Canadian theater director's accusers cite unsafe conditions

By Canadian Press

Schultz and Soulpepper were served with multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits on Thursday by the four women, who claim that the 54-year-old sexually abused and harassed them in what they all characterized as "Soulpepper's best-known secret".

"We believe (plaintiffs) Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth, Patricia Fagan, and Hannah Miller, and stand with them", said Soulpepper actors and designers on the Amadeus production, in a statement.

The actresses are seeking a total of $4.25 million in damages from Soulpepper, and $3.6 million from Schultz. Now, almost 300 artists have signed an open letter to the board, calling on the board to continue to announce "concrete steps it is taking to ensure that Soulpepper is a safe environment, where abuse and harassment cannot be tolerated, and where art can flourish". The theatre giant resigned last Thursday, saying he planned to "vigorously defend" himself against the allegations. "Consequently, we requested and accepted Albert's immediate resignation", the release said. Schultz's second wife, Leslie Lester, who also works as the company's executive director, also volunteered to step down. There's no word from Soulpepper on her future.

"We are committed to a process of reflection, renewal and change", the executive committee of Soulpepper's board of directors said in statement. "Their courageous lawsuit is the first step towards righting this incredible wrong".

In their four statements of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court, the women allege Schultz groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately. Additionally, Alan Dilworth has been named Acting Artistic Director.

Fagan's statement of claim obtained by THR alleges Schultz engaged in "mocking, belittling and bullying" of female castmembers at Soulpepper, and during a 2000 rehearsal for Twelfth Night at one point she "felt him push his penis against me" as he stepped in as director to advise on an intimate scene.

The letter's two hundred and eighty-one signatories call on Soulpepper's board of directors to "acknowledge the harm these women, and others, have suffered".

"While this has been a tremendously hard chapter in Soulpepper's history, today's decision ensures the organization is able to move forward with confidence and remain a leading Canadian theatre company", Soulpepper said in a statement.

Reesor said she feels strongly about her boycott but doesn't want to see Soulpepper go under.

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The Soulpepper board said that after the Marton issue came to light it made extensive enquiries about any other potential issues of harassment, or whether any other harassment concerns had been expressed. Miller in her suit similarly recounts being mocked by the Soulpepper artistic director during rehearsals and accuses Schultz of being a "serial sexual predator".

Schultz is also executive producer on the CBC comedy Kim's Convenience, which was adapted from an original Soulpepper play of the same name and is independently produced by Thunderbird Films.

On Friday, a representative of the actors said there are "a couple of internal questions that need to be answered" before they are able to discuss the status of their affiliation with the company.

"We hope that it continues in good health".

"We were assured that there had been no other harassment of any kind by anyone at the company", it said Saturday.

Miller said working conditions at Soulpepper are not safe for actors whose jobs lead them to be open and vulnerable. "There's a sanctity of the theater that's been violated".

Polley and Kirshner have spoken out about their own experiences with sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. "We found power and strength and a unified voice", she told the presser. Soulpepper and Schultz have not yet filed a statement of defence.

The theatre company said it was unaware of any allegations of misconduct against Schultz or anyone else, having conducted investigations into the issue as recently as this past fall.

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