BWW Interviews: Albert Schultz talks Soulpepper's Secret to Success
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by Kelly Cameron
Soulpepper Theatre Company is one of the most successful theatre companies in Canada, and growing every day. What began as a group of twelve actors who wanted to tell classical theatre stories has grown into one of the largest theatre companies in Toronto and one of the most well respected in the country. They've enjoyed many sold-out productions in the last few years, and have been responsible for the growth and development of new Canadian works, including the smash hit Kim's Convenience, which has arguably been the most talked-about Canadian play of the last twelve months.
Working out of the Young Centre in Toronto’s gorgeous Distillery District, the company’s offices are housed in the same building as their theatres. They also boast an impressive residency program for up and coming artists in the country – The Soulpepper Academy. Some of the country’s best and brightest talents have graced their stages, and as they embark on their fifteenth season they seem poised to only continue their upward momentum.
Founding Artistic Director Albert Schultz first delved into theatre while training at York University, and then was part of the Stratford Festival Young Company under Robin Phillips. After a few years on television (including the hit Canadian drama Street Legal) and some film work, Albert established Soulpepper with a group eleven other artists and continues to head the company today. He also serves as the General Director of the Young Centre and leads the Soulpepper Academy. BWW sat down to speak with Albert about his feelings on Toronto’s theatre scene, the development of new Canadian work and Soulpepper’s recipe for success:
First off, congratulations on Soulpepper’s 2012 Season! Your programming is pretty heavy on plays, is there a reason for the lack of musicals?
We do a musical maybe every two years. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, our stages are very intimate compared to some of the other festivals so the economy of doing a musical is harder here. Also we have several people in the company who can sing and play instruments - but the company is better prepared for plays as opposed to musicals. That’s been our bread and butter. I do hope that next year there will be a musical in the mix, but we also need to make sure we find the right one for the right people.
In addition we’re a very specific company and we grow and are very porous, but what we don’t do is bring in a group of people just for the sake of doing a musical. We will find one that works for us though, and I hope it’ll be in time for next season. I love musicals!
Richard Ouzounian once told me that he felt ‘Soulpepper was the most consistently successful Toronto theatre.’ Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Well if Richard says it I won’t disagree! Certainly I think that we’ve had a pretty good run and are blessed to be in our fifteenth season and have grown exponentially. We’ve built the largest company outside of Stratford and Shaw in the country and are the biggest employer of theatre artists in this city. That’s a good sign and a very important one. So I think I would stand by that. I’m certainly proud that he thinks that about us and I hope it’s true!
What’s the number one thing that you’re doing that keeps bringing audiences back?
We have an advantage over anyone else in the city and that’s the same advantage that Shaw and Stratford have in that we only do great plays. Classical companies are companies that do revivals and are working with material that’s already proven. The odds just become better because the work is already known and hopefully loved. The foundation is great because it has withstood the test of time. The fact that we program great plays is key to our success.
The other thing is that we have a company who have developed a wonderful shorthand so our work just gets richer and richer as we grow and understand each other better. We have a very strong ensemble of artists and at the end of the day the quality comes from the fact that we’re starting with good work and working with great people. I love to use the stew analogy: “If you want to make a really rich stew you have to start with good ingredients and you have to cook it for a very long time.” That’s what we do. We spend more time rehearsing that anyone else in the country. That must have an effect on things at the end of the day.
Because you’re a classical company and focusing mainly on revivals, you don’t often get to do brand new work. Does the director in you ever get the urge to change an existing piece just for the sake of experimenting? Take something tried and true and do something wild with it like set it in outer space?
Not quite! But I do love new work and we get to do it sometimes - we aren’t exclusively revivals. For example, we had Kim’s Convenience this year which has been a huge success for us and we’ve already commissioned another new work from Ins Choi. We’ve opened the door to new work by establishing ourselves as the company that we are. I love the new stuff as much as the old stuff! I had a great time working on both the (re)Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song and Civil Elegies. Those were pieces based on existing source material that we turned into musical theatre and I think they worked really well. I will continue to look for those kinds of vehicles to take great work and give it an entirely new look.
Speaking of Kim’s Convenience and Ins Choi, why do you think he chose Soulpepper to produce the remount of his show?
