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Schultz allegations likely to sink Soulpepper’s potential move to St. Lawrence Centre

The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, home of Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Just weeks before sexual harassment allegations forced Soulpepper Theatre Company artistic director Albert Schultz out of his job, the board that oversees Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts was mulling a confidential proposal that could have seen Soulpepper move into the aging city-owned facility and help raise funds for its much-needed renovations.

A spokesman for Mayor John Tory confirmed the talks and that he had met with Mr. Schultz and other Soulpepper representatives last year to discuss it.

But sources familiar with the proposal, described as an unsolicited overture, say it is unlikely to go ahead now, with Mr. Schultz stepping down last week after civil lawsuits filed by four actresses described him as a "serial sexual predator." Mr. Schultz has pledged to defend himself "vehemently" against the allegations, which have not been proven in court.

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City Councillor Mary Fragedakis, who sits on the board of directors of Civic Theatres Toronto – which oversees the St. Lawrence Centre, the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts next door and the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York, all owned by the city – would not comment on any confidential proposal or the board's recent closed-door deliberations.

But she said she would not support any proposal involving Soulpepper, given the allegations.

"At this point, I would say no," Ms. Fragedakis said. "Everybody deserves a fair trial. They are allegations at this point. But they are very disturbing."

The expected collapse of the proposal is another ripple effect from the allegations against Mr. Schultz, which have also prompted departure of the troupe's executive director, his wife Leslie Lester, the cancellation of its season-opening show and an open letter calling on the company's board to ensure a safe workplace.

During a closed-door debate at a Nov. 30 meeting – a month before the allegations surfaced – the board of Civic Theatres Toronto, made up of councillors and appointees drawn from business and the arts, approved a set of evaluation criteria drawn up to assess solicited and unsolicited bids by potential partners for the revitalization of the St. Lawrence Centre.

The public documents released before the meeting do not mention Soulpepper, but do refer to a confidential attachment. According to the minutes, City Councillor Gary Crawford, who sits on the board and helped spearhead a 2015 task force on the future of the city's troubled theatres, declared an interest in the matter because "his daughter has part-time employment with a prospective proponent."

According to the website of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper's current home, his daughter is listed as a patron services representative. Mr. Crawford declined to comment through a spokeswoman on Thursday. The board is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 25, convening for the first time after the allegations against Mr. Schultz were made public.

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It is no secret that the St. Lawrence Centre, built as a Canadian Centennial project and completed in 1970, is in need of renovations and revitalization. Its current main tenant, Canadian Stage, has focused on more avant-garde productions and seen lower attendance, meaning it has become increasingly unable to fill the nearly 900-seat Bluma Appel Theatre.

Sherrie Johnson, the interim managing director of CanStage, said in an e-mail that her company was aware of conversations between Soulpepper and Civic Theatres Toronto, and had been asked to participate in the plan.

In recent years, Soulpepper, whose current smaller theatre is in the Distillery District, has mounted successful shows at the St. Lawrence Centre.

According to staff reports submitted to its board, the centre has a leaky roof and needs major upgrades to become compliant with accessibility legislation, with a bill that could be $10-million to $25-million.

Previous revitalization proposals, including bringing in a university as a partner or allowing an 11-storey condo tower on the site to defray the cost of renewing the facility have either fallen apart or failed to meet with city approval.

Two other city councillors who sit on the Civic Theatres Toronto board, John Filion and Paula Fletcher, declined to comment.

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A spokeswoman for Soulpepper could not be reached. However, the company did put out a statement on Thursday committing to carrying on and to addressing the challenges it faces.

"Soulpepper Theatre Company is determined to emerge a stronger organization that serves as a home for art and artists in Toronto," the statement reads.

Clyde Wagner, the president and chief executive officer of Civic Theatres Toronto, confirmed that the board had received a "confidential proposal" and approved a set of criteria for evaluating such proposals.

He would not say whether the bid was from Soulpepper. But he said regardless, the process of sorting out how to renovate and revitalize the St. Lawrence Centre could take years.

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