U.K. theatre veteran Emma Stenning has been named the new executive director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.

'We have to have an active culture of listening, of learning, of supporting each other'

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This isn’t the first time incoming Soulpepper Theatre Company executive director Emma Stenning has faced the fallout of a sexual-misconduct scandal that rocked the arts world.

The U.K.-based theatre veteran, whose hiring was announced Thursday, comes to Toronto by way of the Bristol Old Vic, where she has served as the company’s chief executive for the past nine years.

Housed in a 250-year-old building, the Bristol Old Vic bills itself as the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world. But the present company traces its origins back to 1946, when it was established as an offshoot of the esteemed Old Vic in London.

London’s Old Vic was thrust into the #MeToo spotlight last November after the theatre said it had received 20 allegations of inappropriate behaviour against its former artistic director Kevin Spacey.

While the theatre companies are separate, Stenning said the Bristol Old Vic worked closely with its London counterpart to develop a program in which staff members are trained as “guardians” who their colleagues can turn to for confidential counsel about workplace concerns.

Across the pond, Soulpepper has shown a similar commitment to culture change in the face of a now-resolved legal battle over sexual-misconduct allegations against its former artistic director, Stenning said, and she plans to build on this progress as both a leader and a listener.

You’ve got to walk the talk … Policies that sit on bits of paper in people’s drawers are no good.– Emma Stenning

“You’ve got to walk the talk … Policies that sit on bits of paper in people’s drawers are no good,” Stenning said in a recent interview in Toronto.

“We have to have an active culture of listening, of learning, of supporting each other. I hope to embody that, to lead from the front, just as I have in Bristol.”

Having overseen a $42-million overhaul of the 18th-century theatre, Stenning said she felt her tenure at the Bristol Old Vic was coming to a natural close, and she could leave with confidence that she had restored the company from a “wobbly” financial position into a thriving cultural institution.

Stabilizing Soulpepper

And as she looks towards Soulpepper’s next chapter, Stenning said the theatre’s standing is not as “wobbly” as one might think.

“My vision for the company is just to continue to work with the team on this process of stabilization, I suppose, and make sure that we are really ready to deliver a bold future.”

Albert Schultz stepped down as Soulpepper’s founding artistic director after four actresses filed separate lawsuits against him and the theatre company, accusing him of sexual misconduct. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

When she assumes her full executive duties this November, Stenning will work with Soulpepper’s yet-to-be-appointed artistic director to develop a five-year strategic plan for the theatre and review its training academy, which has been placed on a one-year hiatus.

Her predecessor in the position, Leslie Lester, parted ways with the company in January after four actresses filed separate lawsuits against Soulpepper and her husband, founding artistic director Albert Schultz, accusing him of sexual misconduct. Schultz also stepped down from his position and vowed to vigorously defend himself against the allegations.

Earlier this month, all parties in the case said they had reached an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which have not been disclosed.

Vanessa Morgan, chair of Soulpepper’s board of directors, said in an email that all costs relating to the lawsuits will be accounted for in its 2018 financial statement and have not had a “material impact” on the non-profit theatre’s financial position or operations.

After reporting a $556,000 deficit for 2017, Soulpepper said in a March statement that the theatre was projecting further deficits this year due to “extraordinary” one-time costs and revenue reductions, as well as the loss of a planned funding increase from the Canada Council for the Arts.

In order to help its financial situation, earlier this year the theatre launched a “Transition Campaign” that has since raised $825,000, a Soulpepper spokesperson said Wednesday.

Stenning said with the strong support of donors, whom she called Soulpepper’s “rocket fuel,” she feels optimistic about the company’s financial future.

The theatre has maintained financial support from all three levels of government during its months-long legal battle, which she sees as a vote of confidence in the steps Soulpepper has already taken to create a safer workplace, including providing crisis counsellors, setting up a whistleblower hotline and adopting a new code of conduct.

Members of the Soulpepper Theatre Company perform in New York’s Bryant Park in July 2017. Stenning says the company’s artists will be her guides as she steers it forward. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

With connections to theatre festivals around the world, Stenning said she hopes to raise Soulpepper’s profile on the international stage.

But Soulpepper’s true potential lies at home, she said, in a theatre that was founded by artists, and puts artists first. And she said those artists will be her guides as she steers Soulpepper forward.

“I think it’s a very strong statement of values to say that we start with the art,” she said.

“Artists are people that see around corners. You have to trust an artist’s vision of what … stories they want to tell.”

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