01/04/2018 13:10 EST | Updated 01/04/2018 17:29 EST

Albert Schultz Accusers Hannah Miller, Kristin Booth, Diana Bentley, Patricia Fagan Speak Out

Four actresses have filed lawsuits against Albert Schultz and Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Carlos Osorio via Getty Images
Plaintiffs, clockwise from top left, Hannah Miller, Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth and Diana Bentley were present at a press conference held Thursday. They are seeking a total of $4.25 million in damages from Soulpepper and $3.6 million from Albert Schultz in their separate sexual assault claims.

TORONTO — Four actresses who allege prominent Soulpepper theatre co-founder Albert Schultz sexually harassed them for years say the company's failure to deal with their repeated complaints prompted them to go public.

Speaking out Thursday, a day after Soulpepper relieved Schultz of his artistic-director and other duties as it conducts an investigation, the four plaintiffs in civil lawsuits against the prominent theatre figure and the company said it was terrifying coming forward but felt they had no choice.

"Albert Schultz is the face of Soulpepper: He had the power to cast or not cast an actress," said Tatha Swann, a lawyer for the women. "There was fear to make a complaint. The power dynamic was extreme."

So far, Schultz, 54, has said he would defend himself vehemently against the allegations in the women's statements of claim in which they say he groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately with impunity for years.

None of their allegations has been tested in any court and neither Schultz nor Toronto-based Soulpepper has filed a statement of defence.

The lawsuits by Kristin Booth, Hannah Miller, Diana Bentley and Patricia Fagan prompted Soulpepper to order Schultz to step down from his posts pending an internal investigation. Schultz's wife and company executive director, Leslie Lester, volunteered to step down in the interim, the company's board of directors said.

Never saw anti-harassment policies in action, actress says

The allegations against Schultz and the theatre company's alleged failing to deal with them come after Soulpepper revealed in October that it had severed ties with longtime guest artist Laszlo Marton, who it said had engaged in sexual harassment.

Booth derided Soulpepper for bragging publicly in October about its policies against sexual harassment.

"I never once saw a policy on sexual harassment," Booth said. "Knowing the culture there, the hypocrisy of that statement is what motivated me to come forward so that this does not happen to one other young woman coming up into that company."

Miller said working conditions at Soulpepper are not safe for actors whose jobs lead them to be open and vulnerable.

"There's a sanctity of the theatre that is being violated," Miller said. "For women out there who are young actresses who are at the start of their career, have the strength to deserve what you deserve, and that is a safe work environment and a safe place for you to make art."

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.

The allegations prompted four other artists to say on Thursday they had resigned as a show of solidarity with the complainants, who have all agreed to be publicly identified.

Ted Dykstra, who along with Stuart Hughes, Michelle Monteith and Rick Roberts resigned from the theatre company as a symbol of support, said they would not work again with Soulpepper unless Schultz is fired.

"I don't really think choice is involved," Dykstra said. "I can't work there knowing what I know. I know these women and I believe these stories."

The lawsuits come as the entertainment industry reels from a growing list of sexual harassment and assault allegations that followed accusations against Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein last year. Weinstein's spectacular fall from grace sparked a social media outpouring of women speaking out about what they had endured.

A prominent figure in the Canadian theatre world and the company he founded are facing four separate lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. Director Albert Schultz is pictured in his office in Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts on Monday.

"The #metoo campaign has showed us that for the first time people are listening and that people care," Fagan said.

Soulpepper bills itself as Toronto's largest not-for-profit theatre company and Schultz has played a key role in its repertoire. He is also executive producer on the hit CBC TV series, "Kim's Convenience," a television actor with roles on shows including "Street Legal" and "Alias Grace," and was honoured with an Order of Canada in 2013.

Soulpepper also provides training for aspiring actors and theatre artists.