I went to University in Boston. Don't ask me why but I had it in my head that I had to leave home after highschool, live in another city (another country, as it turned out), get some space from the town where my parents live, where I'd spent all of highschool and lived since I was 13 years old. What I learned while I was away was just how much I love being here, in Toronto. My Boston friends still laugh at the extreme enthusiasm with which I convince them to visit my hometown, but when they finally agree to come- Bostonians and New Yorkers all skeptical about Canada's greatness- the city never fails to win them over. Because it's the best place there is; that sounds hyperbolic, but I've been lots of places, and I've never found a city as vibrant and welcoming and just plain cool as Toronto.
The Young Centre poobah is also (or, rather, coincidingly) the founding and current Artistic Director of Soulpepper, a thrilling repertory company that is in many ways the centre of Toronto's theatrical community. At only 15-years-old, Soulpepper easily rivals the acclaimed Stratford and Shaw festivals in the acting talent it attracts and with a year-round season of diverse works, it's the unrivaled go-to company for quality productions in Toronto. And Schultz is at the centre of it all as the face of the company as well as a participating actor and director.
The upcoming 2012 season hosts yet another lineup of promising productions covering all genres and periods. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Kim's Convenience again, the 2011 Fringe festival hit written by Soulpepper Academy graduate Ins Choi, as it kicks off the new season on January 12th. In February, My Theatre favourites Evan Buliung and Gregory Prest will take on the intense Long Day's Journey Into Night with Soulpepper's go-to actress Nancy Palk in O'Neill's most demanding role, while the super wonderful Oliver Dennis and Mike Ross will appear with Diego Matamoros in High Life directed by Stuart Hughes. Schultz will direct Home in May and David Storch will take on Speed-the-Plow in July (Mamet's always done well for Soulpepper, being that they're mutually awesome and all). Big name Kenneth Welsh will return to the stage with The Sunshine Boys and Schultz will direct The Crucible followed by a remount of his hit production of another Arthur Miller piece, Death of a Salesman. Endgame (Lord help us all, but if anyone can convince me to like Beckett, it's Soulpepper), You Can't Take It With You, The Royal Comedians an A Christmas Carol round out the eventful season to come.
Once a year, The Young Centre is filled with 3 days worth of Toronto's greatest musical talent at The Global Cabaret Festival. This year's was at the end of October, and it was the coolest weekend I've ever spent in this city.
The 4th annual showcase featured more than 150 musicians in 44 performances from Oct 28-30 and was composed of 3 types of cabarets: The Featured Artist Series showcased, well, featured artists, including some of Canada's most legendary talent (Jackie Richardson to Sharron Matthews to Daniel Taylor) performing their signature material. The Album Series was a set of tributes to the great artists and songwriters of the world (The Beatles, Paul Simon, Carole King, and more) music directed by the festival's resident artists and each featuring a plethora of guest stars. Finally there was the Theatrical Cabaret Series, which consisted of re)Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song, a Soulpepper original re-mounted from its earlier run, and The National Theatre of the World: The Carnegie Hall Show, a completely improvised musical event that was different at each performance.
Next, I was lucky enough to catch Jackie Richardson's own cabaret, a delightful hour of jazz and blues as delivered by one of Canada's most awesome performers. Richardson's show dragged only a little as she got lost in some of her more wandering anecdotes (most of which were simply hilarious) but the power of her voice and her engaging stage presence proved impossible to ignore.
White Biting Dog, then amazing in Acting Up Stage's Leonard Cohen/Joni Mitchell tribute, but the boyishly charming multi-hyphenate seems to whip out another mastered skill every time I see him and impress me even more. I'm just sad that at The Global Cabaret Festival I only got to see him sing Stan Rogers.
After that, I made the mistake of trying to get into The Beatles's Abbey Road from the Album Series at 8:15, missing my last chance to see the E.E. Cummings show I'd missed earlier this year at Soulpepper. When The Beatles turned out to be too popular (duh!), I called it a night.
I spent my Sunday with a musician friend of mine who was working at the festival instead of scouting out the rest of the Featured Artist Series (I figured between Schultz, Richardson and Matthews I'd gotten my money's worth). After dinner, my media pass got me in to see the final few minutes of Prince's Purple Rain, which I was glad to have mostly missed after musical director Suba Sankaran's gratingly forced enthusiasm proved too much for me to handle.
At 9:15 I capped off my excellent weekend at Toronto's coolest yearly event with the most popular show of the festival: Abbey Road. It was alright, not as memorable as I would have liked. After some of the brilliant cabarets earlier that weekend and the example set by Reza Jacobs' innovative takes on the Mitchell/Cohen songbooks, I'd come to expect a little re-interpretation when dealing with songs as famous as a Beatles track. But with the exception of a little extra drumming, the famous tunes remained largely untouched, delivered prettily but with a somewhat disappointing sense of adulation.
But a few underwhelming shows aside, the Global Cabaret Festival was freaking cool.
The Word Festival, which took place 2 weeks ago, was a less glamorous affair just in its first year of existence, but the slightly nerdy low-key-ness of the weekend gave it a sort of passion project feel that made it all the more fulfilling.
