An inside look at how Soulpepper brought 12 theatre productions to New York City

Sponsored feature: presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

“I don’t know of any other Canadian group that has done something like this,” says LJ Savage, director of production at Soulpepper. “We’ve taken a month-long festival and moved it into a different location in New York.”

Savage has just returned to Toronto after a hectic schedule for the Soulpepper on 42nd Street project – a month-long, off-Broadway residency that featured 12 productions the company had initially created and refined for audiences in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada.

Plenty of theatre companies continue to tour successful productions, taking them on the road to various cities. But for someone like Savage, who has spent the past 35 years moving live experiences from one place to the next, there has never been a project like this.

At Soulpepper, he is responsible for coordinating all things production-related, including coordinating the transfer of shows – such as Kim’s Convenience, Alligator Pie and (re)Birth – from Toronto to New York. After that, Savage coordinated with a local company hired by Soulpepper to meet production schedules and ensure each of the 12 shows was mounted as planned.

“We shipped two and a half 53-foot road trailers to a place called Wappingers Falls in Upstate New York,” he says, noting that the company couldn’t send these large trailers directly to Manhattan. They unloaded all of the cargo there, inspected it and instructed local crew on how it all should be loaded into smaller trucks headed for Manhattan.

One of the most challenging parts was fulfilling a rather weighty requirement for one of the shows. The designer for Of Human Bondage had incorporated into his set designs the wall at the back of Soulpepper’s Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre space in Toronto.

“It’s a 17-foot-high brick wall that goes the width of the stage with a three-foot-high ‘I’ beam on top of it,” Savage explains. To recreate the same look for New York, they had to build a facsimile wall in perfect detail, down to the specific colour of the bricks. “It was actually quite disturbing – you’re standing there in the theatre having a conversation and look over your shoulder and suddenly think you’re standing in the Baillie Theatre in the Young Centre.”

Costume designer Erika Connor shared in the challenge to prepare well in advance for Soulpepper on 42nd Street. Primarily, it was getting a massive amount of paperwork ready for shipping and unpacking.

“Everything had to be labelled,” she says. “The manufacturer, the label of origin, the cost – everything. Even a pair of socks has to be accounted for.”

And if anything was missing, Connor or the members of the local crew couldn’t just run to Soulpepper’s stock room and pick it up. Luckily though, she’s familiar with the daily challenges of shopping and sourcing the perfect items for the company’s productions. “It’s a dream job for me.”

In Toronto, the company built a series of wardrobe crates, which accounted for much of the space inside the trailers Savage coordinated. Once everything arrived in New York and rechecked to fulfill needs for all Soulpepper shows, Connor was able to take a step back from the project.

“As a designer, once you’ve opened a show – unless something happens where you have to get another actor in – then the job is done,” she says.

The hand off to local crews isn’t total, though. In each production, Soulpepper staff would lead the way and help deliver the same on-stage magic to New York audiences that Toronto has enjoyed. This was the case for Robert Harding, the company’s Production Stage Manager.

“We’ve all had to dive headlong into an alien space,” he says. In addition to working directly with local crews for nightly performances of shows like Of Human Bondage and Spoon River, Harding was responsible for watching over how and where various crew members and actors intersected.

“The company of Of Human Bondage are in Spoon River, and those groups also splinter off into Alligator Pie, (re)Birth, as well as our concerts and cabarets,” he says. “Having a snapshot of when and where everyone is at any given moment takes a lot of planning and constant monitoring.”

With only a week of New York performances left, Connor reflects on the company’s ambitious vision to go beyond touring a single show. “It’s really exciting. This is a huge feat. As a costume designer, I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

For Savage, the value in pursuing this project is potentially seeing these shows earn a life beyond Toronto and even New York. That could mean sharing Kim’s Convenience for audiences in California or taking Spoon River further south. “We all want to do something new, something bigger and more exciting, and keep sharing our original work with new audiences,” he says.

Visit NOW Digital Residency: Soulpepper Spotlight to experience more of the company’s 20th anniversary season!

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