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Questions still hang over Soulpepper Theatre in wake of Albert Schultz allegations

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Questions still hang over Soulpepper Theatre

The Globe and Mail hears of more complaints about the company's workplace culture in wake of Schultz allegations

Albert Schultz at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on July 20, 2013.

Back in April of 2016, Albert Schultz, the founding artistic director of the Soulpepper Theatre, was giving one of his periodic interviews about his ambitious plans for the theatre company he had already built into Toronto's biggest not-for-profit in less than two decades.

At the time, Mr. Schultz was at the height of his powers and influence – and his company was reaching for the stars, announcing a trip to New York , an anchor contribution of $1-million for a new theatre building and $1.25-million in commissions, while its first foray into television, Kim's Convenience, was readying for a premiere on CBC-TV.

But Mr. Schultz's conversation with The Globe and Mail that day also touched on what would happen if he were to suddenly no longer be in a position to run the expanding company. "The bus scenario," he said, with a sigh. "I hear about this all the time and it's depressing: What if Albert gets hit by a bus?"

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Mr. Schultz's board of directors had been pressing him on succession planning – and so, for the first time, the theatre company was hiring two full-time associate artistic directors, Alan Dilworth and Ravi Jain.

Last week, that planning proved crucial as Mr. Dilworth stepped into the role of acting artistic director after a different crisis forced the company to make do without Mr. Schultz – four civil lawsuits filed on Jan. 3 against him and his theatre company by former Soulpepper performers who allege that he is a "serial sexual predator." He resigned at the board's request within 36 hours.

Alan Dilworth is Soulpepper’s acting artistic director in the wake of Mr. Schultz’s resignation.

Soulpepper "severed" its relationship with executive director Leslie Lester, who had been in a long-term relationship with Mr. Schultz and married him last summer, shortly thereafter. There have been calls for the resignation of the board of directors from the editorial board of the Toronto Star.

Mr. Schultz has vowed to "vigorously defend" himself against the allegations that have been levelled against him in the lawsuits. Ms. Lester says that no allegations "of any nature whatsoever" against Mr. Schultz were ever brought to her attention at any point during her employment with Soulpepper.

Now, the Soulpepper show will go on Saturday night with the first preview performance of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.

However, serious questions still hang over Soulpepper in terms of how they handled sexual harassment in the past and present – and whether everyone has signed on with the board's desire to move on to a process of "reflection, renewal and change" that they committed to in a statement last week.

The Globe and Mail since has heard more complaints about Mr. Schultz's behaviours from young women who worked at the company, as well as an allegation that Mr. Schultz hid in a female dressing room.

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The legacy of Laszlo Marton

To understand why Soulpepper's board and administration might still be viewed with suspicion even after Mr. Schultz and Ms. Lester have left the building, we have to revisit how an earlier sexual-harassment scandal to hit the theatre company was handled in the fall.

Ten weeks ago, on Oct. 30, Mr. Schultz, Ms. Lester, board chair Shawn Cooper and the head of human resources and general counsel Sarah Farrell (who has now assumed many of Ms. Lester's duties at the company) stood on stage at a meeting with staff and artists to publicly reveal for the first time that the theatre had received two complaints of sexual harassment, a year and a half earlier, against Laszlo Marton – a Hungarian director who was a regular guest artist at the company and had taught in its Soulpepper Academy.

After the meeting, Soulpepper issued a statement to The Globe saying it had launched a formal investigation after the first complaint was received in late 2015, had determined that Mr. Marton had engaged in sexual harassment by early 2016 and that his "relationship with the Company had to be immediately and permanently terminated."

The statement described Mr. Marton's behaviour as "both unacceptable in human terms and in violation of Soulpepper's past and present policies and codes of conduct," but that the company was nevertheless engaging a third-party expert to conduct a review of its policies and that it wanted "to reaffirm that Soulpepper is dedicated to creating a safe place of belonging for artists, audiences and aspirants."

To many, it looked as if Soulpepper had acted swiftly and decisively on sexual harassment well before #MeToo became a hashtag – but, in fact, the meeting and statement about Mr. Marton was a turning point that set in motion the lawsuits that Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller would file against the theatre company and Mr. Schultz in early 2018.

Director Laszlo Marton at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto in July 2005.

At the time of the Marton meeting, Ms. Fagan had already started to connect with other women to talk about their experiences at Soulpepper and with its then artistic director as the #MeToo movement opened up a space for those conversations.

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Ms. Fagan, who worked at Soulpepper for 13 seasons and has pages of allegations against Mr. Schultz, told The Globe that she had spoken to a lawyer at that point but was considering a number of options – and top of her list was sending a letter to the theatre company's board of directors with other women listing their allegations against Mr. Schultz; she didn't want to "upend her life" by going to the media or pursuing a lawsuit.

