Feature

Notes on Albert

The story of a master storyteller

by
Photography by Liam Sharp

• 6,199 words

Photograph by Liam Sharp
Character study Albert Schultz, founding artistic director of the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Thank you. Thank you, everybody. I’d like to run through that scene again, if you don’t mind. But let’s break here for a few minutes, shall we? I have some notes I want to give you.

Lights? Hello? Lights?

Can we make that last transition—the shift from six-year-old Albert at stage right to the forty-two-year-old Albert Schultz, stage left—a few beats longer, please? I want to go very, very slowly from the fade on Penryn Park in Port Hope in 1969 to the rising lights of Soulpepper’s new theatre in 2006.

I know it’s dramatic. That’s the point. I don’t want to shy away from theatricality here.

After all…

Hello? Hello, everybody. Could you all listen up for a moment, please?

After all, this is a story about theatre. It’s a story about the community of creative energies that comes together when a story is told live, in the transience of a spotlighted moment, from a stage. That’s why the lighting is so important here.

It’s the story of a specific theatre, one that becomes the creative centre of Albert Schultz’s life, and that had its beginnings in the dreams of a six-year-old as he looks from the window of the red-brick Victorian mansion he is about to lose.

Sound? Hello? Sound?

I love the crickets. Midsummer crickets are a sound as recognizable in southern Ontario as the call of red-winged blackbirds, but let’s have the crickets echo a bit longer, I think. Because I don’t want the sounds of Penryn to be confined to Penryn. Do you see what I mean? It’s an important point. The sound of crickets continues through that slow transition from stage right to left. This transition represents almost four decades of Albert Schultz’s life.

The sounds of Penryn have to stay with him—as a boy in boarding schools in New Hampshire and Alberta; as a drama student at York University and at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art; as an actor in Robin Phillips’ Young Company in Stratford, Ontario, in the late ’80s; as a young husband and father in Toronto; as a star of CBC Television’s Street Legal and Side Effects; and as a member of the group of friends and actors who worked together to establish Soulpepper. I still want to hear those crickets as the stage left lights come up—come up slowly, come up dramatically—on the opening night of Our Town on January 23, 2006.

Because that’s the story we’re telling here.

Because in the sixteen years of its existence, Soulpepper has grown from an idea created by a group of friends and fellow actors to one of our most important and dynamic theatres. What began as an enterprise so financially fragile its founders sank their own money into its improbable aspirations, sold hot dogs at fundraisers, and solicited donations, however tiny, from family and friends is now a $10-million-a-year operation with forty-eight full-time artistic, technical, and administrative staff.

Not that it’s exactly stable. No arts institution in Canada ever is. Still, it has come a long way.

One of its productions, Ins Choi’s charming, wistful comedy, Kim’s Convenience, is now on a national tour. Last summer’s production of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, the most ambitious and therefore the most risky show Albert Schultz has ever directed, was such a critical and box-office smash that it will be remounted next year.

Soulpepper is now integral to Canadian cultural life, but its early days were naive and idealistic, and it might’ve gone the way of many an improbable artistic dream if Albert hadn’t been one of the people doing the dreaming.

Because here’s the story. Hello? Everyone? Please.

Here’s what that stage left spot is coming up on.

After eight years at Toronto’s Harbourfront, Soulpepper relocated to its new headquarters in the city’s reclaimed Distillery District. The move was not without risk; the once dilapidated Victorian complex had yet to establish itself as the destination it is today. But if Albert was anxious, he gave no outward hint of it. He is a general who, once committed to a charge, goes at full gallop, sabre brandished. With a fundraising campaign built around the Michael Young Family Foundation’s $3-million lead gift, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts—designed by Thomas Payne of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects—opened in 2006.

It was Albert Schultz, founding artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company and general director of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, who spoke the first line of the first play produced in the company’s handsome new home. He was cast, appropriately, as the Stage Manager. Given his near-religious insistence on Soulpepper’s importance to the community, his opening line was apt: “This play is called Our Town.”

