Tatha Swann: Soulpepper theatre’s Albert Schultz steps down amid allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault
Plaintiffs describe years of harassment and assault while working for Soulpepper’s co-founder, who has been described as a ‘serial sexual predator’ in separate civil suits seeking millions of dollars in damages, J. Kelly Nestruck writes
A founder of one of Canada’s best-known theatre companies has been forced to step down from the organization amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving multiple women over several years.
The board of directors of Soulpepper announced Wednesday it had launched an investigation against artistic director Albert Schultz after the women filed lawsuits against him and the company.
On Wednesday morning, the four actresses launched civil suits against both Soulpepper and Mr. Schultz, alleging that he had sexually harassed and assaulted them, on stage and off, in incidents that span two decades.
Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley and Hannah Miller are plaintiffs in separate suits that seek damages totalling $4.25-million from the theatre company and $3.6-million from Mr. Schultz – who is described as a “serial sexual predator” in their statements of claim.
By late afternoon, the board of directors had sent out a statement saying that it had instructed Mr. Schultz to step aside for the duration of its investigation and that Leslie Lester, the company’s executive director and Mr. Schultz’s wife, had agreed to take a voluntary leave of absence as well.
In a statement, Mr. Schultz said he would defend himself “vehemently.”
Associate artistic director Alan Dilworth had been asked to assume the role of acting artistic director at Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre, while several other employees had been asked to take on the various functions of Ms. Lester.
Mr. Schultz, who founded Soulpepper along with 11 other artists in 1998, has been one of the most prominent and admired artistic directors in the country – an Order of Canada recipient who has starred in several Canadian TV series from Street Legal to Alias Grace and whose knack for fundraising helped grow his theatre company from its initial two-production summer season into a year-round “national civic theatre.”
The actor and director has wielded enormous influence at Soulpepper, not only in his role as artistic director, but also as head of the Soulpepper Academy, the company’s paid professional training program; general director of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, the building that houses the company and George Brown Theatre School; and executive producer of the CBC-TV comedy series Kim’s Convenience, a spinoff of a popular Soulpepper play.
The actresses allege that Mr. Schultz exposed himself backstage and at a work-related function; that as a director, he inserted himself into scenes to grope or kiss actresses during rehearsal; and that as an actor, he groped actresses while they were on stage in front of audiences and had to stifle their reactions.
As of deadline, Mr. Schultz had not responded to a list of questions e-mailed to him by The Globe and Mail addressing the plaintiffs’ allegations in detail. In a statement Wednesday night, he said he was taking a “leave of absence” during the investigation. “These claims make serious allegations against me which I do not take lightly,” he said. “I intend to vehemently defend myself.”
Soulpepper board chair Shawn Cooper did not address a list of specific questions raised by the statements of claim about how the company has handled past harassment complaints and its policies and procedures surrounding workplace harassment.
Instead, in its statement, the board said that it had “recently commissioned and received a report from an independent workplace policy expert, which affirms the appropriateness of Soulpepper’s standards and processes.”
Ms. Fagan – a prominent company member at Soulpepper for 13 years – claims that during a performance of Hamlet, Mr. Schultz “came up behind her, pulled his pants down, and showed her his penis” as she prepared to make an entrance as Ophelia; in a rehearsal for another show that same season, Ms. Booth – a Gemini– and Genie-winning actress – alleges that Mr. Schultz “ran his hands all the way up her body … under the guise of ‘directing.'”
Both Ms. Fagan and Ms. Bentley, meanwhile, allege that Mr. Schultz “slapped” their buttocks on stage out of view of the audience during the exact same scene in Our Town – four years apart.
In her statement of claim, meanwhile, Ms. Miller, a Soulpepper Academy member who alleges that Mr. Schultz grabbed her and kissed her during a rehearsal under the pretense of directing a male colleague, says that the artistic director told her fellow students about a “joke” he pulled on an actress in the female dressing room while she was changing – a tale she felt had a clear message: “The board of directors would permit him to sexually harass actresses with impunity.”
