Theatre

No flash in the pan

Soulpepper’s second season matches its debut

John Bemrose August 16 1999
Theatre

No flash in the pan

Soulpepper’s second season matches its debut

John Bemrose August 16 1999

No flash in the pan

Soulpepper’s second season matches its debut

Theatre

The downtown offices of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company hardly inspire confidence. The carpet on the entrance stairs is patched with electrician’s tape, and the furniture in the labyrinth of dingy rooms looks salvaged from some defunct community hall. Yet this is the home of the most exciting producer of classical theatre in the country. Last year, the actor-run enterprise launched its initial eight-week summer season at the 400-seat du Maurier Theatre Centre with productions of Molières comedy The Misanthrope and a little-performed tragedy by Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos. Both were runaway critical and popular hits. The little theatre company ended the year with an astonishing $200,000 surplus—and a world of expectations on its young shoulders. Was it a flash in the pan, or would it become a permanent star in the theatrical firmament?

With its second season half-over, it looks very much as though Soulpepper is here to stay. In May, it mounted a limpid and moving version of Thornton Wilder’s classic play of small-town life, Our Town. And it is currendy running fine productions of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (which will transfer to Montreal on Nov. 9), Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s comedy The Elays the Thing (which will go to Ottawa on Oct. 28). And on Sept. 7, the company will launch the first-ever Canadian production of Chekov’s little-performed play, Platonov. The reviews of the current shows have been excellent. And Soulpepper’s artistic director, Albert Schultz, says the box office is doing so well that “as of the beginning of August, the whole season— all $1.25 million worth of it—is paid for. From now on, we’re accumulating a surplus towards next year.”

Schultz himself has been a major factor in this success. The broad-shouldered,

36-year-old actor has personally drummed up major support from corporate sponsors, as well as casting and producing all of this year’s shows. And he will play the title role in Platonov. But he says he is more exhilarated than exhausted. Sitting in Soulpepper’s dilapidated rehearsal hall, he enthuses about the less-wellknown side of Soulpepper’s program: the attempt to involve young people in theatre by offering them training programs and free tickets. He says he and the other actors who founded Soulpepper “want to give young people the chance that we all had at one point, to get involved in something that was life-changing and life-affirming.”

Not long afterwards, a young actor sticks her head in the door and asks Schultz if she can leave a résumé with him. Her face shines with hope and enthusiasm. Schultz directs her down the hall. “We get 500 applications for acting jobs every year,” he says, “and we can only audition a hundred of them. The hardest part of this job is turning people away.” Success, it seems, generates its own problems, although no one at Soulpepper is complaining very hard.

John Bemrose