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.
There's a grain of unintended comedy in her getting that line her first time out. Besworth's actual Mama is Michelle Fisk, who performed at Shaw 30 years ago, and came away with a lasting souvenir: her husband, actor Michael Besworth.
"My parents met and fell in love here," Kate Besworth says. "My mother has told me stories of my dad coming to meet her on his bicycle outside the Court House Theatre."
But Besworth didn't get into the family business by saying "Yes, Mama" – quite the contrary. Her parents know too much about the uncertainty and rootlessness of the trade to show much enthusiasm for her getting into it, she says, though both were "very excited" when she won an audition for this particular stop on their Memory Lane.
Besworth's other vehicle this season is Arcadia, in which she plays Thomasina Coverly, a teen genius supposedly based on Lord Byron's brilliant daughter Ada. Besworth counts the 1993 play as "a big fave," and not just because it gives her more to say.
"I'm still finding my footing as an actor," she says. Like many in that position, she has another job, as a hot-yoga instructor – another pursuit in which the non-verbal is almost everything.
As B-class Canadian superhero Hi-Jaq for the web series Team Epic, Jacqueline Thair got to beat the stuffing out of a bad guy and loved every minute of it. Her latest assignment at Shaw is much gentler and could vault her to new prominence as a dramatic performer, after five seasons as a regular in the festival's musicals.
Thair plays Clara Johnson, the sensitive, developmentally challenged mainspring of The Light in the Piazza, Adam Guettel's and Craig Lucas's 2005 musical about a young woman's coming of age while on holiday in Italy. "It'll be my biggest challenge," Thair says, referring to the task of portraying Clara's rocky climb out of dependence on her fearful mother and into an adult relationship with a man.
"She's beautiful, free-spirited and open-hearted," says Thair, "and though she's underdeveloped in some ways, she's an artist, and picks up Italian like a sponge."
Thair took to the stage out of high school, touring her native province with a group called Saskatchewan Express before going to sea as a cruise-ship entertainer. At 23, she did some serious theatre study at Toronto's Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, her focus sharpened by the realization that she was already one of the older pupils.
"I've been dancing since I was really little, and I know my days as a dancer will end eventually, so I'm definitely interested in more dramatic parts," she says. Oscar Wilde is a favourite, and she'd love to have a go at Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest. "And Chicago," if only to bookend her work this season as one of the Hot Box Girls in Guys and Dolls.
Shaw's habit of getting his characters to work out political ideas on the stage doesn't appeal to everyone, but for Ijeoma Emesowum, the arguments in Major Barbara are almost distractingly vital. Staying in character as Sarah Undershaft has sometimes meant suppressing her own sympathy for other characters' views on the matters at hand.
"The political arguments are so exciting to me," says Emesowum, who discovers new resonance in the play every time she turns on the TV news. "Every day I'm finding out more. Everything he's talking about is happening." Between shows, she has been gulping down other works in Shaw's abundant oeuvre, including his story The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, in which the inquisitive girl of the title seeks out priests and sages of every religion, and out-argues them all.
For Emesowum, the pampered, complacent Sarah Undershaft is, like her opposite, the New Woman, a creature of her time. "She's just playing the game," Emesowum says, borrowing a phrase from J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, a lighter drama of ideas seen at Shaw two years ago.
Before arriving at Shaw five years ago, Emesowum studied theatre at the University of Windsor and in b current's rAiz'n Ensemble, a Toronto training group dedicated to Black diasporic theatre. After growing up in a white small-town milieu and studying theatre from a mainly classical perspective, rAiz'n Ensemble gave her "a new vocabulary, a new approach" – and sparked her interest in a diverse, international body of work that's still unknown to many theatregoers.
She's interested in exploring more new work, and more classics, including works by Chekhov and Shakespeare. There's no shortage of ideas in those masters' plays, for an actress who thinks we should all demand much more from theatre than mere entertainment.