The Performer: Soulpepper Theatre Company's Albert Shultz

On passion, spreadsheets and balancing the often competing demands of business and art.

In 1998, Albert Schultz had starring roles in two successful TV series ( Street Legal and Side Effects) under his belt, plus countless stage credits. But that year, he took the biggest leap of his career, founding the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto. In the 12 years since, Schultz has made Soulpepper into a model for independent theatre: a huge success both artistically and commercially. He spoke with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

Founded: 1998

Number of original productions: 84

Actors contracted in 1998: 28

Actors contracted in 2010: 192

Tickets sold in 1998: 3,935

Tickets sold in 2010: 83,477

Fundraising revenue, 1998: $418,000

Fundraising revenue, 2010: $3,343,000

What’s been the key ingredient in your success?
I think success is determined by the ability to clearly articulate the passion within. I would say it is a combination of passion and persistence. And then right alongside that is team building.

You were a successful actor long before you started Soulpepper. Where did that entrepreneurial impulse come from?
Up until I was 35, which is the year that I started Soulpepper, I’d been very successful in my performing career and thinking pretty much about how to take opportunities that came to me. And something happened around 35, which was that I started thinking about how to make opportunities as opposed to take them. The way I did that is I thought about people that I admired, either people I knew very, very well, people that I didn’t know as well but I admired from afar, or people that have come along and have been discovered, you know, as the journey progresses. The thing that gives me my mojo is the opportunity to give opportunities to others.

When you become the guy making opportunities, you’re clearly taking on a much greater level of personal and professional risk.
I think the corollary to being able to give the opportunities is the fact that you’re never able to completely satisfy all the people you want to satisfy because, you know, I have fiscal restraints, I have space restraints. There are only so many things you can do in one go, so that’s probably the toughest part of my job every year when I put together a season, which is, in a sense, a kind of blueprint for opportunities.

What is your philosophy on making tough choices?
Whether it was as an actor or a director, or now as an artistic director, if something doesn’t scare me a little when I first think about it, then I don’t really pursue it. It’s the stuff that’s just on the cusp of possibility that is the exciting stuff, where you know that at some point there’s going to be a narrow mountain pass. That’s the stuff that I find usually yields greater results.

Tell me what it feels like for you in the days leading up to opening night.
As a director, it’s a very, very different thing [than for an actor], because a director’s job is to get everyone to that point at the same time, to get every single element — be it lights, sound, costumes, stage management, company morale, each individual performance — and it’s a huge, huge responsibility and much more akin to a military manoeuvre than the actor’s job. And a lot of it is psychology, and a lot of it is you have to be really, really prepared each day for your work, where as an actor you kind of take what comes. And then it is, how do we balance the desire for perfection against the need for the company to feel that it’s theirs and not yours? For me, the best time is once the show is in previews. You get information from the audience the night before, and then you have to apply that in rehearsals the next day. That’s the time when the really, really exciting work gets done. However, at the same time you’ve got to make sure that you don’t bombard the actors with information so they get the misconception that what they’re doing isn’t good enough. So that’s a really tricky balance.

How do you prioritize when you’re responsible for both the creative and the commercial success of an enterprise?
When I’m thinking about making creative decisions, from Day 1 I’m applying the other side of the brain to that. As an artistic director, I build a season — it’s strange, and I don’t know if anyone else does this — but I literally build a season with an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve got every single bit of box-office information for 80 shows in the past — when they played, where they played, how they were critically received and not critically received, so I can look at it. At the same time, I’m looking at every single artist in the company — how to keep them busy enough and intrigued enough so that they stay passionate throughout the year. And I’m working on how many rehearsal hours a particular show needs over another show. And that same spreadsheet calculates how expensive it will be to add those additional hours, to do a show of that size. I look at what the yield might be based on past experience. For me, that’s a great challenge, and the puzzle of that is great fun.

If you had to choose between a show that was going to be creatively successful but a commercial flop, or the reverse, a commercial hit that isn’t the most rewarding creative experience, which would you choose?
Well, the beauty of planning a season the size that I plan is I don’t actually have to make that choice. I have no compunction about putting a show like The Odd Couple — both for artistic reasons and commercial reasons — into a season if that season also has Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It’s a great play of its kind, and yes, it’s one that I know commercially will do well as long as we do a good job at it. It’s going to have an immediate recognition factor with an audience, and people are going to laugh, and they’re going to tell their friends to come. But if I had to choose between a season of 12 plays that are commercial hits and 12 plays that are artistic hits, I would make a choice for the creatively challenging one and then figure out how to make it work.

What do you still want to achieve?
What I want to do is I want to use Soulpepper and the resources we have here to create new and exciting work, not to mount productions, but to create original work based on the classics, that stretches our notion of how theatre is made as it now exists. That’s one thing. The other thing, I would like to expand the repertoire to start to tell stories that go outside of the western canon. And I’d like to see a heightened commitment to the training of artists, actors, designers and directors in particular, which I think isn’t being done enough, or well enough, so I’d like to see more of that. And I’d like to see more interaction between disciplines. There’s where I’ll start.