Soulpepper Theatre’s new leaders, Weyni Mengesha and Emma Stenning, are drawing the curtain on a difficult past
|Toronto Star 19 Jan 2019 at 10:10|
Four more productions will open on Soulpepper’s stages between now and March.
Weyni Mengesha, a member of Ross’s and Wilson’s academy cohort and a celebrated director, took up her post as Soulpepper’s artistic director at the beginning of the year, joining Emma Stenning , an experienced arts professional from England who became executive director last November.
After mid-season budget adjustments and with the help of a transitional fund spearheaded by its board of directors, the company ended 2018 without a deficit.
These are all indicators of a healthy arts organization building on its strengths and facing a promising future.
That Soulpepper enters 2019 in a positive place is remarkable, given how profoundly the organization was rocked at this time last year.
Multiple accusations of sexual harassment against founding artistic director Albert Schultz led to his resignation last January, and Soulpepper subsequently severed its relationship with Leslie Lester, its executive director and Schultz’s wife.
Albert Schultz, Leslie Lester re-emerge behind the scenes of Port Hope theatre
In conversation, Stenning and Mengesha often euphemistically refer to this tumultuous period as the “challenges” of last year.
Challenges that they argue are part of the organization’s past.
In the wake of them, Stenning says, “I think we’ve become an example of best practice. And we represent a fresh start for the company. You can come in and really walk the talk, and make sure that we continue.”
While the lawsuits brought against Schultz were settled out of court, it is widely acknowledged there were significant concerns about power imbalances at Soulpepper and the capacity of those within the organization to speak critically of it or those in charge.
On Jan. 6 last year, Mengesha herself signed a letter along with more than 70 other Soulpepper artists attesting that there had been “an unhealthy workplace culture for a long time” at the organization.
All of this raises many questions about the relationship of Soulpepper’s past to its present and future.
It has the same name. And many board members, administrative staff and creative and technical personnel stayed with the theatre through the crisis and remain there today.
What is the Soulpepper that Mengesha and Stenning are looking to build?
When this was put to them, the clear message that came through was a desire to balance change with continuity and to build on positive processes that were already underway.
They underline that recovery and transition began after Schultz’s and Lester’s departure under acting artistic director Alan Dilworth, supported by the board and staff.
“It’s not just us,” says Stenning.
“Everyone is ready to take Soulpepper to the next generation, for the next chapter of it. So for me it’s not a painful process, it’s one about release and empowerment.”
As Stenning describes it, a significant part of her work so far has been decentralizing systems and building confidence among colleagues:
“I really believe in sort of delegated authority through the organization and quite often people (are) coming into my office going, ‘You need to sign off on this,’ and I’m like, ‘Well actually no, go on, you can do that’ …
“For me, it’s been a really positive time for the organization just to say … you have the confidence to do this, you have the ability to do this, you are the change for this organization.”
“I think it’s a testament to people’s commitment … how many people stayed,” adds Mengesha.
“That it’s clear what was not going to be tolerated anymore. Major actions were taken and people stayed, and they worked, and it was not easy for them to stay. They worked extra hard, an incredible amount of hours, way above and beyond their job.”
In October, Soulpepper introduced a code of conduct (publicly available on its website) and Stenning stresses it was “the result of a really inclusive, reflective period of work with the whole staff team feeding in.”
It tells “the staff that everyone’s voice is heard and there are numerous avenues for people to speak.”
A confidential whistleblower hotline is now open to feed concerns to a human resources committee of the board and a log of incidents is now in place to track patterns.
The code of conduct is now officially part of how rehearsal periods begin, ensuring that new or visiting artists are properly briefed.
This culture change is ongoing, says Stenning: “We’re a learning, collaborative organization and we’ve got to keep the conversation alive so that it keeps us up to date.”
That conversation turns outward on the evening of Feb. 4, when Mengesha and Stenning host the company’s first “Creative Community Gathering” at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
Toronto artists and arts workers are invited to meet the new leadership team. There’ll be food, drinks and performances from several Soulpepper artists.
“The big thing for me is access points. It’s not one person you have to get in front of to be thought of artistically,” says Mengesha.
“So right away, we’re having a community gathering. And at that community gathering there are some creative ways that we’re asking people to help us dream about what you see at Soulpepper.”
In many ways, Stenning and Mengesha are in reconnaissance mode: Seeing productions across the city, gathering feedback from administrative and artistic staff as they craft a five-year strategic plan and, not insignificantly, reviewing transcripts of interviews with former participants in the Soulpepper Academy, which is currently on hiatus .
As a graduate herself, ensuring that future cohorts of the academy — Canada’s only multi-year, paid training program for young artists and producers — are protected from the power imbalances of previous years is a priority for Mengesha, especially as Soulpepper continues to increase the diversity of its programming.
“We have to completely break it open and reassemble it,” she says.
“As a person of colour who has gone through theatre school, I know it’s a place where people can get broken …
“One of the things I keep thinking about is that, especially in a time when there’s so much change, an institution providing education to a new generation of artists has to think not just about how we are teaching them, but how they are teaching us. That relationship has to be valued.”
Right now, the word “Soulpepper” is connected to a darker period — one that will be hard to shake from the mainstream consciousness, even with new leaders at the helm.
Stenning says she recognizes what’s at stake in the current moment.
“With Brexit and with (U.S. President Donald) Trump, we see the traditional forms of leadership, in my opinion, failing us.
“And who do I personally want to look to for leadership? I want to look to artists.
“I think a lot of people feel that way about artists.
“And I think our job as cultural leaders is to empower that conversation, to say ‘Let’s elevate artists’ leadership at this time when we need people to articulate a future that we can all get behind.’