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“I just got an e-mail from somebody who was listening to The Complete 150 in Budapest,” says Gregory J. Sinclair, the Wernham-West Director of Audio Programming at Soulpepper. “We’re way beyond the 100-kilometre radius where most of Soulpepper’s audience comes from.”
The Complete 150 is a podcast series, a commission supported by the Garland imagiNation Fund, and the latest audio project created by the Toronto theatre company as part of an overall development program, made possible by a $450,000 donation from Richard Wernham and Julia West. With a listening audience all across Canada and 25 other countries, Soulpepper’s audio programming focuses on three main areas: live-performance recordings, audio productions of plays from the Canadian canon and the development of new work, such as original dramatic podcasts.
“The initial idea was that we would try to move the theatre beyond its bricks-and-mortar exterior and engage a new audience,” says Sinclair. Their first project made with the Wernham-West and Slaight Music Program funding was a cast recording of Spoon River, which has since sold out its run of CDs and is now available online. That recording went on to win Silver at the New York International Festival of Radio. Soulpepper has since recorded five other original productions.
As with Soulpepper’s two-year paid conservatory program and an upcoming month-long residency in New York, these audio initiatives are notably ambitious. Combined with visual media adaptations like the Kim’s Convenience TV series, the company’s quest to stake out new creative territory has implications for how it might grow in the future.
The big challenge now is finding ways to connect with audiences beyond their current reach. That might have seemed like a daunting task in the past, but the success of Kim’s Convenience as a stage production and CBC television series has demonstrated that redoubling Soulpepper’s audience is within the realm of possibility – though it’s a feat that requires a strong creative vision and significant work.
Season one of Kim’s Convenience earned an average per-episode viewership of 993,000 – which is unheard of for a new Canadian series. Ins Choi, the playwright and a staff writer on the series, is a graduate of the Soulpepper Academy and has continued to work with the company on stage productions like Alligator Pie and re(Birth): E.E. Cummings in Song.
“I didn’t want to ruin a good thing,” says Choi. “I had never done TV and I was kind of scared.” That hesitancy was tempered after meeting Ivan Fecan, who had been a Soulpepper donor and was newly embarking on a producing career. “We started walking slowly down this road together.”
Fecan facilitated a connection with Kevin White, a seasoned TV writer for Canadian series like Corner Gas and Schitt’s Creek. Choi’s fruitful collaboration with White made it possible to carry the success of Kim’s Convenience into a new medium.
The core of that adaptation process focused on preserving the qualities that made the play so well-loved by critics and audiences – namely the infectious humour and timeliness of a newcomer family experiencing life in Canada. Choi says that the key to making it all work came with respecting the unique differences of television and being open to new ideas.
That delicate balance between safeguarding the strength of Choi’s story as it was honed at Soulpepper while also giving it new life as an adapted work is at the heart of what the company is hoping to achieve with these new ventures.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Each new project also brings more practical benefits, from broadening the spectrum of work available for local artists and technicians to knocking down barriers for audiences who might enjoy access to Toronto theatre for financial or geographical reasons.
Even with the massive success of Kim’s Convenience, Soulpepper‘s ongoing task is still being heard in an increasingly crowded online world. “Anybody who creates any kind of programming for digital platforms has the same challenge,” says Sinclair. “There’s so much material that’s being created by organizations big and small.”
“What we’re relying on, initially, is the Soulpepper audience. And they are quite prepared to engage in what we do in terms of new work for the stage. It’s in that spirit that they would be listening to work like this.”
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