Soulpepper Theater Company isn’t moving everything to New York for the month of July. Its theater in Toronto’s Distillery District will still be open, with six productions on two of its three main stages. But a dozen other Soulpepper shows are headed for Manhattan, and 65 artists are making the trip. Add support staff, and it’s quite a hefty operation.
“I look forward to seeing nothing in New York because I’ll be busy,” Gregory Prest, an ensemble member who is cast in four of the New York shows, said amiably one May afternoon at the Young Center for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper’s home.
He’d been writing a play in an empty classroom when the company’s founding artistic director, Albert Schultz, popped in to say hello, then brought up a field trip planned for Yankee Stadium. More than 60 members of the Soulpepper crowd have signed on to watch their beloved Toronto Blue Jays play there on July 3, a day off from performing.
“Muppets,” Mr. Prest said, affectionately mocking his colleagues, himself, their New York excursion. “A Muppet family vacation.”
In Mr. Schultz’s office upstairs, a long wall was covered with framed photographs, including one of him at 23, playing Romeo 30 summers ago at the Stratford Festival. But the eye-catcher was on the opposite wall: a giant horizontal grid, hand-drawn by Mr. Schultz in overlapping hues of fat-tipped marker. Likely inscrutable to anyone but him, this was his rendering of the schedule for New York, with each of the scores of activities assigned to its segment of a day. He called it his “crazy Basquiat thing.” It looked like a calendar of frenzy.
Originally, this plan, Soulpepper’s American debut, wasn’t meant to be such a giant undertaking. When Mr. Schultz and Leslie Lester, the company’s executive director, flew to New York a couple of years ago to scout spaces, they were aiming for a two- or three-week run, with just a few plays in repertory, requiring maybe 25 artists in all.
CreditRyan Enn Hughes for The New York Times
Such modest ambitions went out the window as soon as they walked into the Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street. The block, where traffic funnels out from the Lincoln Tunnel, couldn’t be more different from the Distillery District, an area of stylishly restored Victorian industrial architecture: lots of red brick everywhere.
But the Signature Center’s multiple stages and radiating layout reminded them of their own theater complex, right down to the way actors exit through the lobby just like the audience, which encourages conversation. Visions of what they could do if they had the run of the place overtook them.
“I went: ‘I want the whole thing. I want the whole building,’” Ms. Lester said.
Canada has already been having a bit of a moment in New York, thanks partly to the feel-good Broadway musical “Come From Away,” about the kindness of Newfoundlanders toward stranded Americans in the days after 9/11. On Canada Day, July 1 — which this year marks the country’s 150th anniversary — Soulpepper will glide into the Signature Center on that show’s hospitable coattails, beginning four weeks of plays, musicals, and concerts, as well as free cabarets in the lobby, to be hosted by Mr. Schultz. Almost all of the artists will be making their New York debuts, and most of the company is staying uptown, in City College housing.
CreditCylla von Tiedemann
Of the dozen ticketed productions, the three biggest will be Vern Thiessen’s “Of Human Bondage,” based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; “Spoon River,” a musical adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology,” by Mike Ross and Mr. Schultz, and composed by Mr. Ross; and Ins Choi’s “Kim’s Convenience,” a comedy set in a Korean-Canadian mom-and-pop shop that spawned a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sitcomof the same name, now going into its second season.
Others include “Cage,” a John Cage-inspired piece partly set in an eight-foot acrylic cube, one of many Soulpepper shows created and rehearsed with designers in the room from the start; Asha and Ravi Jain’s “A Brimful of Asha,” a comic two-hander about arranged marriage starring an Indian-Canadian artist and his mother, who is not a professional actor; and “Alligator Pie,” a musical based on the children’s poems of Dennis Lee, who is famous for them in Canada but more familiar to Americans for his work on the 1980s Jim Henson series “Fraggle Rock.”
“Every single thing that we’re taking was developed from the ground up,” Mr. Schultz said, and each piece “has a Canadian pen attached,” even if it’s an adaptation. Having such close ties to the scripts heads off performance-rights issues, but it’s also in keeping with the idea of Canadian pride, which will be on flagrant display during the Soulpepper run. The building’s Gehry connection, then, is especially apt; Ms. Lester and Mr. Schultz each pointed out the architect’s Toronto roots.
Soulpepper itself, though, is not much known outside Canada — and that is something Mr. Schultz is eager to change with this Manhattan foray. The year-round, ensemble-based company has grown immensely since 1998 when it was founded as a classical summer theater with a budget of 700,000 Canadian dollars (about $530,000 at current exchange rates) and a two-play season. Its peculiar name was the invention of Mr. Schultz’s daughter, Julia, who was 3 at the time.
CreditRyan Enn Hughes for The New York Times
At home, Soulpepper is well established: a nonprofit with an annual budget of 12 million Canadian dollars (just over $9 million), staging about 30 shows a year and running a training program, Soulpepper Academy, whose students are paid to learn their craft. The company has branched into television, with “Kim’s Convenience,” as well as audio recordings and podcasts.
Physically, Soulpepper is looking to expand; the Young Center, its base since 2006, is now too cramped for all of its activities. When Mr. Schultz mentioned this, he mimed the feeling, rolling his shoulders and jabbing his elbows outward as if his jacket were too tight — a gesture of construction but also of restlessness, a quality that seems built into Mr. Schultz’s constitution. In his work for Soulpepper, he is forever in pursuit of what he calls “big shiny objects,” and a new building is one of them.
Another is the Manhattan trip, which comes with the not inconsiderable price tag of 2.5 million Canadian dollars (about $1.9 million), supported by public and private donors.