Embattled Soulpepper theatre names Weyni Mengesha new artistic director

TORONTO — The embattled Soulpepper Theatre Company is turning to award-winning L.A.-based director Weyni Mengesha as its new artistic director.

The Vancouver-born, Toronto-bred dramaturge takes the reins amidst a whirlwind of reinvention at the non-profit, which is still emerging from the fallout of sexual harassment allegations against co-founder Albert Schultz.

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Once a giant in the Canadian theatre scene, the impresario stepped down as artistic director in January vowing to vigorously defend himself in a lawsuit filed by four actresses. All parties said in August that they had reached an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which have not been disclosed.

Mengesha assumes her post in January 2019. The challenge now, she says, is: "How do we move forward?"

"It's about opening lines of communication, clarifying the line of communication for all the artists," says Mengesha, known for shaping the internationally successful "'da Kink in My Hair."

"Being really clear about what our values are, being really clear about the safety in the workspace and that everybody's voice is important, making sure that those channels are open and welcomed."

She says that includes broadening Soulpepper's audience through new measures that could include open mic nights, and more cabaret-style musical pieces.

Mengesha's ties to Soulpepper stretch back to 2006-2008 when she was a member of the company's training program, Soulpepper Academy.

From there, she cultivated an impressive career that included directing several hit productions including 2008's "Raisin in the Sun," and 2012's box office hit "Kim's Convenience," now a successful CBC-TV series, which she has also directed.

In a release announcing the appointment Thursday, board chair Vanessa Morgan says Mengesha brings a "truly unique set of values, passions, talents and leadership qualities to shape Soulpepper's artistic vision and direction."

The search committee included six board members and artist advisors who sought out "a leader with clear artistic vision and ambition," a passion for "theatre that explores social and political issues" and "a genuine commitment to creating new opportunities for diverse voices."

Last week, Soulpepper outlined several steps it has taken to strengthen workplace culture since the scandal broke. They include a new confidential whistleblower hotline, "anti-oppression" workshops, and a code of conduct that was adopted Sept. 10.

One of Mengesha's first priorities will be to develop and co-lead a five-year strategic plan with the company's new executive director, Emma Stenning, appointed in August. The U.K.-based Stenning begins her post Nov. 19 and joins Soulpepper after serving as chief executive of Bristol Old Vic.

Now based in Los Angeles, Mengesha started her career in Toronto directing "'da Kink in My Hair" across North America and in London.

As far back as her days as a budding dramaturge at York University, she recalls being frustrated by a lack of diversity in the industry.

"(I recall) having to go in my fourth year to the dean and say, 'I'm not going to do this fourth year. Actually, I want to do my own independent study, it's going to be called, "In Search of an African-Canadian Theatre Aesthetic,"'" says Mengesha.

"When I was going into university I had a very hard time. I struggled to find an African-Canadian monologue to audition with. And now people audition with ''da Kink in My Hair' from me.

"Things are changing and a lot of us are invested in the change."

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