“Albert is a serial sexual predator who … had well-developed methods for targeting actresses and luring them into situations that he considered optimal for sexually harassing and assaulting them,” read all the statements of claim. “These methods regularly involved Soulpepper staff and were otherwise facilitated by Soulpepper.”
The plaintiffs allege that because Soulpepper’s workplace violence and harassment policy requires cast members to report issues in writing to the executive director – a position held by Ms. Lester, Mr. Schultz’s long-time partner – they could not expect to do so “without the perception of bias and fear of reprisal.”
(Soulpepper employees can also report incidents to the director of human resources, Sarah Farrell, also the theatre company’s general counsel.)
The company produces new work, contemporary plays and classics out of its own building in Toronto’s Distillery District and recently toured a selection of work to New York to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. However, Mr. Schultz’s alleged behaviour toward young actresses may jeopardize the company he’s helped turn into the most-attended not-for-profit theatre company in Canada’s biggest city.
Two of the company’s founding members – director Ted Dykstra and actor Stuart Hughes – quickly announced that they will support the women who are suing the company they helped found.
Along with Michelle Monteith, a prominent actress with the company, Mr. Dykstra and Mr. Hughes sent a statement to The Globe.
“We wish to stand solidly behind our colleagues who have come forward with a suit against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre,” it reads. “[It] is our hope that by supporting them we are sending a message to organizations everywhere: Sexual harassment in the workplace can not be tolerated. By anyone.”
The four actresses filing suit are represented by Alexi Wood of St. Lawrence Barristers LLP and Tatha Swann of Levitt LLP. The Globe – which, for the past two months has been researching allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment at Soulpepper – spoke with three of the complainants on the eve of their legal actions.
An actress’s gradual exit
Ms. Fagan has the longest list of allegations against the artistic director and is seeking $1.25-million in damages from Mr. Schultz and another $1.4-million from the theatre company.
Just 10 days out of theatre school in 2000, the actress first joined what was then known as Soulpepper’s Young Company – a precursor to the company’s current Soulpepper Academy, in which young actors give professional paid performances to audiences, but also are treated, in rehearsals and classes, as artists in need of further training. Ms. Fagan recalls being “star-struck and in awe” during auditions by Mr. Schultz.
During rehearsals for that summer’s production of Twelfth Night directed by Mr. Schultz, however, according to her statement of claim, Ms. Fagan was subjected to sexual comments and conduct from her director, boss and teacher that made her feel “traumatized and intimidated” – but “knew that if she complained, Albert would not cast her in future Soulpepper productions.”
In one scene, for instance, Viola, played by Ms. Fagan, was to be embraced by Duke Orsino – and Mr. Schultz directed the actor opposite Ms. Fagan to come up behind her and, according to her statement of claim, “wriggle in between Patricia’s buttocks.” The director then inserted himself into the scene to demonstrate how the actor should perform the action, “pushing his penis against her buttocks.”
It is uncommon and generally frowned upon in theatre for a director to demonstrate for actors in any rehearsal situation – but that Mr. Schultz, as a director, would insert himself into scenes during rehearsals to show how an actor should touch, caress or kiss an actress is an allegation shared by two other plaintiffs, Ms. Booth and Ms. Miller.
Among Ms. Fagan’s other allegations is that Mr. Schultz exposed himself to her on two occasions. Once was during what is described in the statement of claims as a “frat house-style game that involved stripping” during a season-ending party at the artistic director’s house while his first wife and children were out of town in the summer of 2001; and the second time backstage during a production of Hamlet in 2005, in which Mr. Schultz played the title role and Ms. Fagan was playing Ophelia.
“During one performance, while Patricia was walking from her dressing room to the backstage area for her entrance, Albert came up behind her, pulled his pants down, and showed her his penis,” according to Ms. Fagan’s statement of claim. “Patricia then had to walk onstage for her entrance, feeling humiliated, ashamed, victimized and completely vulnerable to Albert’s sexual predatory behaviour.”