Albert didn’t invent Soulpepper on his own, but no one has been more central to its creation, more devoted to its expansion, and more dedicated to its mission of creating a community of actors, directors, playwrights, and designers. In a list of professional achievements that includes playing Hamlet, giving new life to such Canadian classics as John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War, and directing William Hutt in Soulpepper’s 2004 Waiting for Godot, he considers creating the Soulpepper Academy—the company’s two-year training program for young actors, designers, directors, producers, and playwrights—the accomplishment of which he is most proud.

So. Lights? Hello?

I don’t want the transition from the past to feel ordinary. This isn’t any old passage of time. This isn’t about a man who, in the face of the uncertainties of an artistic career, created a steady job for himself—even if the job is particularly well suited to his talents and energies.

No, I want the lighting to say more than that. I want this to be a story about a man who is his job.

The name Soulpepper came from a moment when the fledgling company was still trying to figure out what to call itself, and the then three-year-old daughter of Albert and actor-writer Susan Coyne overheard a phone conversation between her father and Nancy Palk. Julia was colouring at the kitchen table, listening to him talk about the need for a name that would convey both “depth and spice,” and Julia piped up with “Soulpepper.” For anyone who has seen artists as talented as Diego Matamoros, or Nancy Palk, or Joseph Ziegler, or Diana Leblanc, or Ted Dykstra, or William Webster work their magic, the spiciness of “pepper” is clear.

And the other part? The depth part? Let’s just say that I want those stage left lights to come up on a man who believes so passionately in the power and the necessity of theatre that when he speaks about the company there is no doubt that he is talking about his soul.

Oh, I know.

We can argue about whether Soulpepper has strayed from its original mandate to produce lesser-known works from the classical canon. Or whether it has evolved into an institution that sees its civic responsibilities (professional training, youth outreach) as more fundamental to its purpose than performing gems of the stage overlooked by Stratford and Shaw, by the West End and Broadway.

There can be differences of opinion about these matters. The theatre world isn’t known for its collegial, mutually supportive nature, and the arrival of a new kid on the block was bound to ruffle feathers. In stories about Soulpepper, critics often complain that the collective has become too commercial, too mainstream, too—dare I say it?—popular.

In an email exchange with Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck, University of Toronto professor Holger Syme complained that the company “have now transformed themselves into a commercial enterprise offering an utterly conventional, very safe repertory of not-very-old plays staged with slick production values in polished and largely unchallenging performances.” He might have a point.

Theorists often do.

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests—one of last fall’s hits, directed by Ted Dykstra and starring the rumpled, irrepressible Albert Schultz as the rumpled, irrepressible Norman—is a long way from the austere, intellectually rigorous 1998 production of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, directed by Robin Phillips. This was Soulpepper’s inaugural production, and it was followed by Molière’s The Misanthrope, Chekhov’s seldom-produced first full-length drama, Platonov, and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. From the vantage point of those early years, it would have been difficult to imagine a Soulpepper production of The Odd Couple, but there it was, in 2008, starring Albert and Matamoros. Unapologetically, he lists The Odd Couple among his most satisfying professional achievements.

The Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian seemed to sense that there might be grumbling about a theatre critic’s enthusiasm for Soulpepper doing Neil Simon, and for that reason perhaps he made sure to cite Albert’s and Matamoros’s work in Chekhov and Pinter in his four-star review. “The beautiful part,” he wrote of Matamoros’s Felix and Albert’s Oscar, “is these guys aren’t slumming. They’re treating the script as the modern comedy classic it is.”

I don’t think Holger Syme could have found this rationale convincing.

But if there’s room for argument about Soulpepper, there’s not much when it comes to Albert Schultz. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” says actor and Soulpepper founding member William Webster. “Who is the creator of Soulpepper as it exists now? Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s Albert.”

This is not an isolated view.

