At a time when most roles for young female actresses were either ingenues or fallen women, Bernard Shaw wrote plays about what was then called the New Woman – strong, complex young female characters, many of which ended up having plays named after them (Saint Joan, Candida, Major Barbara). Drawing from the repertoire of its namesake and his contemporaries, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake regularly introduces its audiences to fresh young female talent. Here are five actresses stepping into Shaw’s spotlight:
Harveen Sandhu is new to the Shaw Festival, and only a year out of Ryerson University’s theatre program, but was already an experienced actor, playwright, director and producer before she left her Ottawa high school, which had no drama program. One of her teenage works was a play based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s hefty novel The Age of Reason.
“They were sizable plays,” she said. “I desperately needed to be heard.” She convinced others of that need, and directed or produced several of her shows at Ottawa’s Youth Enfringement Festival and at the Sears Ontario Drama Festival, where one of her plays made the regional finals.
Sandhu performed in two Soulpepper productions right after her Ryerson graduation, and played a central role in Natasha Greenblatt’s much talked-about first play, The Peace Maker, during last winter’s Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival. Shaw took her on immediately afterward, casting her in Lady Windermere’s Fan and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
In spite of this clamour of interest in her talents, she says her choice of a theatre career “traumatized” her parents, who emigrated from Kenya when Sandhu was 4. It doesn’t help that she’s fiercely devoted to fringe theatre and the bootstrap collaborative efforts of new-play creation.
“I’m sort of aching to go back to creative work,” she says, having put her own writing on hold during theatre school and the shows that followed. “When you have an idea and even a small group who believe in it, you can go quite far.”
She looks at her small roles at Shaw this year as huge learning opportunities, and has gone to every rehearsal whether she was needed or not. “I’m really enjoying just being able to listen,” she says – no doubt sharpening her own sense of what she’ll do next time she’s writing, directing or producing a play.
“When I was at theatre school, I had a teacher who said, ‘I hope you realize you’ll never play the ingenue,’” says Julia Course. “And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past four seasons.”
Course has a graduate degree in theatrical literature with a focus on feminist theory, which can deal harshly with ingenues. But she’s happy with her lot at Shaw, where she stars this season as Bessie Saunders, a young American neophyte in the upper-crust London of W. Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters.
“I wrote essays about the New Woman, and how she emerged from a historical perspective, and now I get to play the New Woman,” Course says. Bessie fits that description, she adds, because the character is trying to find her own way in an unfamiliar milieu, doing and saying things that assert her independence even while she frets about choosing the right husband.
Course grew up in a small town 30 minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake and started crushing on theatre during trips to the festival with high-school friends who worked there as ushers. She made her detour into academe partly under parental pressure, before quitting her library carrel for a spot at the National Theatre School.
The Shaw Festival feels like a family, she says, in which veterans are generally happy to share what they know. That’s especially helpful in plays set in periods whose social attitudes feel remote from her own experience, she says.
Now 30, she suspects her ingenue days may be numbered. Last season at Shaw, she saw Moya O’Connell play a character she’d love to ramp up to some day: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, a New Woman to the nth degree.
There’s little chance of Kate Besworth forgetting her lines during her Shaw debut, because Oscar Wilde gave her only one: “Yes, Mama.” But Lady Agatha Carlisle, Besworth’s character in Lady Windermere’s Fan, repeats those words several times, providing the 25-year-old actor with a perfect occasion to experiment with different kinds of delivery, and much else.
“For me, it’s an exercise in the non-verbal,” she says. With only a single short catchphrase, she has had to explore every physical aspect of what it takes to construct a character – and ideally, to strengthen the comedy through varied repetitions.