On the festival's opening night, Schultz MC'ed the Elmer Iseler Singers concert. He told a story about being a 15-year-old high school student asked to read Hamlet aloud in class. Most of the other students were struggling but he sailed right through, despite having never encountered Shakespeare before. He described the feeling of reading the verse like the experience of coming home, and realized that the reason he was so comfortable with the melodic, old-timey text was because he'd been raised going to church and singing in the choir; he'd been raised on the King James Bible. A classical acting career later, Schultz landed on the additional realization that we were in the year of the KJV (King James Version)'s anniversary, 1611, and that that was the same year Shakespeare produced his final play, The Tempest. So, for the 400th anniversary of 1611, Schultz and The Young Centre organized a celebration of the spoken word, honouring the publication of the two most influential texts in the English language- The King James Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It's a fascinating idea and resulted in a weekend of events, some utterly memorable, some wonderfully inspiring and some a little bit boring.
A main attraction of The Word Festival was the Live Reading of the KJV in the lobby of the Young Centre. 24hrs a day, 76 hours straight, someone was reading until the entire book had been spoken aloud at the festival. Soulpepper company members, the Young Centre resident artists and other prominent performers were called in to lend their voices to the reading, which concluded Sunday afternoon as Schultz read the final words and, punctuated by a fire alarm with a sense of humour, closed the book on Revelations. The whole thing streamed online, in case you were awake at 3:30am and just wanted to make sure they were still going, and was a fascinating thing to encounter as you moved from performance to performance.
Before the Elmer Eisler concert, the actual first event of the festival was a somewhat underwhelming introductory Shakespeare Panel that addressed the Bard's global influence. A Shakespeare nerd to the core, I was super psyched to hear from Professor Jill L. Levenson (who edited the Oxford R and J!) and Dr. Toby Malone (Soulpepper dramaturg, among other things). But what I found was that a panel discussion with festival artists (or, specifically, Schultz, if we're being honest here) would have been a lot more engaging. Academics like Levenson, though knowledgeable, can get caught up in theory (Levenson, for example, read from a prepared speech much of the time), whereas theatre actors/directors or just plain Shakespeare lovers are free-er to speak off-the-cuff, something Malone was much better at and panel guest Anthony Del Col (co-author of the comic book series Kill Shakepeare) excelled at. I would have loved to hear their in-depth thoughts about the texts themselves, to know which villain most inspired Del Col's narrative or pick Levenson's brain about what she thinks is the most important element in Romeo and Juliet. As it was, the stiff panel saw the expertise of its guests a little wasted.
Next up was National Theatre of the World: Impromptu Splendor. The award-winning 3 person improv troupe's play series features a brand new hour-long improvised play at each performance, generally done in the style of a particular playwright (Mamet, Miller, etc...). At The Word Festival, NTOW did two performances: one inspired by the KJV and one inspired by Shakespeare. Though I'm sure I would have loved the latter, the former was the one that fit into my schedule and, though impressive, it was sort of underwhelming. The bible's just so abstract for long-form improv to use as inspiration, the stories themselves more allegorical than dramatic (and NTOW had the misfortune of finding an aged Solomon groupie in their front row, who tripped them up a bit by guiding them towards the Old Testament king and away from the much more well-known and therefore spoofable New Testament Jesus stories). The way that the three players picked up on each others' cues and and constructed stories on their feet was tremendous, making me wish all the more that I had gotten to see what they did later in the festival with the complete works of Shakespeare.
I started Sunday with The Gospel According to Mark, which I thought would be a dramatic interpretation but was in fact just a reading of "The Gospel According to Mark". But that reading was done by stage legend Kenneth Welsh and if there's one truth that was unavoidable at The Word Festival it's that you haven't heard the bible until you've heard it read by a proper Shakespearean actor. Welsh, whom I've never actually seen perform outside of The Word Festival, gave a spectacular reading- grand and evocative, surprisingly funny at times. Nonreligious as I am, I may have zoned out from time to time (it was 2 hours of just bible, after all) but the overall effect was a powerful one.
interview earlier this year. I'd been in touch with co-creator Anthony Del Col about an interview for sister site My Books, but had simply run out of time and never gotten around to reading the comics. So I was beyond thrilled when The Word Festival hosted a staged reading of the series. Creators Del Col and Conor McCreery were joined on-stage by some of Soulpepper's best talent (including Prest, Malone, Wall from earlier in this giant article). The cast sat in two rows behind microphones, providing sound effects and the voices of the characters in Del Col and McCreery's epic battle of Shakespeare's heroes vs. Shakespeare's villains to save or kill the wizard Shakespeare. The whole presentation was pretty cool, the cast each voicing multiple characters, providing the shouts of a crowd, the murmurs of spirits, hoof prints, the sound of the wind and whatever else the story called for (Wall even played the score on a small keyboard to the side of his microphone). Andy Belanger's beautiful comic art was projected on a large screen as the story was told, giving the audience an excellent experience of the comic books, just a little more lively.
but it was Schultz's) then the 69-year-old Welsh wooed youthfully as an exuberant Romeo, grumbling "they never let me do that one" as he finished. There's nothing quite like a renowned actor playing for the sake of play, and Welsh's brilliant tour through whatever Shakespeare monologue we willed was something I would kill to see again.
I don't think there's anywhere else in the world where so many brilliant theatre artists and musicians could come together in a place like The Young Centre. Across the Soulpepper seasons, The Word Festival and the Global Cabaret Festivals, the diversity of culture, style, generation and point of view is unbelievable; it all feels very Torontonian somehow (and not just because the artists weren't all New York imports, they're ours). The Young Centre is a place for artistic celebration, no matter what the trappings, and its Albert Schultz who's let it be that way. Whether I'm chatting with actors at the opening of Soulpepper's Parfumerie, laughing at Bhaneja's daffy Polonius, or sitting in the back of the Michael Young as a packed house taps their toe alongside Jackie Richardson, I can't help but grin because this is where I live.
Take a tour of The Young Centre with Albert Schultz.