David Young, the genial but pragmatic philanthropist who oversees the Michael Young Family Foundation, says much the same thing when I ask him to explain how involved the foundation was in the planning and design of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. After all, it paid for a big chunk of it. “That’s easy,” he replies. “We had no input. Zero. We were investing in Albert’s vision. It was all Albert.”

So let’s make an unequivocal statement with the lighting, shall we? And with the sound. And with wardrobe—although I’m not sure we’ve got the costume quite right yet, darling. Somehow, he always has to look the same, whether he’s in a tuxedo or jeans and sandals. He always has to look big and bearish, and a little dishevelled. His appearance is somehow a combination of not having gone to bed and having just got out of it. But we’ll get there. I’m not sure we’ll keep the sandals. But we’ll get there.

So. Hello? Everybody? Listen, please.

I want everything to be dramatic for a simple reason. Because this is the story of a dramatic personality.

Is Albert Schultz charismatic? Is he charming? Is he seductive? Is he convincing? Is he dynamic? Let’s put it this way: David Young committed his family’s foundation to backing Schultz’s vision, to the tune of what turned out to be $3 million, without ever seeing a Soulpepper play.

After one conversation with Albert, on the steps of Upper Canada College in 2003, Young sat bolt upright at five the next morning, woke his wife, Robin, and announced, “We have to back this guy.” How did he arrive at so startling a conclusion? Young says simply, “Albert is a force of nature.”

Here’s another example.

Charles Baillie, the former chairman and CEO of TD Bank, ran into Albert at the Rosedale subway station in 2005 when he (Albert) was on his way to meet Soulpepper’s founding chair, Roger Garland. In a characteristically impassioned conversation, Albert told Baillie that Soulpepper was about to embark on another fundraising campaign. The Young Centre was a year from completion, but the company needed an additional $1 million to create a rehearsal space, and to add prop, paint, costume, and carpentry shops adjacent to the theatre.

The conversation was brief, and after Albert said goodbye to Baillie and his wife it took him ten minutes to walk through Rosedale to Garland’s home. When he arrived, Garland had just hung up the phone.

“Charlie Baillie just called,” he told Albert at the door. “He said to tell you they’ll do it.”

“Do what? ” Albert asked.

“They’ll put up the $1 million.”

That’s why I want this story to be theatrical. Because theatrical is the kind of guy Albert Schultz is.

But make no mistake. Albert’s theatricality is more than occupational. It’s in his bones. Don’t forget that, everyone. He is someone who saw his first play at the age of four. It was an amateur production of Oliver! in Cobourg, Ontario, and his mother played Nancy.

“Oh, that was very exciting,” he says. He was not traumatized by his mother’s murder at the hands of Bill Sikes, but he was impressed with being able to go backstage and be among people who had the magical ability to transform themselves into other people.

Albert Schultz was born in Port Hope, Ontario, in 1963. His father, Peter, and his mother, Virginia, were American born. Theirs was a romantic liaison between a pretty au pair and a man whose Pittsburgh forebears had built their summer home in Port Hope in the late nineteenth century. The tributary of fortune had dwindled by the time it came down to Peter, but its historic flood still resonated. It was still part of the family legend.

Peter Schultz had become the editor of the Port Hope Evening Guide, then a literate, widely respected local newspaper, and the family’s summer compound became the year-round home for the couple and their two sons and one daughter. Albert is the youngest.

This was Penryn Park, and if Albert’s love of theatre is in his bones so is his belief in the idea of community. He believes he inherited this from his father, a conservationist and civic leader who played an early and important role in the preservation of Port Hope’s architectural heritage. It’s something so deeply rooted in Albert Schultz’s psyche, he calls it his “community gene.”

Penryn was a gathering place of friends and family, and when he was a boy it was the centre of Albert’s universe. It was the place where, as he puts it, he “belonged,” and it’s no accident that the word crops up frequently in Soulpepper’s descriptions of itself. “As Toronto’s largest theatre company,” says one of its brochures, “it is our commitment…to provide a place of belonging for our audience.” In the conclusion to the message from the artistic director in the 2013 program (messages that are always signed, simply, “Albert”) he writes, “Please come whenever you can. Soulpepper belongs to you.”