In her statement, Ms. Fagan further alleges sexual harassment or unwanted touching of a sexual nature during a 2003 production of She Stoops to Conquer, a 2007 production of Our Town, a 2007 production of Three Sisters and a 2012 production of The Crucible.
By the end of 2013, Ms. Fagan completed what she calls a gradual exit from the company, one that she said she executed in a stealthy way, as she feared Mr. Schultz’s reprisal. “When I turned down working for Albert, it was always simply because I couldn’t take working for him any more and all that entailed, but I never told him that,” she told The Globe.
‘That was my life in theatre’
Ms. Booth was also a member of Soulpepper’s inaugural Young Company alongside Ms. Fagan – and, at the age of 25, was cast as Olivia in the company’s 2000 production of Twelfth Night.
About one month into rehearsal, she and Ms. Fagan were in the parking lot at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, where Soulpepper performed at the time, when Mr. Schultz suggested an “acting exercise.”
The two young actresses were instructed to go through the list of male Soulpepper company members and tell Mr. Schultz who they would “fuck” – an incident that is listed in Ms. Booth’s and Ms. Fagan’s statements of claim as leaving them feeling “uncomfortable and humiliated.”
According to Ms. Booth’s statement of claim, however, “She felt … that she had no choice but to acquiesce to Albert’s demand, as he was the artistic director, her boss, she was new to the acting world and she did not want to be perceived as not committed to her acting.”
Her document continues: “As Kristin and Patricia dutifully went through the list of men, it became increasingly clear from Albert’s reaction and enticement that he expected and wanted them to say, ‘I would fuck Albert Schultz,’ and more importantly, make him believe it was true, with failure to do so meaning a lack of commitment.”
In her initial season at Soulpepper, Ms. Booth also details in her statement of claim being approached “on an almost daily basis” by Mr. Schultz who “hugged her tightly while pressing his penis into her body.” She alleges he also “began kissing [her] on the lips” as a greeting – and that on one occasion he told her that “he loved kissing her and that her lips were ‘full and soft.'”
Ms. Booth was not invited back the next season, but in 2005, she returned to play the title role in Ferenc Molnar’s Olympia – directed by Mr. Schultz – and alleges she was further subjected to sexual harassment and assault.
In a rehearsal for one scene, Ms. Booth alleges that Mr. Schultz stepped in for a male actor to demonstrate how he wanted the actor to caress Ms. Booth’s body while she lay on a chaise longue. “Albert then proceeded to demonstrate how a man should touch a woman in a ‘sexy’ way so that the audience would ‘get wet,’ and ran his hands all the way up Kristin’s body,” her statement reads. “Kristin froze, repulsed at Albert’s sexual touch, performed under the guise of ‘directing.'”
In the same season, Ms. Booth alleges that Mr. Schultz also made comments about her “milky white breasts” and asked her questions about her fiancé and their sex life – implying “that if her fiancé could not satisfy her, she could always turn to [him].”
Thereafter, according to the statement of claim, Mr. Schultz began to suggest to Ms. Booth that “they should get a hotel room together” and the actress “tried to skirt around the subject so that she did not have to say ‘no’ and anger [him]”; she alleges he then started to leave notes in her dressing room suggesting the same.
According to Ms. Booth’s statement of claim, “These unwanted advances made [her] feel embarrassed, ashamed and utterly bewildered by Mr. Schultz’s audacity.”
Ms. Booth, who has an active career in film and television, hasn’t been on a stage anywhere again since that season. “I put everything away in a little box and said: That was my life in the theatre,” she says.
‘There were no repercussions’
The allegations of Ms. Bentley – the third plaintiff – include that Mr. Schultz subjected her to unwanted touching on her buttocks while they were on stage together in a production of Our Town. Mr. Schultz was playing the lead role of the Stage Manager, who takes the audience on a metaphysical tour of the fictional small town, Grover’s Corners.
