Soulpepper in the Big Apple

On July 9th, I attended a performance of the fabulous play Kim’s Convenience Store (review in separate article), which is part of a month-long theatre festival by the Canadian theatre company Soulpepper  at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street.  Afterwards, a few audience members had an informal, free-ranging discussion with Albert Schultz, Artistic Director and one of the company founders.  Below is an excerpt.

How did you decide to come to New York?

Albert:    I had the idea since 2014, so we’ve been planning for a long time.  This is the first month of our twentieth year.  Because our 20th anniversary lined up with the 150th of the country, it seemed a kind of poetic confluence.  This is the largest collection of Canadian artists outside of  Canadian soil – we got a lot of support from back home; …then Come From Away the musical from Canada comes … And everyone was talking about that in May and June, and through the award season, and we ended up riding on the Canadian coat tails of that. 

Irene Sankoff, Robert McQueen, David Hein, Albert Schultz (l-r) in the Signature Theatre

At this point  Irene Sankoff and David Hein, writers of Come From Away, and Canadian theatre director Robert McQueen, who were coincidentally in the theatre, stopped by to chat with Albert for a few minutes. (Editor’s note:  you can find my review of Come From Away here)

Why didn’t Soulpepper come to New York earlier?

Albert:  We’re a repertory company. So if you saw Of Human Bondage, and then you saw Spoon River in the space of one day, you’d see twelve members of the company who are doing this beautiful, deeply dramatic play, [then later they] would then be acting sort of silly, playing trombones and trumpets and all sorts of stuff; our company is all diverse in what they can do.  That’s the kind of company we develop, so if we need a band, they’re in the company.  Because of that, our work at home is very interwoven. 

Of Human Bondage is a 4-year old production, Spoon River is a 4-year old production, Kim’s Convenience is a 5-year old production, we toured it all over,  everywhere else, but we couldn’t get things out because everyone’s in another show at home.  The Kim’s Convenience run is only two weeks long because we’ve made a national television series out of that play – it’s a huge hit and it got picked up last year on our national broadcast, the CBC.  We produced it, so Soulpepper was able to keep quality control;  the playwright is the head writer and producer with us. It’s been a huge artistic and commercial success at home, and hopefully will be here, but it means that the actors are busy shooting all the time, so we had to put the series on hiatus, but we couldn’t do more than two weeks because you’d loose the crew, that’s why that run is short.  It’s a very complex organization in that way, any individual artist is involved in so many things.  What we had to do was to plan to bring not a show – we had to bring the company to New York.  We have 65 artists here and 10 support staff.  It was a major military operation. 

We found this space, which is grander than our space – we have a central lobby which is about 70% the size of this body;  but outside of this it is very similar, we have little portals just like this, we have four spaces off of ours, so when we walked in here we went, “This is just like home.”  This is the only place we could bring our company because we needed several spaces, we needed public space where we could do conversations like this because that’s what we do at home.  Last night we had 60 youth from a program called Epic Theatre Ensemble, out of Harlem [and we also] set up partnerships with the 52nd Street Partnership. Because we do youth programs at home, we wanted to do one here. 

Tell us about Soulpepper…

Soulpepper came out of the gates in 1998.  There were twelve artists who founded the company, myself and eleven others – five of those 12 are here.  Twenty years later, 9 or 10 of them are still actively involved in the company.  In our first season we had a massive splash.  Everything came together right.  We’ve grown the company exponentially, so we’re now by far the largest employer of theatre artists in Toronto, which is our main city.   

And [Soulpepper] has been very progressive in the way we’ve welcomed new audiences and new voices, Kim’s Convenience being an example of that.

We started a school 10 years ago, the Soulpepper Academy.  We train directors,  playwrights, designers,  performers and now producers.  Our very first class had 10 artists.  We took in one director, Weyni Mengesha, who’s an Ethiopian-Canadian.  Lorenzo Savoini was the designer in that Academy – he did the lights for [Kim’s Convenience], Weyni directed that show.  Our second class had Ins Choi, who wrote the play and is in the play, and Ken Mackenzie who designed the set and costumes.  Of Human Bondage was designed by an Academy grad; Spoon River is composed by an Academy grad, and designed by an Academy grad…

How did you find this theatre – did you know people here?