So. Lights? What I want is for the transition from the boy at the window of a red-brick Victorian mansion looking out over the beech trees of Penryn Park in Port Hope, to the artistic director of Soulpepper standing alone on the stage of the Michael Young Theatre to be so solemn, so elegiac in its pacing that it becomes almost too much.

Because that’s how Albert tells his story. He writes it large. But not too large. Every now and then, he disarms his audience by lowering a mischievous, conspiratorial smile into the shaggy, momentary shrug of his I-know-this-sounds-like-I’m-making-it-up shoulders. It’s a conversational gesture he uses to assure people that he’s being absolutely, almost intimately sincere.

Here’s an example of what I mean: after detailing the family history by which the forty-five hectares of Penryn’s forest and tumbling hillsides and red-brick buildings and picturesque views of Lake Ontario came to be jointly owned by his father and his father’s three sisters, he says, “You see. It’s already getting Chekhovian.”

If you know your Chekhov, and if you’re beginning to realize how consciously literary Albert is when it comes to explaining himself, the comment can only be taken as artful foreshadowing. You know there’s going to be a loss before the curtain.

The Schultz family was Pittsburgh, meaning they were from Pittsburgh or related to people from Pittsburgh, or they married into Pittsburgh, or in some way could claim a connection to a city that was part of an economy that, in the nineteenth century, was so powerful there were people who were by no means the richest in the city—not by a long shot—but who could build and maintain beautifully gracious summer homes on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

Where was the money coming from to staff the kitchens of Penryn? To employ the groundskeepers and hire the laundress? To pay for the billiard table and the tennis court? To look after the roads and the roofs and the woods and the fields?

It was coming, as Albert makes clear in the big, mythic way he tells the story, from the deep, rumbling engine of American industry and capital. It was coming from steel. It was coming from bridges. It was coming from engineering contracts. It was coming from the investments handled by the family’s Wall Street broker.

At the foundation of a place so idyllically pastoral were the open hearths and the coke ovens and the rod mills of America gearing up for what would be its heyday. Albert’s great-grandmother Winifred could remember going to stay for weekends at the stately Manhattan residence of their friends the Fricks.

“It was that kind of money,” says Albert, and this is what he describes as the “tangential privilege” of his life. He has never been wealthy, but he’s comfortable with people who are.

Which is an asset when it comes to fundraising. As Roger Garland likes to say, “I watched with great amusement as Albert went from someone who was terribly embarrassed to ask anyone for money to someone who could probably write a textbook about fundraising.”

Albert’s entire education was paid for by his beloved Aunt Henrietta, known as Retty, who had decided that all of her mother’s grandchildren and, as it happened, a few great-grandchildren would be educated entirely at her expense. Why? Because she wanted to. And because she could afford to. Just as Albert’s great-grandfather Henry King was wealthy enough to build a place so beautiful and big it would remain the centre of family summers for generations.

What Albert saw from his bedroom window as a boy really was a magical landscape, gorgeous in its rambling splendour, a place that contained all of the stories and adventures he could invent. There was the main house, and there were various outbuildings, and former stables and cottages, and spots where visiting families could pitch tents if necessary. Summers were a shifting cast of cousins and friends. Sometimes, there were as many as twelve families swirling around one another during holidays at Penryn.

There was a big old swimming pool. There were dark woods. There were streams. There were raspberry brambles. There was the view, from the front veranda of the main house, of Lake Ontario. But Albert gives every detail of his description of Penryn the full weight of the past tense. He isn’t going to point out where an old orchard used to be without at least a raised eyebrow. “Yes,” he says, almost with a sigh. “There really was a cherry orchard. But it’s gone now. You can still practically hear the axes.”

