Soulpepper names its new artistic director

Soulpepper names its new artistic director

It’s a new era at Soulpepper Theatre.

The company announced Thursday that acclaimed Canadian director Weyni Mengesha will become its artistic director, starting in January. Paired with the hiring of UK-based arts administrator Emma Stenning as Soulpepper’s new executive director in August, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company will now be led by two women after a year rocked by legal and internal discord.

Former artistic director Albert Schultz and executive director Leslie Lester left the company in January after four women sued both Schultz and Soulpepper over claims of sexual harassment and assault in an unhealthy professional environment. The lawsuits, which were settled over the summer, sparked an industry-wide conversation on sexual harassment in theatre.

A committee comprised of six Soulpepper board members, consulting with two artist advisers, hired Searchlight Canada to conduct a search of Canadian candidates at home and abroad. Of the nine shortlisted candidates, four were women and three were persons of colour.

Mengesha was a popular name in the running for the job, a beloved local director with a long history at Soulpepper. She completed the directing stream in the Soulpepper Academy before directing A Raisin in the Sun, the audience favourite Kim’s Convenience and the Dora Award-winning Father Comes Home From the Wars for the company. Elsewhere, she directed the indie hit-turned-Off-Mirvish production of Nicolas Billon’s suspenseful thriller Butcher, the sprawling Breath of Kings: Rebellion at the Stratford Festival, and the production that kicked off her career, Trey Anthony’s ’Da Kink in My Hair, which started at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001 and went on to fill the Princess of Wales Theatre and tour internationally, culminating in a TV series on Global.

Mengesha has remained an important artist in Toronto, straddling both the independent and commercial sides of the industry with an impressively reliable track record in both box office and critical success, despite being based in L.A. with her husband, actor Eion Bailey, and their two young boys. When Soulpepper Theatre hired two associate artistic directors in 2016, Mengesha turned the opportunity down to continue growing her experience directing for film and television, as well as forming relationships with U.S. theatre companies. Now it’s time to come home.

“It’s full circle, it really is,” the Vancouver-born Mengesha in an interview on Wednesday. When asked what excites her about returning to Toronto, she responds: jerk chicken, seasons, the poetry scene, her parents, and her community.

“My girlfriends said we would all live on the same street and our kids would play together,” she laughed. “They all did that, and I moved away.”


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Community has always been important to Mengesha, ever since she held her Sweet Sundays salons, which invited the Black arts community into her Toronto home for two years.

“I have fantasies about renaissances, like the Harlem renaissance. I was wondering how I could play my part, how can I make that part of our social experience here. So I opened my doors,” she says. “Anybody could speak to anybody. They were big blowouts. We had live drums, food, music, people expressing themselves, and joy. And that’s definitely how I want to lead.”

As the artistic director of Soulpepper, Mengesha says she’s interested in bringing that spirit into the building — more open mics, more audience engagement, more experimentation with new ideas, and continuing Soulpepper’s Project imagiNation commission series of new work by artists across Canada, and its multi-platform projects across film, TV, radio and podcasts.

“My responsibility as a director is to create a safe space so people can do exciting work, so they can take risks, so they can experiment. It’s the same thing [with being an artistic director], I have to make sure that the company feels like a safe space so that we can flourish,” she says.

Mengesha says she hasn’t been involved in any of the culture-changing initiatives led by interim artistic director Alan Dilworth, but has been paying attention. “I’m very much in the learning process. But it is in reading about that and learning about [the changes] that made me consider the position. It is the steps that they have been taking collectively and all the energy around revitalizing the company has been inspiring,” she says.

Mengesha, while avoiding mentioning anything particular about the former administration or workplace culture at Soulpepper, does recognize that her appointment is a new step for the company and part of a wider change in Canadian theatre leadership, following longtime Nightwood Theatre artistic director Kelly Thornton’s move to Royal Manitoba Theatre Projects and former Buddies in Bad Times Theatre boss Brendan Healy’s new position at Canadian Stage.

“I’m excited about who I get to work with, people who have worked so hard to build up our communities and are now being recognized in a beautiful way. I’m excited to be a part of what I see is a movement,” she says. “People who are sitting in these new seats have different lived experiences and that’s going to come out in the work.”

Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga

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