The unsigned statement issued by the company on Oct. 30 was part of what "changed our direction," Ms. Fagan told me. The actress knew that the artistic head of Soulpepper had not, in fact, cut ties with Mr. Marton in 2016, as she had received a group e-mail from him in April of 2017 inviting her and a group of other Soulpepper artists to "a very fatty dinner to celebrate an extraordinary man" – that was, Mr. Marton. (The Globe has seen a copy of the e-mail – and also recently learned that it was, in fact, cc'd to one of the women who had complained to HR about Mr. Marton, unbeknownst to Mr. Schultz.)

Ms. Fagan wondered why the company had waited for media reports to emerge of 10 women accusing Mr. Marton of sexual harassment in Hungary to hold a meeting about him. She also heard through the whisper network – and The Globe has since confirmed – that one of the complainants against Mr. Marton at Soulpepper had been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. (That complainant was not offered any financial compensation.) "I wondered how systemic the problem [was] within Soulpepper," Ms. Fagan recalled. "I thought the dialogue should happen in the public and not behind closed doors."

Soulpepper's statement about Mr. Marton in October also led The Globe to begin to look into the possibility of other harassment at Soulpepper. How Soulpepper handled the Marton allegations stood out in contrast to the way other theatre companies dealt with similar sexual-harassment allegations.

For instance, two days after actor Anthony Rapp told the world his story about Kevin Spacey in October, the Old Vic – the venerable London theatre that Mr. Spacey ran until 2015 – sent out a statement with a confidential email address for anyone to contact who had "been connected with the Old Vic or in our employment and feel you have a complaint you were unable to raise."

Similarly, in early November, after seven women alleged abuse and harassment against Irish director Michael Colgan, the Gate theatre in Dublin also set up an e-mail address for former employees to disclose complaints.

In Soulpepper's case, however, the company released no statement about how former employees could get in touch with further complaints.

Mr. Schultz and Ms. Lester did not accede to requests for follow-up interviews about sexual harassment until Nov. 24 – and, at that point, The Globe had already been speaking with women who had allegations about Mr. Schultz rather than Mr. Marton.

Indeed, earlier that month, The Globe had received an anonymous letter written in big letters on loose-leaf paper in what looked like a purposefully disguised hand: "SOULPEPPER LASZLO MARTON ALBERT SCHULTZ FIND OUT NOW! END IT." (The sender remains a mystery.)

In the wake of the allegations in the lawsuits against Mr. Schultz, Soulpepper's board is no longer saying that the policies against harassment it had on paper were enough. Last weekend, the executive committee of the board issued an incredible statement for a company that is being sued: "We understand why many artists felt that raising concerns about the safety of the Soulpepper workplace was very difficult."

On Friday morning, board chair Shawn Cooper e-mailed The Globe to say: "We have engaged and are in the process of rolling out, a confidential, independently-managed hot-line reporting service for any person who would like to raise a concern (1-855 484 2273)."

Mr. Cooper did not answer other questions sent to him since Jan. 3. "As you know, Soulpepper is currently engaged in litigation, which limits our ability to discuss some of the issues about which you have asked questions," he wrote in an email cc'd to the company's legal counsel, Linda Rothstein, of Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP.

From left, Kim’s Convenience executive producers Kevin White, Ivan Fecan, Albert Schultz and Ins Choi on Sept. 29, 2016.

Descent into disarray

When it comes to the future of Soulpepper without Mr. Schultz, it is important to note that this was being considered well before 2016 – and that, indeed, very quickly after the company was founded in 1998 its members began to plan for its life beyond all 12 of its founding members.

In 2000, the theatre company started a "Young Company" for emerging actors, similar to one that existed at the Stratford Festival where many of its members had originally met. In 2006, a new arm of Soulpepper was created called the Soulpepper Academy as the company moved into its own permanent home, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Academy is billed as "Canada's only multi-year paid professional training program for the country's brightest talent." Because of that and Soulpepper's reputation, it is extremely hard to get into – for its 2016-2018 class, there were 1,148 applications for its 17 positions.

The Academy is also one of the mechanisms that is supposed to diversify a company that was originally founded by 12 white artists and now is the largest in multicultural Toronto and bills itself as a "national civic theatre."

Back in 2016, Mr. Schultz boasted that the newest cohort of the Academy was the "most diverse" in its history – and that this was a step toward fulfilling a commitment to gender and cultural diversity that the company had articulated a year earlier. "We want to look at gender equity and diversity in several ways, not simply in who do we see on stage," the artistic director said.