Albert Schultz is six foot one, with broad shoulders and a girth that he now carries with a certain confidence. It’s not a big stomach as middle-aged men’s stomachs go, but it is definitely a centre of gravity. He has wrestled with his smoking—successfully, on his good days—but he’s a man who enjoys good food and good wine, and who doesn’t entirely see the point of reducing those pleasures drastically to be a little thinner.

If his size is what people initially see, it’s somehow not what people tend to remember. His lightness of step and his energy leave the memory of a more compact form. You remember his friendliness. You remember the mischief he enjoys keeping in play in conversation. You remember how passionate he is about whatever Soulpepper project is currently occupying him. And you remember the sense he so often conveys that you and you alone are the one person with whom he is most pleased to be speaking.

But you don’t remember his size. Not exactly. No matter how many times you meet him, he’s always bigger in person than you expect. And this, somehow, gives his bigness an unassuming quality.

Is he a modest man?

No. He is not a modest man. He’s an actor, a profession not noted, on the whole, for its modesty. But his aspirations—as an actor, as a director, and as the leader of Soulpepper—are so much a part of who he is that neither modesty nor immodesty seem relevant. Albert Schultz is Albert Schultz.

The third, actually. But the only one in the family who wasn’t a Princeton man. In fact, Albert didn’t complete his undergraduate degree at York. “Oy,” he says, by way of conveying how very unpromising this must have looked to his anxious relatives at the time. Still, as is often the case with confident young people, he could see a path that wasn’t entirely clear to others. And he took it.

This wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t a role for someone who doesn’t thrive on being in the spotlight. “Will you look who’s here! How wonderful to see you!” This was how the young Albert was routinely greeted by his beloved aunts. No wonder he so enjoys applause. No wonder he has worked so hard to earn it.

He usually expects to be the centre of attention, but for the best of reasons. He just usually is. That’s all.

By the time the stage right of Albert’s childhood at Penryn goes slowly to black and the stage left of his achievement at Soulpepper starts slowly coming up, I want to feel that we’ve been through a journey. The journey begins with a story so unforgettable it could be the opening of a novel, which is exactly why he uses it.

Albert Schultz isn’t just someone who’s good at telling stories. He thinks in stories. He decides in stories. He remembers in stories. When, for example, he tells how he and his current partner, Soulpepper executive director Leslie Lester, found their country home, he actually interrupts his own plot line to say, “I think I’ve structured this very well.” This comes a moment before he reveals that the property turns out to be next to a conservation area near Port Hope named after his father.

In his work and in his conversation, he gravitates to narrative strengths, grabbing attention when he wants to grab attention, holding back crucial information when he wants to arouse curiosity or prolong a revelation. When he speaks in public, as he often does, he says he usually has no idea what he’s going to say until he opens his mouth.

So, when he tells the story of his family coming from Pittsburgh to the north shore of Lake Ontario for their first summer holiday in the late 1800s, he describes his great-grandfather and great-grandmother passing their baby from the ship to the dock. At the very moment when the child was not quite in his grasp and not quite in hers, a wave pushed against the hull.

The gap suddenly widened. There was a moment of confusion. There was a frantic fumbling for the unravelling blanket. There was a splash.

Albert pauses here for the gasp he knows will come from his audience. He pays attention to timing.

Because then a subsequent wave pushed the hull of the steamship back against the timbers of the dock.

Here Albert pauses again. Out of respect for a family tragedy that’s more than a century old, but also out of his instincts for storytelling. He’s not going to rush a moment like this one. Then, once the moment has passed, he returns his audience to more cheerful ground. “It got better after that,” he says.

And he continues, and when he does, he has his audience (as he knew he would) entirely in his hands.

This raises a point about Albert Schultz that perhaps everybody—hello, people, could I have everyone’s attention, please?—that everybody should consider. And the point is this.

