Canadian theater founder suspended amid harassment claims

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TORONTO (AP) A prominent figure in the Canadian arts world was suspended Wednesday by the theater company he co-founded amid four lawsuits by actresses who allege he exposed himself, groped them and otherwise sexually humiliated them.

The suits naming Toronto-based Soulpepper Theatre Company and its founding artistic director, Albert Schultz, were filed this week by Patricia Fagan, Hannah Miller, Kristin Booth and Diana Bentley, who all agreed to be named publicly.

In a statement, Schultz said he was taking a leave of absence pending an investigation by Soulpepper's board of directors.

"These claims make serious allegations against me which I do not take lightly," Schultz said. "I intend to vehemently defend myself."

In her claim in Ontario Superior Court, Miller alleges Schultz, 54, harassed and sexually assaulted her when she was a performer with Soulpepper and as a member of Soulpepper's academy.

"Albert is a serial sexual predator who ... had well developed methods for targeting actresses and luring them into situations that he considered optimal for harassing and assaulting them," Miller states in her claim.

Similarly, Fagan charges in her lawsuit that Schultz assaulted her during a rehearsal of "Twelfth Night" in 2000, when he tried to show an actor what he wanted by "pushing his penis against her buttocks."

The women's lawyer, Alexi Wood, said in a statement that Soulpepper did nothing to protect the actresses from Schultz, who is an accomplished stage and screen actor.

"Mr. Schultz abused his power for years," Wood said. "My clients fully intend to hold him and Soulpepper Theatre Company accountable. Their brave lawsuit is the first step towards righting this incredible wrong."

The allegations have not been proven in court and representatives for Schultz did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Soulpepper's board of directors said it had begun investigating the allegations and had instructed Schultz to give up all his Soulpepper responsibilities pending its outcome.

"He has stepped down for the duration of the investigation," Soulpepper spokeswoman Katie Saunoris said.

Schultz's wife and the theater company's executive director, Leslie Lester, volunteered to step aside during the investigation, the board said in a statement late Wednesday.

The lawsuits come as the entertainment industry grapples with growing allegations of sexual harassment and assault, a wave sparked by accusations that emerged against Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein in the fall.

Soulpepper bills itself as Toronto's largest not-for-profit theater company and Schultz has played a key role in its repertoire. The company also provides training for aspiring actors and theater artists.

Schultz is also an executive producer on "Kim's Convenience," a play-turned-TV show that aired by Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In her claim, Booth says Schultz questioned her about her sex life and fiance and suggested they get a hotel room together. On another occasion, she alleges, he pressed his "erect penis against her body" while hugging her.

As the founding artistic director of Soulpepper in 1998, Schultz has been widely recognized for his work, including being honored with an Order of Canada in 2013, one of the country's highest honors, and a Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2014.

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