for are 10 people who scare the shit out of us," Schultz explains. "Most importantly, we want to create a working ensemble. Acting is the only artistic pursuit you can't do on your own. What all actors really want is a good company to work with."
It is clear that Schultz sees this company as his legacy -- the final extended flourish on the creation of his great dream. Soulpepper, which started eight years ago and has been nurtured largely on Schultz's charisma, is now officially a great success. Today, just a month and a half short of the theatre's completion, Schultz sits on a plywood riser under three-storey ceilings in what will soon be a lobby, milling about with students and patrons. His eyes dance with enthusiasm.
But not everybody here shares his outlook.
"To be honest, I find it all a little depressing," says Joe Ziegler, as we wait outside one of the studios. "I graduated from the National Theatre School in 1979 and the amount of talented people now compared to then is completely overwhelming. It's so much more competitive. I guess the only way to get the best people is to pay them."
The company members evaluating the participants walk from studio to studio. Inside each one, a group of five or six people perform a five-minute piece. The results are arrestingly diverse and difficult to put into words: a factory scene in which the worker try to outwit a spying boss, performed in the dark; a comic scene in which the participants are East Indian peasants performing a river ritual; a soundscape in which the performers play instruments and confess their dreams while the audience is made to participate in an infectious collective dance.
"I feel like I'm in a reality show!" Nancy Palk exclaims at one point.
When all scenes are finished, the group gathers in the studio where Schultz makes his closing remarks. The tension in the air is palpable, as is the artistic camaraderie.
For the applicants, the moment of truth is drawing near. After this, the Soulpepper company members will leave the room and enter into another meeting -- this one closed to the press -- in which they will decide who, among the 32, will stay and who will go.
Schultz asks if there are any questions.
D'bi young raises her hand but does not wait to be called. "When will we find out?" she asks.
The answer is delicately put, but for an actor, the message is familiar: Don't call us, we'll call you.
And the winners are...
Nicolas Billon, playwright
- trained at Concordia University, Soulpepper's Director's Lab, Stratford Conservatory
- his plays The Measure of Love and The Elephant Song
have been produced at Stratford
Michael Blake - actor
- trained at National Theatre School, Claude Watson
- starred in The Lion King for Mirvish Productions
- has been featured in productions for Shakespeare in the Rough, CanStage, Blyth Festival, Young People's Theatre
Stephen Guy-McGrath - actor
- trained at the National Theatre School
- starred in productions for Tarragon Theatre and
Kevin MacDonald - actor
- theatre credits include: Belfry Theatre in Victoria, Alberta Theatre Projects, Western Canada Theatre Company in Kamloops, Vancouver Playhouse
- graduate of Studio 58, Vancouver Community College
Weyni Mengesha - director
- director and music/lyrics of 'da kink in my hair for Mirvish Productions, and Theatre Passe Muraille
- director for productions at The Hip Hop Theatre Festival (NYC), Black Theatre Workshop (Montreal)
Mike Ross - actor, musician
- musical director for productions at Charlottetown Festival and Tarragon Theatre
- actor at Charlottetown Festival, Tarragon, Theatre Calgary
- nominated, Dora Award (Tarragon's No Great Mischief), Betty Mitchell Award (Theatre Calgary's Fire)
Lorenzo Savoini - designer
- has designed for several seasons at the Stratford Festival - Currently designing at Neptune Theatre and Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa
- won the Brian Jackson award for outstanding design contribution to Stratford
Jennifer Villaverde - actor
- trained at University of Winnipeg
- has starred in a number of productions at Citadel Theatre, Shakespeare in the Rough, Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Manitoba Theatre for Young People and Rainbow Stage
Sarah Wilson - actor
- trained at the Stratford Conservatory, and a graduate of George Brown Theatre School
- spent a number of seasons at the Stratford Festival and performed at the National Arts Centre, Theatre Aquarius, Resurgence Theatre and Soulpepper Theatre Company
d'bi young - actor, playwright, dub poet
- wrote and starred in the one-woman show blood.claat at Theatre Passe Muraille
- starred in 'da kink in my hair for Mirvish Productions and San Diego Theatre
- won the Harold Theatre Award in 2005 .