I think it was because we’re family. I’ve heard him say this so I know I’m not just making it up. He’s been a part of the family here for the last three years and so, in a way, Kim’s developed here. He wrote it when he was coming through our Academy, which is the only paid two-year residency in the country. In that sense, he was able to write this piece of work with the security that being in the Academy provides, and then it was directed by one of our members as well. The production came about because of his membership in this community so I think at the end of the day this is where he felt like it should be. And it’s coming back! I don’t see that play going anywhere for a long time – may it run forever!
There’s been a lot of criticism lately that Toronto isn’t the theatre town it used to be or that we don’t have what it takes to mount large sit-down productions. Do you agree with that?
I think it’s a bit of a misconception and I’m not sure where it’s coming from to be honest. The only thing I could really say is missing right now is the kind of large machine that could build a Ragtime or a Kiss of the Spiderwoman. There was a time when we were building the kinds of large shows here that would go on to tour and go to Broadway. It created a huge musical theatre industry in this city that no longer exists. The problem was – it wasn’t real. It was an artificially inflated reality and wasn’t terribly healthy. At the end of the day a lot of people were left with their pockets empty. It’s sad because we aren’t creating big works like that but is it too bad that the bubble is gone? Not necessarily.
What we do have and what’s exciting is what is going on in the smaller places and I’m thrilled that Soulpepper can be a part of that. In the last decade we’ve gone from a group of twelve actors to a large and well respected company and that’s amazing. There’s been nothing like that in the city’s history and it is all real exponential growth. Heavily audited exponential growth. It hasn’t received much government funding either so a lot of our growth has been a result of entrepreneurial efforts.
Toronto also has great productions coming out of our other theatres like Passe Muraille, Factory and Tarragon. What we often forget is that we have fantastic research and development happening in Toronto through things such as the Rhubarb Festival, Summerworks and The Fringe. There’s a lot of exciting stuff and a lot to be proud of.
The biggest loss in my opinion is not shows like the Ragtimes, but rather the lack of exposure we are getting to what is going on around the world. There was a time when we saw the best of what great theatre companies in the world were doing and I think that’s what our community is really missing. If I was the culture czar and had unlimited resources and an unlimited budget that is what I would bring in: A major theatre festival that would showcase the best boundary-pushing work from all over the world so our young artists could be exposed to that and not get too comfortable.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle keeping young people out of the theatre?
That’s a tough one. The obvious response is that there’s just too much going on. They have too much ready access in the palms of their hands to stimulate them from everywhere. That’s a big one that we’re all trying to contend with. However I don’t think that alone is a good enough excuse. I think those of us that make theatre have to be cooler. We have to be more fun, adventurous, risky, gutsy and sexy. We have a pretty staid approach to our work in this part of the world compared to what you might see elsewhere and we’ve got to shake that up. I think we’re too reliant on a tradition that served us well for a period of time - a narrative-based classical tradition that centres on the pillars of Elizabethan and Edwardian theatre. We need to liberate ourselves from that in order to get the young ones out. Young people have been thrilled by Hamlet for as long as Hamlet has been around – but they don’t want a dusty Hamlet!
They want Mel Gibson right?
If you could bring back one show from Soulpepper’s past and revive it exactly as it was, what would you pick?
This will seem slightly strange but I would probably bring back Waiting for Godot just to see William Hutt act again. He died shortly after doing it and his performance in it was so extraordinary. In my opinion he was the greatest actor this continent has produced in the last fifty years. He was the master and a beautiful man and I would love to see him on stage again. Other than that I would probably say the production of Platonov that we did in 1999. I remember we all thought that there was a big rush to do it before we got any older, and looking back it’s funny that we thought we were old then. Now we’re ancient! That show had a huge impact on a whole generation of artists in the city and I would love for them to see it again. But we’re all too old now. Do you have a time machine?
Back to your culture czar comment – if you did have unlimited resources and practicality wasn’t a concern, what one show would you want to produce at Soulpepper?
I will give you an answer you’ll like! Guys and Dolls! A full-on production of what I think is probably the best musical ever. That would be a lot of fun.
When and Where?
Soulpepper’s 2012 Season is on now at the Young Centre for the Arts
For more information please visit their official website at www.soulpepper.ca