The reality, however, was that the Academy shortly thereafter began to fall into serious disarray – with four of the nine actors in it parting ways with Soulpepper by the end of 2017.

Last week, a fifth Academy member – who had been brought only last summer to replace a depleting stock of young female actors – left as well. She told me she had talked to her agent about leaving the day before the lawsuits were filed.

All five Academy member who left the current cohort were either women or actors of colour (or both).

Ravi Jain poses for a portrait at a bar in Toronto on Feb. 15, 2017. Mr. Jain says he left Soulpepper after becoming frustrated by his attempts to make the company follow through on creating a more inclusive environment.

Another quiet departure early in 2017 further indicated behind-the-scenes problems with Mr. Schultz's plan for the company's future. Officially, Ravi Jain – the other associate artistic director who was to step up if Mr. Schultz was hit by a bus – left less than a year into his term because he became too involved in his own company, Why Not, to continue on – but he told The Globe that he couldn't find a place for himself at Soulpepper and became frustrated by his attempts to internally challenge Mr. Schultz and the company to fully follow through on their public claims about inclusion.

"They're not ready for the change that they're talking about," Mr. Jain told me before the lawsuits came out. On the subject of the Soulpepper Academy members who had left by that point, he said: "Those artists didn't get the support that they needed and that real investment."

Over the fall, The Globe spoke – mostly off the record – to more than a dozen past and present artists who had passed through the Academy since 2011 about what they considered a toxic environment.

And, of course, since last Saturday, sixty-four Soulpepper artists have signed a statement that acknowledges "there has been an unhealthy workplace culture for a long time" at the theatre company in general, not just the Academy.

A couple of past Academy members did agree to speak on the record about what how Mr. Schultz contributed to that "unhealthy workplace culture." For instance, Sarah Koehn – an actor who was 25 years old when she entered the Academy in the same cohort as plaintiff Hannah Miller in 2011 – e-mailed me that, while she had many great experiences at the Academy, "when Albert was in the room, things changed."

Ms. Koehn told me it was common for Mr. Schultz's to comment on people's sexuality, clothing and bodies at work. At a celebratory gathering in the green room at Soulpepper, she said she heard him say, while she had her back to him: "Those pants ought to go to jail they make her ass look so good."

"I was stunned and embarrassed, I quickly calculated the appropriate response, the path of least consequence for my career, which was to lightly and casually laugh it off so as not to draw more attention to myself," she wrote me.

Ms. Koehn also said that a few months into her time at the Soulpepper Academy, there was a celebration at a house that involved drinking – and at the end of it, Mr. Schultz offered to walk her home.

"I had my bike and didn't really need a chaperone, but I said yes to be polite," she recalled. "When we got to my back gate and I was surely home safe, he said to me, 'Aren't you going to invite me in?'"

According to Ms. Koehn, she was taken aback because it was after midnight and she lived alone. "[T]his didn't feel safe or appropriate, but wanting to stay in his good graces (as my boss and someone who could potentially make my career) I casually said that I'd give him a tour of my one bedroom apartment," she recalled. "I felt I had no choice because of who he was, but this still feels like a violation and humiliating to me when I think about it."

In a statement from his lawyer, Mr. Schultz said there was "no merit" to Ms. Koehn's allegations.

Ellie Moon, a former Academy member from 2016 to 2017 who parted ways with the company early, said that in Academy classes she both experienced and witnessed Mr. Schultz subbing in for male actors playing Romeo in scene studies with female actors playing Juliet that involved touching. (Three of the plaintiffs currently suing Mr. Schultz and Soulpepper allege that, as a director, he inserted himself into scenes to grope or kiss actresses during rehearsal.)

From left: Actors Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth (front), Hannah Miller and Patricia Fagan, attend a press conference at law firm Levitt LLP on Jan. 4, 2018. The actors spoke about their claims of sexual misconduct and harassment against Albert Schultz and the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Ms. Moon also recalls Mr. Schultz telling graphic sexual stories to the students he was teaching. She says: "I wanted to speak out because I feel like I'm able to corroborate an on-going pattern."

Via his lawyer, Mr. Schultz denied Ms. Moon's allegations: "[Mr. Schultz] did not step in for male actors. Neither did he use language inappropriate to the subject at hand."

The actor and playwright said she did try to raise concerns about the way Mr. Schultz behaved within Soulpepper but that Soulpepper staff (who she does not want to name) she approached discouraged her from doing so.

Ms. Koehn, meanwhile, said she never reported Mr. Schultz's behaviour to anyone internally "because at the time I was ashamed that it even happened in the first place. I had heard stories of similar behaviour and understood that this was to be expected."

The biggest question that continues to hang over Soulpepper is whether, as per the statements of claim of the four plaintiffs, Mr. Schultz's alleged "harassment and assault [of women] … was Soulpepper's best known secret."