Albert:  We hired a general manager to help us with all the New York connections: how do we get a production team?  who do we use as a press agent?  marketing?  This is all very new to us so we hired someone based here, and she took us on a tour of four spaces, and she very craftily had this one be the last.  We walked up the stairs here, and Leslie, my life partner and Executive Director walked in and said, “I want the whole building.”  That was the first thing she said.

Well you have three things going at once here…

Albert:  We have a show happening in the [Irene Diamond stage], we have a show that just came down in the  [Alice Griffin Theatre], we have a show going in the [Alice Griffin Theatre] at 8:00pm, we’ll have a cabaret happening in this space [Signature Cafe & Bar].  Some days we’ll have 4 spaces running, we have the fourth theatre behind us where we have 3 shows in rep – so we have 12 productions here, plus a different cabaret every single night.

Tell us about the cabaret…

Albert:  The cabaret is from our company – there’s so much musical talent – sometimes it’s poetry, but mostly it’s music  of all styles.  We have in the company for example, Jackie Richardson, and Jackie is someone who could exist only in a country like Canada.  Because we don’t have a real star system in Canada, there are a handful of people in our country who attain a level of dominant excellence, so Jackie Richardson is the best gospel singer in the country, the best jazz singer in the country, the best blues singer in the country, the best reggae singer in the country.  She’s 70 years old – because she’s been doing it for 55 years, she’s the first call for every gig.  On opening night here – we had 500 people in this lobby, and all I did was get up and thank people, then introduce Jackie [who sang] Bridge Over Troubled Water, and she ripped the roof off this place. She sings it in our New York Melting Pot program, which we’re doing the 21st and 22nd.  She will be appearing in the cabarets next week, and in fact, at the end of next week, there’s a concert called First Ladies with Alana Bridgewater – she’s in her 40’s, she’s the next generation; Sophie Milman, an extraordinary jazz singer and leader in her generation – she’s in her 40’s – between them and Jackie is Mollie Johnson, who’s around 60 and a legend in Canada.  We have maybe the best jazz musicians in Canada who are coming here to be the band to support those four ladies.  You can’t go wrong seeing it – it’s the 14th and 15th.  And then the Friday and Saturday matinee of the following week we have a show called The Melting Pot which I host and wrote, with several singers.  My thesis at the top is that three refugee cultures, the Jews, the Irish, the African-Americans, all refugee cultures – and I wrote this before Trump –  those three cultures in one neighborhood on the Lower East Side created the soundtrack of the 20th Century, whether it be Broadway, or music from the Brill Building, so much of it came from those cultures listening to each other and learning from each other.  That’s on the 21st and 22nd. 

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who played the father [in Kim’s Convenience] was wonderful, I thought.

Albert:  Wasn’t he!  And he’s done almost exclusively this since 2012.  He’s done over 600 performances of the play.

And he still manages to keep it fresh.

Albert:  And he keeps it completely fresh.

Jean who plays the mother, was a pioneer in the Asian Toronto theatre scene at a time when there were no Asians on the stages.  Immigrant parents didn’t arrive here saying [to their children], “Now make yourself an actor and a playwright,” – it’s only right now in this generation that immigrant families are allowing their children to even think about the arts.  And why this play has been so huge – and the series is even bigger – is [because] for the first time ever, Canadians, particularly immigrant Canadians, are watching a national broadcast television series in their living rooms and saying “I can be that girl.”

And I can see it happening in front of my face in Canada.  Our production of Kim’s Convenience has been on the stages of the nation since 2012 and now the series … When we cast the series after five years of doing the play, it was a different thing than when we cast the play five years before.  We had choices to make in every single part, which five years before we didn’t have. So it’s happening at home and it’s exciting, and I hope it’s gonna happen more.

Will you come back?

Albert :  The challenge with coming back, and its a huge challenge – it’s big, it’s expensive and it’s complicated.  But, a week in, both critically and in terms of audience and feedback it’s been an unmitigated success.  And we did not know that – you go and you have no idea what it’s going to be.  So that’s already shifted my brain – I’m sure that everyone back home is saying “Oh dear, it’s going well,”  because I’m now actually thinking we should do this semi-regularly, maybe every two to three years we should do something like this. 

Soulpepper  will be at the Signature Theatre  through July 29th.  You can find the complete schedule on Soulpepper’s calendar.

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