Albert’s fondness for the dramatic is rescued by his awareness of how close to being overly dramatic he can be. He is an actor, in other words. He loves being one. He always has. He was the only student in the history of his New Hampshire junior prep school to play the starring role in both grade eight and grade nine, in the annual production of Sherlock Holmes, a biographical fact he reveals with a cheery amusement that does not entirely obscure his pride.

When he met Susan Coyne, the talented actor he would marry and who would become the mother of his two children, he was playing Romeo at Stratford, and, of course, she was Juliet.

He is also a director—a gifted one, as Soulpepper’s recent production of Angels in America made clear to anyone who might have doubted it. He is an exceptionally good fundraiser. And he has surprised everyone (including, it seems, himself) by turning out to be a fastidious administrator. “Albert could have been anything,” says Roger Garland. “He’s an artist, yes, but he could have been the CEO of a large corporation, because his left brain–right brain connection is that good. He tracks his box office every day. Cost structure, ticket sales, marketing, the logistics of scheduling, employee relationships—he absorbs everything. He runs an amazingly complex theatre company, while he’s directing, while he’s acting, and while he’s dreaming up what’s going to happen next season. He’s amazing, frankly.”

Nobody disputes that his energy and vision are fundamental to Soulpepper’s success. It’s difficult to imagine Soulpepper without him, a claim he would strenuously dispute, even if he would be secretly pleased to lose the argument, because he has invested so much in making Soulpepper a collaborative adventure. But it’s important to remember that no matter how good he is at being the leader of a theatre, there’s no part of him that isn’t an actor. Running Soulpepper is his biggest, most demanding role.

The idea of collaboration was at the core of Soulpepper’s beginnings, and it’s there still. The Albert Schultz tour of Soulpepper’s headquarters reveals an organization in which the role of everyone—from carpenter, to star, to seamstress, to director of finance, to board chair, to the youngest member of the Soulpepper Academy—is honoured as an essential part of the whole. But Albert’s belief in collaboration is tempered by his firm grip on practicality. It’s not unlike his approach to directing a play. “He is,” as Diego Matamoros, one of Soulpepper’s most accomplished and experienced actors, puts it, “improvisationally dictatorial.” And that, as things have turned out, is exactly what the company needed.

In Soulpepper’s earliest days, there was a brief period of a collective four-person artistic directorship. But Albert emerged as the most ambitious, energetic, and multi-talented member of the original company. When in 1998 it launched its first season, Martha Burns, Susan Coyne, Ted Dykstra, Michael Hanrahan, Stuart Hughes, Diana Leblanc, Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk, Robyn Stevan, William Webster, and Joseph Ziegler were united by their passionate belief in live theatre. The notion of artistic collaboration sat at the heart of their creative vision, but there was also the matter of survival. There was also the matter of pushing. It quickly became clear that Albert would be the leader.

If this was a collective hunch, it has proven over time to be a good one. As Matamoros says of Albert’s leadership, “This is not debatable. His blend of qualities comes along once in a hundred years.”

Says David Young, “That is what’s really remarkable about Albert. It’s true, he has a million ideas a minute, but he also knows how to run things. That’s a rare combination of talents.”

So there, stage right, is Albert as a boy, looking out over the beech trees and rolling parkland of Penryn from his bedroom window. Think misty midsummer woods. Think trails and fields and evenings of gathered friends and family. Think songs and stories and after-dinner discussions of art and politics. Think about children playing in the burnished light of dusks that stretch from the freshness of a Northumberland County May to the cool of an Ontario September. And think of characters: the charming, magnetic father, the sensitive mother, the many cousins and friends, the beloved aunts. They could have stepped from the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. This was Penryn.

His home was a magical place—and I want us to give the word all of the weight Albert does when he speaks. Because this home was lost to him in 1969, when he was six years old.

His father died, and his mother moved her family away from the place where, until his father became ill, Albert was so happily growing up. The death of Peter Schultz, at forty-six from leukemia, was a deeply painful loss. But the abrupt move to Napanee, Ontario, from Port Hope was inexplicable, although there is something in Albert’s voice when he tells the story now that makes it clear that he understands his mother’s need to carve out a life with her children without the overpowering presence of her late husband’s family.

