Professional Theatre Coordinator
(This article first appeared in Theatre Ontario's December 2008/January 2009 newsletter)
In my position with Theatre Ontario, I give advice to a lot of actors who are beginning or in the early stages of their professional careers. For this newsletter, I interviewed 31-year-old actor Jenny Young about the first nine years of her professional career. I spoke to her just before a rehearsal of Kindertransport, the latest show produced by the successful new Toronto theatre company, Harold Green Jewish Theatre. I was curious to see if many of the stereotypical preconceptions of a young actor’s career were reflected in Jenny’s thus far.
Jenny grew up in B.C. and graduated from Studio 58 theatre school in Vancouver in 1999. Her older brother had attended the school ahead of her. “It’s one of the best schools in Vancouver to come out of. The Georgia Straight reviews the school’s shows and many local professionals direct their shows.” One of her first jobs was a Green Thumb Theatre show directed by Robert Metcalfe, who had directed her at Studio 58. Green Thumb is a highly regarded Vancouver theatre with a mandate of theatre for children, young people and young adults. I have always been curious how many actors in Canada start their careers doing young people’s theatre or shows that tour high schools. My first professional acting job was in 1974 in a children’s show Aladdin for Youtheatre in Montreal, a company still alive and well today. (Linda Griffiths played the genie in that production.)
It was while doing the Green Thumb show that Patrick McDonald, Artistic Director of Green Thumb Theatre, approached her to do Joan MacLeod’s The Shape of a Girl. After meeting Joan, she got the part in what turned out to be the first major break of her acting career. After successful runs at The Vancouver East Cultural Centre and at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, the one-person show about an adolescent girl was remounted for a national tour in 2001 and 2002. In Toronto she performed it at Tarragon Theatre, and she even got to do a snippet of the show for Prince Charles when he was in Canada. She was nominated for a Dora Award for the show. The show really opened doors for her in Toronto and gave her an opportunity to make some friends in Toronto’s theatre community.
Which leads to a couple of decisions many Canadian English-speaking actors have to face: Do I move to Toronto? If so, when? The Shape of a Girl made the timing right for Jenny. She now had a Toronto agent. How she got her agent is a funny story. One would think an agent saw her in the show and that was that. No. When Jenny approached Toronto agent Nancy LeFeaver, who was suggested to her by Kristen Thomson, Nancy said she already came “highly recommended.” From someone who had seen the show? Again, no. Shape of a Girl received quite a bit of press attention as it was loosely based on the tragic beating of Reena Virk in B.C. Shelagh Rogers interviewed Joan MacLeod on the CBC Radio morning show—I was publicist at Tarragon then and so I was the middle man to make this happen—and they played a scene from the show. Nancy’s husband heard Jenny’s clip while he was driving in his car. He was so impressed that he wrote down Jenny’s name in the dust on the dashboard so he would remember to tell Nancy. Certainly Jenny would have eventually secured an agent in Toronto, but I wonder how much longer it would have taken if the dashboard in Nancy LeFeaver’s husband’s car had been clean. Every acting career has its moments of fate. Nancy LeFeaver currently still represents Jenny.
So Jenny took the leap to move to Toronto. Her parents were originally from the city and she was single again so a lot of things were making the decision easier. “Vancouver then was more like ‘L.A. North.” Agents she met with there were more concerned with her weight and glamourizing her looks. She actually felt more comfortable as an actor here than in Vancouver though she continues to work in B.C. usually once a year with either Theatre Skam in Victoria or Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops. “In Vancouver, you can be at a theatre party and any newcomers immediately stand out, as you know practically everyone else there. In Toronto, you are much more anonymous so an actor’s life is less of a fish bowl.”
Jenny continued to do well in Toronto. In 2005, she received her second Dora nomination for The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine with Theatre Columbus. She has also worked with Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, and elsewhere in Ontario at London’s Grand Theatre and at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque. Recently she has worked with Daniel Brooks at Necessary Angel on The Eco Show and with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on its notable co-production with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. The latter was “one of the most incredibly stressful rehearsal periods in her career. The outside-of-rehearsal demands were extraordinary with the spotlight that Atwood and the politics of the co-production brought to it.”
I asked Jenny about making a living from acting. Without work in the media (film, TV, radio, commercials) it is almost impossible to make enough to live on as an actor. I advise young actors to find a part-time job they can fall back on when they are out of work. Now in her third season of the successful CBC Radio series Afghanda, Jenny has had more financial security in the past two years but, like every young actor, she has that part-time job she can return to when necessary. She makes relatively good money shining shoes, (that is correct—shining shoes!) working for a woman who has her own company in downtown Toronto.
I also advise young actors that an acting career rarely means you just get to be an actor. Nearly all actors have to combine acting with some other creative pursuit to survive, whether by choice, or necessity, or both. Often it is a combination of teaching, producing, directing or writing. Jenny started writing early in her career and soon that developed into producing. She teamed up with actor Claire Calnan, who also graduated from Studio 58 and was now in Toronto. In 2002, she asked Claire to be in her play Chasing Krinko’s. The success of that experience led them to form Tiny Bird Theatre in 2003—“We are a tiny bird with a big song”—and do Chasing Krinko’s again when they were accepted into the SummerWorks Festival. Jenny and Claire trade off projects artistically while the other supports as a producer. I give self-producing workshops and I advise beginning producers to do that: find at least one other person to share the load, or can carry on when the other is working out-of-town. At the Toronto Fringe Festival, Tiny Bird has produced Claire’s show Inanna and Jenny’s The Demimonde. This past summer they returned to SummerWorks with Claire’s Raising Luke.
Finally I asked Jenny about Stratford and Shaw. For a stage actor, they are always out there, looming. “That is something I have not really pursued yet. I love being part of the ever changing Toronto theatre scene and it is important to me to know what is going on in Toronto.” But working with long-time Shaw company member Patricia Hamilton in Kindertransport, Jenny appreciated Pat telling her of a point in her own career when she had done a lot of work on new plays and hungered for work in the classical theatre. Maybe Jenny is now approaching a similar point in her career. Maybe not. Next year will be the ten-year mark in her professional acting career. May I be the first to congratulate you on that, Jenny.
(NOTE: After this original story was filed, we received news from Jenny that she would be a member of Shaw Festival’s acting company in 2009. She was cast as Josie in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and in one of the Noel Coward shows. Moments of fate, indeed.)