Making it There

Featured Story: Soulpepper

July 2017

Soulpepper has come a long way since its inaugural two-production summer season twenty years ago. This July, the theatre company is presenting twelve Canadian productions at the Pershing Square Signature Centre on 42nd Street, New York. Sixty-five artists plus support staff have made the journey to make it happen.

Kim's Convenience, created by Soulpepper Academy alumnus Ins Choi. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The idea for this ambitious New York debut started about three years ago following the success of the Canadian tour of Kim’s Convenience, a widely popular play about a Korean Canadian family and their convenience store, which has since become its own TV show, airing on CBC. The desire to look for international markets for that play and others grew. Yet what was first a somewhat modest plan to bring one show to New York, quickly expanded. “When we started shopping for theatres, the more we saw, the more we thought: why should we just bring down one show, why don’t we bring down the company?” explains Leslie Lester, Executive Director of Soulpepper. The team decided to rent the Pershing Square Signature Centre. The layout in particular was familiar. “It feels like home for us, it mirrors the culture of what we have at the Yonge Centre.”

One of the goals of the venture is to demonstrate exactly what the company does in Toronto. “It’s not about just a single artist or a single play, it’s the mechanics of 75 people,” says Lester. In addition to presenting twelve plays, Soulpepper is showcasing cabarets, workshops and talkbacks. Ten of the twelve plays have been developed in-house, a unique capacity of the organization which nurtures artists through the Soulpepper Academy, and its multi-year paid professional training program for theatre artists. The other two plays, James Smith’s Lessons in Temperament and Ravi Jain’s A Brimful of Asha, are guest productions, but are closely connected, having been produced by the company in the past (Jain), and penned by a current member of the Academy (Smith). The selection process was organic, involving the company’s artistic ensemble. “We would never say that these are our favourite shows, but these are the ones that audiences enjoyed, and they’re well celebrated,” explains Lester, noting their various accolades.

A Brimful of Asha, created by Ravi Jain. Photo by Erin Brubacher

In a city with hundreds of events and shows happening every day, the company needed a bold strategy to assert its presence. A New York Times article captured the strategy in its title: Here’s One Canadian Theatre Company That Isn’t Afraid to Show Off. With audacious marketing materials that display the Canadian flag, the uniqueness of its structure as a repertory theatre, and its month-long programming, New York audiences are paying attention. “Just the amount of festival material that we’re bringing is hopefully going to cut through the noise” says Lester. It’s working. The project is receiving a ton of press.

To undertake something so large is part of the DNA of Soulpepper. “It’s who we are,” remarks Lester. In addition to the New York project, Soulpepper completed a $10 million Creative Capital Campaign in tandem with its 2015 five-year strategic initiative to become a National Civic Theatre. They are also researching the possibility of building an additional performance space in Toronto to support the theatre’s future growth, and act as a key site for the development of new emerging Canadian talent.

Mike Ross and Jackie Richardson perform as part of the Soulpepper Concert Series. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The New York venture is similarly contributing to the growth of the company; it opens the door for future collaborations in an international market. It is both a step towards its future potential and a reflection of its current achievements. Lester reflects on the significance: “This New York moment is really an amazing accumulation of so many wonderful things: the fact that we’ve got so many graduates of the Academy, and current Academy members, we’ve got several founding members with us, we’ve got the founding Artistic Director [Albert Schultz]… Having this moment together as a company is really a tremendous opportunity… it really is a celebration.”

 

Soulpepper on 42nd Street is funded in part through Toronto Arts Council’s Open Door funding process.

For more information on Soulpepper, visit their website, www.soulpepper.ca