How do you empower the next generation to succeed in one of the most challenging industries in Canada? In an age of internships and precarious employment, Soulpepper Theatre is making a bold and optimistic statement by investing in young artists through its professional training program.
Founded in 2006, the Soulpepper Academy is a two-year paid conservatory program where a carefully selected group of theatre professionals from across the country get the chance to intensely focus on their respective crafts – including acting, directing, playwriting, producing and design. It’s not merely theatre school with a weekly paycheque, but a crucial piece of Soulpepper’s succession strategy that pays its legacy forward with real opportunities for leading talent.
“It’s about ensuring the future of this company and, hopefully, the health of the future of Canadian theatre,” says Soulpepper’s Founding Artistic Director Albert Schultz. “I remember saying that in 10 years, what I wanted was for the Academy to be telling us where we’re going and that’s how we would know we were successful.”
Finding the right young minds to take on the responsibility of leadership is no small task. For the Academy, it begins with a biannual nationwide search. For those who want to join, the anticipation to grow as an artist inside one of the country’s leading companies starts long before then.
“I was in the first year of my BFA in Edmonton, Alberta – it was like the first lunch break – and someone was talking to me about their plans after that degree to try to get involved with Soulpepper,” says current Hunter Cardinal, who recalls first hearing of the program. “To have two years of steady work as an artist – it’s just unheard of.”
Approximately 1,300 emerging theatre professionals applied in the last intake of submissions, which includes submitting an essay that showcases each hopeful’s experience and goals in theatre. For the actors who make the first cut, Soulpepper holds 20-minute auditions in cities like Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.
The experience can be nerve-wracking but exciting. Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, an Academy graduate, went through the audition process twice – once when she was 24 and again a few years later. “And then I got this email a few weeks later saying that I had a call-back,” she says. “I thought, I’m not going to get it because it’s too huge, it’s too miraculous.”
That call-back is a three-day weekend showcase in Toronto where Soulpepper pays the travel and accommodation expenses for 32 candidates to work together in a collaborative environment, which allows the company to see how a potential Academy group could take shape.
“It was really exciting because you get to see what people are doing in different parts of the country in terms of where other artists are at and what they’re interested in,” says Cardinal.
At the end of the vetting process, 16 promising young artists are offered the opportunity to spend the next two years dedicating their waking lives to becoming better at their respective crafts and being empowered to make bold choices both on stage and off. For their efforts they receive an annual living wage from Soulpepper – which is only about half of the hard costs associated with such an important investment. The funding comes from donors, Canadian Heritage and various companies, such as Royal Bank of Canada.
A typical day in the Academy is filled with classes, studio time and in-depth discussions specific to each participant’s craft. There are unique highlights for each class too, which can range from studying ancient theatre classics, to visiting with Greek theatre directors, to publicly singing O Canada from a boat.
Raising money for initiatives like this is no easy feat, but it’s a skill Academy participants also learn through developing relationships with the company’s network of donors. “Soulpepper sets you up with a philanthropic mentor, and those are the people who have invested in you,” says Lancaster. “That relationship is really vital in the arts.”
For example, when Academy graduate Ins Choi was looking for support to put on a Toronto Fringe production of a new play he had written, he already had a relationship with a donor who helped him out. That was how Kim’s Convenience was first seen.
By removing financial barriers, Soulpepper also directly makes an effort to increase opportunities for diverse talent. Someone from a traditionally privileged background, who may have had better access to creative training and education, has an equal opportunity to succeed as someone who has not shared the same benefits.
Though her time in the Academy is over, Lancaster has maintained a close working relationship with Soulpepper as an actor in Toronto productions like Of Human Bondage and also as part of the company’s upcoming month-long residency in New York City. She has also joined forces with fellow graduate Paolo Santalucia and others to found The Howland Company, an ensemble group that develops original projects and was recently named Canadian Stage’s company-in-residence.
Her success is mirrored in other graduates like Lorenzo Savoini, who attended the Academy in its inaugural year and is now the Young Family Director of Design at Soulpepper. “We’re taking several of his designs to New York with us, and he has emerged as one of the truly great designers alive in this country right now,” says Schultz. He is seeing his vision come to fruition with the Academy students giving new voice and direction to the company.
Other notable Academy graduates include Kim’s Convenience director Weyni Mengesha, former NOW cover subject Akosua Amo-Adem (appearing this May in for colored girls…) and Mike Ross, Soulpepper’s Slaight Family Director of Music who also co-adapted and composed Spoon River.
Last summer’s theatre productions featured alumni in major roles on stages across the country, including: Frank Cox O’Connell as Hamlet at Canadian Stage Hailey Gillis as Juliet at Bard on the Beach Kat Gauthier as Ibsen’s Nora at Soulpepper and Weyni Mengesha, Mikaela Davies and Anahita Dehbonehie involved in A Breath of Kings at the Stratford Festival. Academy grads have also been part of acclaimed international touring productions, such as Brendan Wall with War Horse and Tatjana Cornij and Stephen Guy-McGrath with Once.
The opportunity to make an impact like these graduates have is an important prospect for Cardinal, who is nearing the half-way point in the program. “One of the exciting things for me is being able to see how I can create a space and help engage some of the questions and conversations that the indigenous community of Canada is facing,” he says.
While audiences may know Soulpepper primarily for its stage productions that tell powerful stories and showcase exciting talent, investing in the future of Canadian theatre through its Academy program might be the company’s most inspired and gutsy creative decision so far.
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