Soulpepper unveils its 2020 season
By Jacqueline Nunes
Soulpepper’s New Artistic Director
In her first year as the new artistic director of the Soulpepper theatre company, Weyni Mengesha directed one of the most popular plays of the season, A Streetcar Named Desire. The Soulpepper production of the classic Tennessee Williams play, which first opened on Broadway in 1947, drew more than 10,000 theatre-goers during its extended sold-out run. Mengesha’s version felt like it could’ve been written for today’s times with its themes of sexual harassment, racism and classism, combined with diverse casting and contemporary costumes and props. Critics called it “a revelation,” “bold, game-changing” and “a thrilling revival.” Even Toronto’s most famous rapper, Drake, was in the audience for a performance.
And as one critic wrote, “It was a bold choice for Mengesha to launch her new regime with this play, given the sexual abuse allegations that rocked Soulpepper and brought down her predecessor.” Mengesha’s appointment has been widely called a new chapter for the theatre, following the resignation of Soulpepper’s founder and long-standing artistic director Albert Schultz amid allegations of sexual misconduct. (The suit was settled out of court, with undisclosed terms.)
Soulpepper Building Trust in the Community
In announcing Mengesha’s new role, Soulpepper noted that it had been seeking a candidate with “a genuine commitment to creating new opportunities for diverse voices…and the capacity to build trust through personal integrity and empathy.” Mengesha, an alum of the Soulpepper Academy (the theatre’s multi-year professional training program for theatre artists), had attracted an international reputation for directing diverse stories that would become mainstream hits, including Da Kink in my Hair, and Soulpepper’s own Kim’s Convenience. Following her first year in her new role, Mengesha says, “I’ve had to learn a lot about reconnecting with the community and rebuilding trust.” She adds, “I’ve never had a job as an artistic director of a theatre. I have an incredible team and a partner in my executive director [Emma Stenning],” who was appointed in August 2018. One reporter called both Mengesha and Stenning “a big part of Soulpepper’s very public reset — two women with international resumes in the top leadership positions.”
Mengesha describes the community gatherings that Soulpepper has held over the last year as a critical part of her learning. Shortly after she started, the theatre, “opened our doors and invited people to share our space and have a dialogue with us.” Hundreds showed up, filling every room until the theatre was at full capacity. Mengesha recalls, “We asked everyone to contribute ideas: ‘What does Soulpepper mean to you?’ We got hundreds of letters, which ended up on our walls as a way for our community to interact with us and discuss what mattered to them.” The input emphasized the need for a diverse, inclusive and safe place for artists and audiences alike. “People wanted to see a theatre that reflected the city and reflected them,” Mengesha says. “And they wanted to make sure that Soulpepper felt accessible to everyone.” Before she came onboard, the theatre had already instituted a new code of conduct, whistleblower hotline and other initiatives. And in direct response to the input from the community gatherings, Soulpepper has launched a new training program for theatre artists and made tickets free for audience members aged 25 and under, starting with the new season.
Now, as she celebrates one year with the theatre, Mengesha is preparing to launch the first lineup that truly reflects her vision for the company. Fittingly, the theme is “breaking ground.” She notes that, “People often ask, ‘Is Soulpepper a classical theatre company?’ But the theatre also does modern plays or contemporary plays, so the question becomes, ‘What are you?’ What we’ve done is shift the question — it’s not when is a play written but why is a play written.” Mengesha adds that the new season “looks across time, at writers who were courageous and who strived to add something to the theatre ecology, something they felt was missing, to break new ground in some way.”
The opener is Mother’s Daughter, which Mengesha calls a reinvention of a historical genre: “You often hear stories of the Great Kings of England. This is the same cycle but focusing on all the women,” with three would-be Queens in a deadly struggle to secure the Tudor throne. The season also features M. Butterfly, which turns the Puccini opera upside-down, resulting in “a modern classic that blurs boundaries, while redefining the nature of love and the devastating cost of deceit,” according to the playbill. Mengesha adds that it was the first Asian play to ever open on Broadway. Sizwe Banzi is Dead is another anticipated production, written by South African playwright Athol Fugard, who was ultimately arrested for the anti-apartheid comedy. And in a more traditional turn, a production of the renowned Anton Chekov play, The Seagull, will give audiences melodrama in a way that has never been done before.
“We have diversified the voices this season, both in who is writing and who is directing,” Mengesha says. “It may seem different, but based on how tickets have been selling, audiences are happy. That’s the best form of feedback.” She adds that Soulpepper started seeing new audiences even before announcing her new season. “We’ve been getting that comment a lot from people who have been in the audiences and are saying, ‘This audience feels different.’” She brings up one play from the previous season, Almighty Voice and His Wife, Soulpepper’s first Indigenous-led production in the theatre’s 21-year history. Written by acclaimed playwright Daniel David Moses, the play is an unconventional and provocative retelling of the legend of the 19th-century Cree outlaw and folk hero. It was directed by theatre veteran Jani Lauzon, who is Métis, and featured James Dallas Smith, an actor-musician of Mohawk-Scottish descent, and Dora Award-winning Métis actress Michaela Washburn.
When Mengesha describes what she’s most excited about, she keeps going back to the season’s theme, what she called “the conversation between the shows.” She looks forward to engaging in a city-wide dialogue, especially through Soulpepper’s robust “audience enrichment,” which includes pre-show workshops, talkbacks and more. “As a director, I used to be really excited about an audience seeing one show. Now I’m excited about our city having a conversation about the season, about what these ground-breaking plays have in common.” She also acknowledges that Soulpepper is committed to continuing its work to make the theatre a space that feels safe and inclusive. “I don’t feel that job is ever over,” Mengesha says.
And as a sequel to her Streetcar knockout, Mengesha will direct Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which she describes as “dynamic and very challenging.” The play, which follows two inmates at Rikers Island awaiting murder trials, takes on the prison system, faith and redemption. “There are no easy answers,” she says. “I think in this contemporary moment, we’re inclined to move towards easy answers to really hard questions. This play doesn’t allow for that.”
Soulpepper’s 2020 season Breaking Ground opens January 14. Full details and tickets are available at soulpepper.ca