A Maple Leaf In The Big Apple

by Howard Sherman
in Feature
Soulpepper's Oliver Dennis and Gregory Prest in Of Human Bondage
Soulpepper's Oliver Dennis and Gregory Prest in Of Human Bondage

Canada’s Soulpepper Theatre Company Summers in NYC

"The more that we’ve been here every day, the more the Canadian flag is important to me as a Canadian, but is less important to the theatergoers. I think that’s interesting, in a good way. It’s subtle, but actually it’s about excellence.”

Those are the words of Albert Schultz, artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, late into the second week of the company’s four-week residency at New York’s Signature Theatre Company. Taking all three of Signature’s performance spaces for July, in addition to using the lobby stage for post-show cabarets, as well the lobby itself as a daytime office, Soulpepper brought dozens of artists, technicians, and administrators, as well as seven trucks with costumes, props, musical instruments and scenery, to New York to introduce the company’s work to America in its 20th season, as well as to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

Schultz says that the idea of visiting New York began to emerge in 2014, when he first asked the company’s communications director to research space in Manhattan. “Seriously though,” he admits, “I would say it was probably two-years ago. And shortly after it became a serious thing, the board accepting the notion of it, we came down on an exploratory trip. The minute we walked into this place,” Schultz continued, “we went ‘This is it.’ It feels so much like our home.” 

Leslie Lester, the company’s executive director, responding to the same question about the origin of the residency, said, “I think we always imagined doing something internationally. As things happen around our place at home, there’s so many ideas.”

“The idea of bringing the company [versus a single show],” Lester explained, “came a little bit after we started investigating what a tour might look like. We know that the impact of the company and the rep and all of the other ancillary things that we do surrounding the company has had such a grand impact at home, that it’s really what we wanted to show off. And when I say, show off, I mean demonstrate how we actually work and breathe as a company.” 

The full New York residency by Soulpepper included three core productions—Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, Of Human Bondage, adapted by Vern Thiessen, and Spoon River, musicalized by Schultz and Mike Ross—along with ensemble created productions, shows from other Toronto companies, and musical evenings along with the cabarets.

Making the Numbers Work

While the overall undertaking cost roughly $2.5 million, Schultz is quick to note that, “We’re a $12 million a year organization. Essentially, another way of looking at it is, we’re taking 20% of annual net and pushing it into a single month. In order to do that, we went out and did incremental fundraising to mitigate the risk on that. Yes, it’s $2.5 million bucks, but that’s a chunk of what we do this year—our big project. Every year we do a big project.”

“To further clarify,” Lester adds, “most of the artists that are with us in New York would have been on payroll in Toronto. Meaning that we would have had a summer program with all of the artists that we have in New York in Toronto, except that we brought them here.”

Schultz notes, “It’s probably a $1 million incremental spend. We had raised over $1 million before we arrived here, from people who will only give us this. Either through government or individuals, we were able to achieve that.”

While Schultz and Lester both made clear that box office was not going to cover all of their costs, Schultz confessed, “It was nerve wracking coming in from having sold only 10% of seats after six months when we were three weeks out, not because we would be at financial risk, although it wouldn’t be great, but because we didn’t want our artists playing to empty houses. Luckily, we’ve had extremely good houses thus far, and are hoping that continues.”

After two-years of solid planning, it’s inevitable for one to wonder what might have caught the company by surprise as the plans came to fruition. “For me,” said Lester, “on a subtle level, the surprise has been a lot of these things are actually happening. We were planning on connecting with New Yorkers or a New York audience and a New York theater audience, and we were hoping for the best. It’s actually happening now. And we’re receiving an audience like we would if we were at home, but it’s almost better actually. Because New Yorkers are so vocal, right? You hear exactly what they’re thinking when they come out of the theater. You don’t have to guess. They’ll tell you or they’ll just start talking as soon as they leave the theater. ‘Oh my God this was fantastic.’ Or, ‘I’m going to call my friends,’ or whatever. And that reception for me is something I’d hoped for, but it’s been a surprise. It’s actually been overwhelmingly delicious.”

Schultz followed on that, saying, “I would say that all of us that are here would have that same answer. Nobody actually, and this is the nature of us as Canadians, we always, even the most bullish of us have an inferiority complex at the best of times. And I think you grow up thinking of the ultimate proving ground is this city. You come and you think you’ll try it. We’ve had 40 reviews thus far, 40 reviews. And two of them were, “Nah.” And 38 of them are over-the-top and away.”

“We don’t get that kind of onslaught at home,” Shultz continues. “People don’t write reviews as long as the reviews that are here, as thoughtful as the reviews that are here, as copious. And as Leslie said, the comments from theater-makers and theatergoers that we’re getting, are overwhelmingly positive. And I think we thought that it would be tougher. And I’m sure there’s still some tough times to go, there’s shows still to open, but it’s been a pretty great time.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see production images and at the end of this article see some video clips:

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Taking A Bit of NY Back Home

With the reception for the company’s productions having been strong both critically and at the box office, it raises the question of what the impact will be on Soulpepper once it returns to its home base. “I have a very active relationship with my audience at home,” said Schultz, “but one thing that has been really interesting for us, and has made me think that we have to do something, is having this every night after the show performance and social time. It would be exhausting to do 300 days a year—360. I couldn’t do it, but I could do it a night every week and have a different resident artist do a night.”

“We came here thinking we want to animate this place like we do at home,” says Shultz. “The response to New York to us animating this space and how open people have been to talk to us and excited to engage in conversations and stay here late into the night is actually meaning that we’re going to go back and say, ‘We have to animate Toronto like we have animated New York’, if that makes sense. We’re in the process of actually imagining a new home. I’ve been thinking a lot because I’m in the process of developing that program—I’m thinking up, ‘How do we have this kind of big public space where this kind of thing is possible?’”

“I’m thinking about all of that,” said Lester, responding as well to what the company might bring back to Toronto, “because that’s who and where our audience comes from, those are where are colleagues come from. So, when we deposit ourselves here and understood who we are, I think to further give us a strong identity, is interesting. When we talk about doing new things and innovating things at home and how we’ve done things here, I think it’s going to be very interesting how that crosses the border again. What the suitcase is going to be filled with.”

Schultz has previously been quoted as saying that Soulpepper does something really big once every five years. But the New York experience seems to have affected that timeline. “I would say that five-year timeline has shrunk significantly in two weeks,” said Schultz. “Already I can’t turn it off. My programming brain has already done several versions.”

“Right now, we’re fielding possibilities,” Lester said. “Knowing that some things are possible, whether it’s a return engagement or whether we do something that’s more regional or whether we think about licensing something at this point. Part of that is a discussion that we’re going to start having now. We feel confident that the name Soulpepper is going to resonate the next time we come back. It’s a matter of what we want to do. We’ve gone from this festival, it’s like the backer’s audition, but it has demonstrated a lot of things that are potential. This is what the Tapas menu looks like. I think we want to be more strategic now with what’s next because I think format isn’t necessarily the way to go if we’re really going to get deeper into the marketplace.”  

Also read Howard Sherman's online article speaking with Lorenzo Savoini, the Young Family Director of Design and a Resident Artist at Soulpepper about his thoughts on their NYC residency:  Thoughts on an Out of Town Residency

If you didn't get to see Soulpepper's work in NYC here are a few video glimpses into what they presented: