01/04/2018 10:37 EST | Updated 01/04/2018 17:20 EST

Soulpepper Theatre Company Artists Resign Amid Allegations Against Albert Schultz

They say until Albert Schultz has no role with the company, they will not work there.

TORONTO — Four Soulpepper Theatre Company employees resigned Thursday and patrons and playwrights threatened a boycott in the wake of sexual assault and harassment allegations against founding artistic director Albert Schultz.

Soulpepper co-founders Ted Dykstra and Stuart Hughes and fellow artists Michelle Monteith and Rick Roberts said they were stepping down in solidarity with four actresses who have filed lawsuits against Schultz and the company.

Lawsuits allege groping, sexual humiliation

The women allege the 54-year-old Schultz exposed himself at work, groped them, and otherwise sexually humiliated them. The allegations have not been proven in court and Schultz said he would defend himself "vehemently." Soulpepper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

As the women discussed their allegations at a news conference in Toronto, others in the theatre world vowed to support them any way they could — starting with a boycott.

"It's the only effective way that we have to show our support for women coming forward. We have to put it in action," said playwright Erika Reesor, who is based in Hamilton and co-facilitates the all-female playwriting initiative Feminista.

"As an audience member, I won't go see any shows produced by Soulpepper, and I don't mean just until this court thing is resolved. It is my intention to put my money where my mouth is.

"And as an artist, I won't myself work with them and I won't encourage other artists to work with them."

It's given employment to hundreds of directors and actors and stage designers. It's quite a brilliantly successful enterprise.

But Dr. Katherine Siminovitch, chairwoman of the board of the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, countered that it would be a mistake to rush into a damaging boycott of the 20-year-old institution, which she called "probably one of the foremost theatre companies in the country."

"It's given employment to hundreds of directors and actors and stage designers. It's quite a brilliantly successful enterprise," Siminovitch said, adding that Soulpepper's board or directors "acted very quickly and I think they took the steps that were needed to deal with what is allegations right now."

Founded in 1998, Soulpepper is billed as Toronto's largest not-for-profit theatre company and North America's only year-round repertory company.

For its 20th anniversary this past summer, Soulpepper staged its first season of work in the U.S. in an off-Broadway engagement. Productions included "Kim's Convenience," which was adapted into a hit CBC-TV comedy series.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Plaintiff Hannah Miller was present at a press conference after filing a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by Soulpepper Theatre Company director Albert Schultz on Thursday.

Soulpepper had also been working on a "national civic theatre" that would take its work to other communities in Canada.

One of the four women who filed suit, Hannah Miller, acknowledged Thursday that she struggled with the prospect of Soulpepper's reputation being damaged by her allegations.

"The implication that we are ruining something is maybe the reason why it's so hard (to speak out)," she said.

Tatha Swann of Levitt LLP, one of the lawyers representing the four women suing Schultz, said she expects "there's going to be a huge impact on (Soulpepper's) production, and I think this is something that has to happen in order to send a message."

"What we hope to see is that (Schultz) is removed from his role and that Soulpepper does an internal cleaning, that they put in policies that have teeth and enforce them to make sure this doesn't happen again," Swann said.

A prominent figure in the Canadian theatre world and the company he founded are facing four separate lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment.

Stephen Paskey, a theatre lover and law professor at the University of Buffalo, has seen several shows at Soulpepper in the last two years and also pledged to boycott the company as long as Schultz is on the payroll.

"It's wonderful, it is a fabulous resource not just for the city of Toronto but for everyone who visits," he said. "It really has been one of my favourite theatre companies."

Paskey called the allegations "incredibly disheartening and maddening," noting he "believes that the women are being truthful about the incidents that they have described."

Reesor said she feels strongly about her boycott but doesn't want to see Soulpepper go under. She wants an overhaul of the board.

"I want Soulpepper to thrive again. We need companies like Soulpepper for artists in this country," said Reesor, who is also hoping to see a regulating body created for the theatre world.

Hughes also hopes Soulpepper will survive.

"I would hope that the theatre returns to the ideals that are positive there and that the workplace becomes an environment where people can speak freely about their fears and concerns," he said.

"We hope that it continues in good health."