TORONTO — The renowned co-founder of one of the country's leading theatre companies resigned Thursday, just days after four actresses alleged in lawsuits that he had sexually harassed them with impunity for years.
In a statement, the board of directors of Soulpepper Theatre Company, which previously said it had relieved artistic director Albert Schultz of his responsibilities pending an investigation, said it had accepted his resignation effective immediately.
"Mr. Schultz's resignation will allow Soulpepper to focus on its core mission: to provide a safe community for its exceptionally talented group of professionals," the statement said.
"While this has been a tremendously difficult chapter in Soulpepper's history, (the) decision ensures the organization is able to move forward with confidence and remain a leading Canadian theatre company."
Schultz confirmed his resignation in a statement and said he will "vigorously defend" himself against the allegations.
"I have made this decision in the interest of the future of the company into which I poured the last 20 years of my life, and in the interest of the aspirations of the artists and administrators of the company," he said.
The resignation came hours after the four actresses — Kristin Booth, Hannah Miller, Diana Bentley and Patricia Fagan — held a news conference to lambast Schultz and Soulpepper, saying the company's failure to deal with their repeated complaints had prompted them to go public.
"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."
In their four statements of claim filed this week in Ontario Superior Court, the women allege Schultz groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately.
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 also prompted Schultz's wife and company executive director, Leslie Lester, to step down, the directors said on Wednesday.
The allegations against Schultz and the theatre company's alleged failing to deal with them came after Soulpepper revealed in October that it had severed ties with longtime guest artist Laszlo Marton, who it said had engaged in sexual harassment.
On Thursday, 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 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 company as a symbol of support, said they would not work again with Soulpepper unless Schultz was 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."
Late Thursday, Dykstra indicated that Schultz' resignation had changed the situation.
"Yes, absolutely," he said. "We will honour our contracts."
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.
"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.