At one point in the production, his character became a minister who conducts a wedding ceremony. Ms. Bentley, who played several small roles in the production, was tasked with bringing him a coat to slip into on stage. During one performance, Ms. Bentley alleges, Mr. Schultz put his arms through the coat sleeves and then slapped her buttocks with his right hand at an angle that was not visible to the audience.
Ms. Bentley was shocked and told herself that it must have been an accident – but after Mr. Schultz allegedly repeated the action on numerous occasions during the same scene, she confronted him about it angrily backstage. “He looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ and breezed past me,” she told The Globe. “I remember standing there sick to my stomach and feeling so stupid and crazy.”
In her statement of claim, Ms. Fagan also alleges that she was slapped and groped on the buttocks by Mr. Schultz as she helped him into his minister’s coat when she played the same roles that Ms. Bentley did in Soulpepper’s earlier 2007 production of Our Town. Indeed, Ms. Bentley was wearing the same costumes as Ms. Fagan had four years before. “They all said ‘Trish Fagan’ in the label,” she told The Globe. “They had to alter it because I’m so much taller than her.”
Since her experience at Soulpepper, Ms. Bentley has started to self-produce shows – which led to her founding the Coal Mine Theatre four years ago with her partner, Ted Dykstra, whom she married one year ago. “I was so sickened by what happened and I didn’t want to go through anything like that again,” she says. “I felt the best approach was to take my career and my creativity into my own hands and be in control of the environment I was going to create in.”
Ms. Miller, the fourth plaintiff, who was in the Soulpepper Academy in 2011, alleges that Mr. Schultz told a “cautionary tale” to her cohort of Academy members about how he “hid in a female dressing room as a ‘joke’ while an actress was changing, which was reported to Soulpepper’s board of directors by another Soulpepper employee who found this to be inappropriate.”
According to her statement of claim, “Albert explained that the Board of Directors ‘had to’ call a hearing and review the incident. Albert explained that he simply told the Board that his behaviour had been a joke and was all in good fun. In the end, there were no repercussions for Albert’s behaviour.”
Ms. Miller, who did not speak to The Globe, alleges “bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and assault” in her claim, including that during a rehearsal for a 2012 production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Mr. Schultz “under the pretense of demonstrating how he wanted Hannah’s male colleague to perform the scene … stepped on stage, grabbed Hannah by the shoulders and kissed her.”
A workplace culture review
Soulpepper came under scrutiny over sexual harassment in October, when the company held a meeting with company members to publicly reveal for the first time that two years ago, it had received two complaints of sexual harassment against Laszlo Marton – a Hungarian director who was a mentor to Mr. Schultz and was a frequent guest artist at the company and taught in its Academy.
At the time, the company said in a statement that it had cut ties with Mr. Marton in early 2016 after an investigation of one of the complaints.
In a group e-mail obtained by The Globe and dated May 6, 2017, however, Mr. Schultz invited more than a dozen “artists and students that I know [Mr. Marton] was particularly fond of” to “a very fatty dinner to celebrate an extraordinary man” – an event that was videotaped to be brought to Mr. Marton in Hungary, who was ill at the time. According to a follow up e-mail, Mr. Schultz and actor Diego Matamoros, a fellow founding member of the company, brought the video to Mr. Marton and spent five days with him in Budapest.
In the wake of the meeting in October, Ms. Lester and Ms. Farrell had embarked on what they called a “workplace culture review” in an e-mail dated Dec. 12. In that same e-mail, Ms. Lester and Ms. Farrell wrote that they had hired Catherine Milne of Turnpenney Milne LLP to review the company’s policies and procedures and that the report she delivered to board chair Shawn Cooper “did not have any significant concerns with respect to our policies and procedures.” The two wrote that they were aware various news organizations were contacting artists at the company with inquiries about sexual harassment at the company but emphasized: “Please know that we are not aware of any allegations of sexual harassment at Soulpepper aside from those against Laszlo Marton two years ago – which were investigated and which resulted in the immediate termination of Mr. Marton.”