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Q&A: Soulpepper artistic director Weyni Mengesha on life after Schultz

And how to save a theatre company from its scandal-plagued past

By Courtney Shea| Photography by Emma McIntyre
Q&A: Soulpepper artistic director Weyni Mengesha on life after Schultz

You recently moved from L.A. back to Toronto for your new Soulpepper gig. So did you call them, or did they call you? When the opportunity arose, I put my name in the hat. I’m a graduate of the Soulpepper Academy, which probably gave me an edge; the sustainability of the organization is important to me.

Just a few years back, when a leadership job opened up in Toronto theatre, people would call it “the white guy shuffle.” Is your appointment a sign that the scene is changing? I could never have imagined being the artistic director of Soulpepper back when I was a student. I saw that lack of diversity, and it fuelled me.

Your predecessor, Albert Schultz, resigned from the job after being accused of sexual impropriety. How has that affected your new role? It affected the role before I even applied. During my interview, I was also interviewing them, finding out what they were doing to ensure these kinds of incidents don’t happen in the future.

And what did you learn? There is a new statement of promises, a new code of conduct and an anonymous whistle-blower line. Everybody in the company is going through training on what’s okay and what’s not.

At Soulpepper, Schultz was a famously gifted fundraiser. What’s your strategy for scoring donations? I’m going to step up to the challenge. Soulpepper has a community of donors who believe in the artists. I also plan to cultivate new audiences. We live in a multicultural city, but our audiences don’t reflect that. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If you don’t create content for different people, how do you get different people to come?

What kind of programming can we expect? I came to this job championing Canadian voices that weren’t represented on stage, in shows like ’da Kink in My Hair and Kim’s Convenience. With ’da Kink, for example, we were the first Canadian show at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and a show about women of colour at that.

How do you know when a show is going to be great? If there’s even one line that I can’t wait for the audience to hear, I know I’ve got something. People come to the theatre because it’s a place where you can speak honestly—and spend two hours without checking your phone.

Unless you’re Kanye West, who recently got called out for being on his phone at a Broadway show. Sometimes there are moments you can’t help, like a kid screaming. That’s why theatre is so riveting—you never know what will happen.

I understand your original artistic passion was hip hop. I grew up in Scarborough, and hip hop was my first exposure to artistic expression.

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So you weren’t a freestyle champ? No, no. But I had friends who were. I was part of an arts group in high school called Black To the Future.

Your husband, Eion Bailey, is an actor who has worked with stars like Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt. Who’s the biggest celeb you’ve met? I was recently in a room with Ava DuVernay, and I was star-struck. But we’d go to parties, and I would think I knew the guests. I’d say, “So nice to see you again,” and my husband would whisper to me, “You don’t know that guy. He’s on Mad Men.

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How did you and Eion feel about moving to Toronto? He’ll still have to travel a lot, but we’re excited to be around my family and community. I’m also excited about leaving behind L.A. traffic and riding our bikes and walking to work.

You used to host weekly house parties called “Sweet Sundays.” Do you plan to revive that tradition? That’s the first thing people have been asking me. We had these great parties with DJs and African drummers. I have two kids now, so maybe the parties will have to be a bit more PG.

Do you bring your kids to rehearsals? They’ve grown up playing in theatre lobbies and on film sets. We have pictures of me breastfeeding between takes when my husband and I co-directed our first film. They’re our critics when we rehearse at home.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction
January 24, 2019

An earlier version of this interview listed Director X as a one-time member of the arts group Black to the Future. That reference has been removed.

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