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After the most difficult year in its history, Soulpepper's future is looking good.Gifted director Weyni Mengesha is the new artistic.
After the most difficult year in its history, Soulpepper’s future is looking good.
Gifted director Weyni Mengesha is the new artistic director of the city’s largest not-for-profit theatre company. She replaces Albert Schultz, who resigned in January after four female company members came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment. (The women’s civil cases against Soulpepper and Schultz were settled out of court in the summer.)
Mengesha’s hiring comes a month and a half after the company brought on a new executive director, Emma Stenning, who replaced Leslie Lester (who also resigned in January, and is Schultz’s wife).
Mengesha, who takes on her new role in January 2019, has a long history with the company. She was part of its inaugural Soulpepper Academy, in 2006, and has directed some of its most acclaimed productions, including Kim’s Convenience, A Raisin In The Sun and Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts I, II, III), which won a Dora last year for best production.
“This means a lot to me, since it’s like a homecoming, and I think Soulpepper is really well positioned for growth,” said Mengesha in an interview earlier this week. “With the new digital media relationships, touring, starting to do work from the ground up and the commissions, it’s a really exciting time to be here.”
By “homecoming,” she’s referring to the fact that she’s lived in L.A. for the past eight years with her husband, actor Eion Bailey, and their two sons, who are three and five.
“Toronto was a big reason why I wanted to come back. It’s a very multicultural city. Obviously L.A. is as well, but the communities are spread apart. You get on a streetcar here and it’s a multicultural experience. I missed being able to walk two doors down and get some jerk chicken.”
Another thing that drew her to the position was working with an ensemble of artists.
“You don’t see that often. And the fact that we invest in longer periods of rehearsals five to six weeks instead of the usual three plus a couple days of tech is important.”
Earlier this month, Soulpepper posted an update on their site about steps they’ve taken to strengthen workplace culture and good governance. This includes a new Code of Conduct, which the company adopted in September.
How essential was that to the incoming AD?
“It was key,” says Mengesha. “I think right now is a time of building new relationships, building trust, making sure that everyone feels safe and that this is a place where there are strong lines of communication that are clearly defined now.”
About working with Schultz while at Soulpepper, Mengesha says, “I know there were many different experiences with many different people. I know there were issues that were spoken about, and there were definitely some power imbalances. But I also learned a lot.”
In addition to her Soulpepper work, she’s directed popular and lauded productions like Da Kink In My Hair and Butcher, for which she won a best director Dora.
In an interview with NOW’s Jon Kaplan before Father Comes Home premiered in 2016, Mengesha compared the play’s examination of politics, Black women and freedom to Beyonce’s Lemonade video.
That’s fitting, since she came to theatre via her interest in hip-hop music.
“That was my first storytelling activity,” says Mengesha. “I was immersed in it, growing up. Now that I think about it, both hip-hop and theatre have the ability to respond immediately to what’s going on politically. And like hip-hop, theatre is a poetic space that speaks about our circumstances. I was kind of doing both things in high school, organizing hip-hop events and skits about where we were at. And a teacher told me: youre a storyteller, you should go to university and study it.”
Which she did to York University to study theatre, much to the surprise of her Ethiopian immigrant parents who thought she was going to study law.
Obviously Mengesha is interested in building a strong and diverse audience for the company. She says that will come by building relationships between the audience and the people onstage.
“We need to look at audience engagement from different angles,” she says. “We need to be creative in the way we interact with audiences. We’ve been successful with music pieces, with cabarets that are more flexible. And there are many things we can do with our space outside of just theatre.”
While she’s directed some TV and film, including an episode of the CBC show Kim’s Convenience last summer, she says there’s nothing like the immediacy of live theatre.
“I love watching a show with an audience, I love talking to people afterwards in the lobby.”
Speaking of talking, one of the most unforgettable experiences as a Toronto theatregoer was watching the audience talk back to the actors during the show in the various productions of Da Kink In My Hair.
“That was so important to us,” says Mengesha. “In my final year of university I did an independent study in the African-Canadian aesthetic, so when I came to Da Kink the tradition of the African chorus and the call-and-answer dynamic was rich in my mind. I remember saying to the actors, ‘If someone says something to you, you better talk back.’ And everyone was on board.”
Mengesha says she has no agenda coming into the company, although living in the U.S. has introduced her to exciting playwrights like Dominique Morisseau and Luis Alfaro.
“I’m not coming in to change everything,” she says. “I’m coming in to assess things, meet people, build relationships and then over time see what unfolds. Right now I’m here to listen.”