OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder, directed by Joseph Ziegler, and THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR by Nikolai Gogol, adapted and directed by Morris Panych. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Run in rep through March 25. $36-$54, students $25, rush $5-$18. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
Albert Schultz, Soulpepper's artistic director, laughs in surprise when he realizes that within a decade the average age of his "hot young company" will be 60.
That might seem to be a passing thought during the week that Soulpepper launches its new home, the Young Centre, in the Distillery District, as well as its first year-round season. Schultz, though, has always looked to the future.
"It's a terrifying thought," he says, a smile mitigating the worry, "but it also means that we have to be proactive in building the company's leadership and working to nurture the local arts community for the future."
Since 1998, when Soulpepper premiered with a world-class version of Schiller's Don Carlos, the company has established itself as Toronto's classical rep company. But youth training and mentorship has also been a key point in its mandate.
One result is the Academy, a new two-year program that involves 10 artists from across the country working with Soulpepper members and developing their own projects. Among those chosen from 250 applicants are director Weyni Mengesha, designer Lorenzo Savoini, playwright Nicolas Billon and writer/performers d'bi. young and Stephen Guy McGrath.
That's not all the learning that'll go on at the Young Centre; Soulpepper shares the space with the George Brown Theatre School. But there's lots of room, for the centre will be over 50,000 square feet when construction is finished, and that includes some 10 various-sized performance venues.
"I see the Academy addressing a number of issues, including Toronto's cultural diversity," continues Schultz.
"But we also want to expand the definition of what a classic is, and a big part of what the Academy group will do is collective creations based on existing sources. In 2008, we'll open our season with an acknowledged Western classic and the Academy's new work, upfront and on the main stage."
Soulpepper began staging new material last September when it collaborated with This Is a Bird on an adaptation of John Steinbeck stories, The Long Valley. Schultz's troupe is currently working on a version of the Yiddish classic The Dybbuk and a project with Calgary's cutting-edge One Yellow Rabbit.
"It's rare to have a company going year round," he admits, "and there's no classical group in North America that does it. In England, only the National Theatre keeps up that schedule."
The season opens with a double bill of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which Soulpepper first produced in 1999 with the Mirvishes, and a new version of Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector, adapted and directed by Morris Panych. No other local company could involve 21 actors in a pair of plays running in rep for two months.
This time around, Schultz plays the Stage Manager, the narrator in the American classic. Why?
"We're opening the season in a new space that blends muscular, contemporary architecture and plain brick walls. The spare set for Our Town intentionally opens up to that brick, which has been around longer than the play itself.
"And as someone who's been at the centre of getting us here, there's a poetic necessity to have me be the one who welcomes the audience into Soulpepper's new home."