Pepper and Spice

Richard Ouzounian • Spotlight: Toronto • December 12, 2006

Many actors dream of forming their own theatre company, a few even try — hardly any of them become an integral part of a city’s cultural life and acquire their own multipurpose performance space in eight short years. But that’s exactly what happened to Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company.

It began with actor Albert Schultz and some of his colleagues who had met during their years in the late 1980s as members of the Young Company at Canada’s Stratford Festival. A decade later, they had all achieved success on TV, stage and film, but a certain spark was lacking for all of them.

“We needed something to make us feel we were alive again,” says Schultz, speaking of the motivation that drove the 12 performers who banded together to form a theatre ensemble that was named by Schultz’s pre-teen children. He chuckles as he recalls the way they said, “Dad, you’re doing this to put some pepper in your soul again.”

And they did. From their debut performance of Schiller’s Don Carlos on July 11, 1998, to the opening of the Young Centre of the Performing Arts with a staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on February 1,

2006, Soulpepper has not only been the talk of the town, but word has spread across the border as well. Of the theatre, The New York Times wrote, “One of the best reasons to stay in this city is the rethinking of classical plays by the innovative company Soulpepper.” The Chicago Tribune raved that “Great cities are known for the theatre companies they keep. In Toronto, the one that has attracted critical attention and audience enthusiasm is Soulpepper.”

It’s almost too good to be true: an actor-driven theatre that programs nothing but high-quality works, consistently fills the seats and balances the budget.

But they’ve done it. For the last three summers, their sellout shows have been Waiting for Godot, The Wild Duck and The Real Thing—not Forever Plaid or Shear Madness. “When we want to do a twohander,” jokes Schultz, “we program Ionesco’s The Chairs and not The Gin Game.”

Initially, Soulpepper operated out of the Harbourfront Complex on Toronto’s waterfront, running only in the summer months.

In 1998, they presented two plays in repertory (Don Carlos and The Misanthrope). The next year, they upped the number to five, with eclectic programming that included Beckett, Chekhov, Molnar, Wilder and Williams.

As the years progressed, they added Pinter, Shakespeare, Friel, Goldoni, Feydeau, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shepard, Goldsmith, Ionesco — the kind of repertoire most North American theatres dream of, but only get to deliver sporadically, while they cut the mix with comedies and musicals.

“Our audiences can get commercial entertainment elsewhere in Toronto,” says Schultz, “and that’s our good fortune. They come to us for the more serious stuff.”

There’s a core group of about a dozen actors who form the backbone of most productions, but guest artists like Brent Carver and Megan Follows come in for one or two productions. And while Schultz and his associates direct the lion’s share of the shows, there have been significant guest directors from abroad, such as Ireland’s Ben Barnes and Hungary’s Laszlo Marton.

It was only a matter of time before Schultz’s vision needed a home of its own. He discovered it in a historic section of old Toronto called The Distillery District that was being revitalized. With the help of his board chair, Roger Garland (former vice-chairman of Four Seasons Hotels, Inc.), he formed an alliance with the Theatre School of George Brown, the City College of Toronto.

They moved quickly, and in 2002 they hired Thomas Payne of the Toronto-based Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects to design a unique space in a series of historic buildings, dating from 1842, that would combine eight separate performance venues, ranging in size from 50 to 400 seats, as well as sufficient classroom space for the school, full technical facilities and necessary office areas for both organizations.

The budget was $14 million Canadian, and $11 million of that was raised from the two organizations in a capital campaign. Named the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, after the family that provided a major gift of $3 million, it opened earlier this year on schedule and on budget.

The building has drawn the same kind of rave reviews Soulpepper productions usually receive, with The Globe and Mail hailing it as “the vital spark that every city desires” while The Toronto Star deemed it “a masterpiece of comfort, flexibility and beauty.” With its spacious central lobby, lit by a huge fireplace, a lengthy tapas bar and wellstocked bookstore, it creates the impression of a place you belong, rather than a place you merely visit.

Soulpepper is also devoted to the process of education. From the start, they have gone into the city’s schools, teaching workshops, offering classes and making matinees available at heavily reduced prices, especially to inner city students. And even in their new home there is a $5 rush for unsold seats at curtain time for anyone 21 and under.

They also have a mentorship program for 14 teens to work with the company over an intensive six-week period each summer.

But their newest pride and joy is the Soulpepper Academy, just begun in June, 2006, which invites 10 mid-career artists for a revolutionary two-year training program, during which they are paid throughout. The final participants were chosen from 225 applicants across Canada, eager to participate in what Schultz describes as “a unique combination of studio training, academic study and applied knowledge-apprenticeship training with the Soulpepper main stage company.”

They will be an integral part of Soulpepper’s next season, which runs from January through December 2007 and includes The Threepenny Opera, John Gabriel Borkman, Top Girls, The Time of Your Life, The Three Sisters, Mary Stuart and Blithe Spirit — as well as a revival of their acclaimed production of Our Town.

“It’s an exciting time for us,”affirms Schultz before breaking into a laugh. “But it’s always been an exciting time for us. I think that’s our secret.”

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!