But the point is this. Hello? Everybody? This is key.

Albert Schultz did not grow out of Penryn. He didn’t get older and become interested in what was going on in other places. He didn’t drift away.

He lost it. It was taken from him.

He would return to Penryn for summer holidays during his teenage years, but it wasn’t the same. Penryn was his home one day; it belonged to other people the next. Of the four estates that controlled the property, only his immediate family’s was sympathetic to the idea, championed by the twenty-five-year-old Albert, his brother, and his cousin, that the land be kept in the family and run as an artists’ retreat. “We were ahead of our time,” he says. “We were prescient. But it wasn’t the moment.” In 1988, Penryn was sold.

The loss was as wounding as anything he has ever known. “That was a hard one,” he says. He speaks of it with the same sadness he conveys when he discusses setbacks such as not being invited back to Stratford after his triumphs in the Young Company. But it’s a loss even deeper than the professional disappointments every artist knows. Losing Penryn cut him to the bone. It was as heartbreaking as the rupture with friends and family that inevitably occurred when Romeo left Juliet.

Penryn was taken from him by death, and circumstance, and probably, he thinks, by fate.

Why fate? Because Albert Schultz is an actor. He is a storyteller. He has a performer’s instinct for how narrative works, and he doesn’t underplay his conviction that the most important part of what he’s achieved at Soulpepper, the creation of a community of artists, is about trying to find his way back to Penryn.

So. Hello? Everyone? Please. Listen for a moment.

The transition begins at an open bedroom window in a red-brick Victorian mansion, on the crest of a forest overlooking Lake Ontario. That was a while ago. He’s fifty now. And he was forty-two when the lights came up on him, as the Stage Manager in Our Town, on the stage of the theatre he built.

So the transition of the lighting has to carry a sense of time gone by, and of the losses along the way. Because as charmed as Albert Schultz likes to makes things sound, there were disappointments: bad reviews, funding shortfalls, the ongoing difficulties of finding money. And there is this: he is a man equally possessed by a belief in collaboration and a towering ego, which means he hasn’t always been the easiest person to work with. There have been sharp, difficult moments in rehearsals with colleagues he’s worked with for decades, but that, as Joseph Ziegler points out, is to be expected: “Overreacting is sometimes just part of the deal.”

Because the fact is, he has achieved great success.

Because looking back—and that’s what the transition from stage right to left is all about—things don’t seem so very surprising, do they? Because that’s how Albert tells the story. Its seeming inevitability is one of the myths he uses to make his success appear less driven, less obsessive, less single minded and ambitious, and less the result of dedication, courage, and hard work than it actually is.

This isn’t prevarication. It’s just that it makes a better story. And the story as Albert tells it is just as true as any other version—even if it does come with a bit of a shrug and a boyish grin. It’s as if becoming Romeo, or one of the stars of Street Legal, or the founding artistic director of Soulpepper, or Hamlet is just the kind of thing that’s bound to happen to someone like Albert.

So don’t think he exaggerates the magic of Penryn. Or its importance to him. Penryn was not only the place where he first belonged; it was what taught him the importance of belonging. No artist can go out on the high wire of creativity or performance and not have a place to go back to. No wonder he mourns the loss so deeply. No wonder he started Soulpepper. He’s not shy about saying so.

So, lights? Let’s not be shy either. It’s a dramatic moment.

And sound? As I said, great work. Thank you.

The crickets. The red-winged blackbirds. These are the things Albert Schultz loved about his home. I suspect he even loved the train whistle, because the tracks are right there, at the bottom of the property, just beyond the raspberry bramble where the blackbirds always are. You can see Penryn on the train from Toronto to Montreal if you know where and when to look as you approach Port Hope from the west.

Ontario Travel: The Port Hope Historic House TourA video tour of Penryn Park.

This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.

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