In particular, the board has not yet responded to the allegation made by plaintiff Hannah Miller, who was in the Soulpepper Academy in 2011, in her statement of claim that Mr. Schultz told a "cautionary tale" to her cohort about how he had "hid in a female dressing room as a 'joke' while an actress was changing, which was reported to Soulpepper's board of directors by another Soulpepper employee who found this to be inappropriate." According to Ms. Miller's statement of claim, "Albert explained that the Board of Directors 'had to' call a hearing and review the incident. Albert explained that he simply told the Board that his behaviour had been a joke and was all in good fun. In the end, there were no repercussions for Albert's behaviour."

Ms. Koehn remembers Mr. Schultz telling the same story – and agrees with Ms. Miller's interpretation of it. "I felt that he was basically asking us all to have a laugh ridiculing the fact that this employee would complain to the board for something like that," she wrote.

In an e-mail, Peter Wardle, Mr. Schultz's lawyer, acknowledged that there was a "dressing room incident," but continued: "No one who was involved in this harmless incident complained about it. Soulpepper did conduct an internal investigation which found no basis for taking action against anyone involved."

The Globe forwarded Mr. Schultz's claim about an "internal investigation" to Soulpepper's board for comment. "As we have said in our previous statements, we did not know that Albert Schultz was alleged to have engaged in any harassment," the board replied. "No such complaints ever made their way to the Board. That includes the [dressing room] incident you describe below."

On the day the company was served with the lawsuits, the board of directors sent out a statement saying it had commenced an "immediate investigation" – but the chair has not answered any questions from The Globe about the scope of this investigation, who is conducting it, when it is expected to complete and whether it will look into the allegations about the board as well – or, for that matter, how the allegations against Mr. Marton were handled.

The Globe has learned, however, the theatre company is working with Navigator, a company that does crisis management. The board and Navigator did not respond to questions about what its role was.

Albert Schultz, far left in blue jacket, poses along with the imagiNation project donors, Kevin and Roger Garland, front left, and several artists.

The financial and artistic future of Soulpepper

The immediate impact of the allegations contained in the lawsuits against Soulpepper and Mr. Schultz is difficult to overestimate.

The company has already had to cancel its season-opening production of Amadeus (which was to be directed by Mr. Schultz), while a proposal it was secretly advancing to start producing at the city-owned St Lawrence Centre for the Arts will be scuttled. Two major productions that Mr. Schultz directed that went to New York as part of a $2.5-million residency off-Broadway last summer, Of Human Bondage and Spoon River, are now tainted goods that will likely never be staged again – whereas, two weeks ago, they were still freshly minted New York Times Critics' picks with commercial potential.

Then there's the fact that, according to its last filing with the Canadian Revenue Agency at the end of 2016, Soulpepper received just 15 per cent of its $11.5-million annual revenue from government funding; 44 per cent came from donations and gifts – and so keeping donors on board is crucial to being able to continue to operate at its current size. More lawsuits or a drip of revelations in the press will not help persuade the company's supporters to open their wallets.

Mr. Schultz, for a long time, was the face and most prominent voice of a company that involves hundreds – but his departure has led to a cacophony of voices, well beyond the original twelve, a measure of how the company's influence has grown. This week saw hundreds of Toronto artists sign an open letter supporting the plaintiffs and looking forward to the board announcing "concrete steps" to ensure a safe environment, another 50 holding a silent protest outside the theatre and hundreds more artists and supporters signing a statement released by the company itself about its determination "to emerge a stronger organization that serves as a home for art and artists in Toronto."

Martha Burns, one of the company's founding members who has not been involved with it for a decade, sent The Globe her own individual statement saying that she supported the "voices" of Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller, the women who are suing the company she helped found.

"I worked with Trish Fagan at Soulpepper," she wrote. "It pains me that I, as an older actor in the company, was not aware of how she was being treated and that I was not available to listen. I wonder if I would have had the courage to speak up."

Ms. Burns said in her e-mail that she had much to add to the discussion and was doing so through a group of women artists from every generation called Got Your Back.

"We must be forever vigilant about preventing power imbalances by making sure listening and speaking up are everyone's responsibility," she said. " Soulpepper Theatre began with a group of artists listening to each other."

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story quoted Soulpepper founding member Joseph Ziegler saying he knew the board was informed about an allegation that Albert Schultz, the company’s founding artistic director, spied on an actress changing her clothes. On Tuesday, Jan. 16, Mr. Ziegler said he could not confirm that the allegations regarding the dressing room incident were ever brought to the board’s attention and that he did not have any first-hand knowledge of this occurring. This version has been updated.
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