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.
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 sitcom of 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.
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 constriction 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.
“It’s a risk,” Ms. Lester said.
But it’s an investment, too, in what Mr. Schultz hopes will be “a bigger playing field of possibilities” — the international kind. More people live in California than in all of Canada, so when he says that it’s a small country, he means that everyone knows everyone there, or just about. It makes him crave a different kind of creative infusion, for himself and the company.
“We need to have colleagues and collaborators thinking about issues outside our borders,” he said.
He wants to work with Americans, and since the American theater is not going to come to Soulpepper, Soulpepper is going to it. The company will place itself in New York long enough, and offer a wide enough selection of its work, to give audiences and theater professionals a sense of what it does.
Mr. Schultz hopes to foster discussion, both formal and informal, with fellow artists. Ideally, new relationships will follow with theater makers he already knows by name and reputation who don’t yet know him or his company. July is meant to be an introduction.
If it works the way he dreams it will, he’ll be able to do something afterward that he can’t do now: call up any number of prominent artistic directors in the United States and simply say: “Hey, it’s Albert from Soulpepper. I got an idea. Can we have a talk?”
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