Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

In August, before the casting announcements for The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season came out, I published my perfect-world casting of their upcoming Much Ado About Nothing. Two of those dream-castings came true when the wonderful Gareth Potter was cast as villainous Don John and Bethany Jillard was announced to play innocent Hero. A breakout star of 2010’s magnificent production of Dangerous Liaisons, Bethany’s intelligent and layered performances in Richard III and The Little Years were highlights of the 2011 season. Consistently great, Bethany has very quickly become one of my favourite performers at the festival, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the small but memorable role of Young Kate in The Little Years. 

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
My mom was a drama teacher, so I remember being around it all the time. I started taking ballet when I was like 4 and I think the first play that I saw was Cats when I saw 8, or 6 maybe. The first time I came to Stratford I was 9 years old, I saw Romeo & Juliet with Megan Follows. The first time I was on stage for anything, I was in a community theatre production of Chess– I played a young Florence- I had one line, it was “Papa”. Then, shortly after that, I played Molly in a high school production of Annie, when I was also 9. It was something that was always in my life. Theatre was something I loved to do as an extra-curricular kind of thing. I used to like dancing and singing and all that kind of stuff as well. I got a scholarship to go to the University of Guelph for science, I wanted to be a vet. So I went there and then about halfway through that year I went “wait, what am I doing here?” and I switched over to get my degree at U of T. I haven’t looked back since.

Have you told Antoni Cimolino that he was your first Romeo? [The current general director/new artistic director starred opposite Megan Follows in the aforementioned 1993 production].
Yes I have. *laughs*. It was a great experience. My mom and I came to Stratford for a week every year when I was growing up and saw pretty much everything from that point on. We always went to [festival lecture series] “Talking Theatre” and I always thought it was funny, Romeo was in charge of “Talking Theatre”.

Can you remember a favourite production from those years?
The production that really inspired me and made me really feel what theatre can do was actually Elizabeth Rex. It was a really incredible experience. It was the first time I was in a theatre and it really became the barn that they were in. I didn’t want it to end. I was actually really emotional when it was done because it was such a profound experience, going through this with those characters. So that was really cool.

There’s been a lot of great productions. I always loved, when I was growing up, coming to see Seana McKenna- whatever she was in, I definitely wanted to see. Orpheus Descending was another one of those plays where I just thought “wow”. There’s been a lot over the years.

Speaking of Seana, who are some of the actors and actresses who’ve always inspired you. And are they the same today?
Absolutely Seana, from a very young age, I always loved her work. When I first came to Stratford in 2010 to play Cecile Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons, I was over the moon to be working with her. And, certainly, working with her has only deepened my respect for her work and my affection for her as a person. She is really really inspiring.

The interesting thing, especially working in this community, is that you’re surrounded by world class actors. Yanna McIntosh is someone who I’ve always loved her work- so to come here and be able to work with her and see her process has just been amazing. Tom McCamus; Irene Poole who I worked with in The Little Years this year, who I saw mostly on stage in Toronto when I was going to University. Also, coming in with Dangerous Liaisons, Martha Henry was there as well. When I was a kid growing up in London [,Ontario], I auditioned for her at The Grand when I was about 9. I didn’t get the role I auditioned for but she wrote me this lovely letter, saying how she really loved the audition that I did and she hoped I’d continue to train  and work on my skills, and that she was sure we would meet again. So on my first day of rehearsals for Liaisons, I was like “hey, I don’t know if you remember this, but it made a huge impression on me”. So that’s pretty cool.

Really, we’re really luck in Canada to be able to see theatre that is so inspiring, and to work with actors who are so inspiring. Directors and designers too- the community is just bursting with really exciting talent. It’s a really amazing thing to be embraced into that community and to have the chance to learn and grow myself within it.

How did you get started with Stratford? Can you describe your first day?
I auditioned, sort of like everybody else I think. Primarily I lived in Toronto when I left school, and I had the chance to do some really great projects. Then after a couple years of that, I thought “you know, I really do want to end up [in Stratford], at least have the experience of going there and working in the company”. And it just sort of coincided with them having some interest in bringing me here, at the same moment. So that was really lucky. I did audition for Peter Pan, then I actually did an audition for Dangerous Liaisons on tape because I was on my honeymoon when the audition for that came through. I found out a couple of weeks later that that was all gonna happen, which was kind of wild.

On my first day here, it was for Peter Pan rehearsal, and I remember just being really nervous. To be honest, I was pretty nervous, cause it felt like this huge thing and I didn’t know anybody, really, going in. And I’m really really terrible with directions, so I showed up at the Avon and had no idea where I was supposed to be. The rehearsal room is like in the bowels of the Avon and my dressing room was down also in that area and I had no idea how to get anywhere. But I stumbled across the rehearsal hall eventually, and came in and took my place quietly, watched as everybody filed in. And then sort of went “You know what? This is awesome! I’m not gonna be afraid!”. And so I just sort of dove in and had a really really wonderful first day. The cast of Peter Pan was enormous and wonderful and lots of fun; and our director, Tim Carroll, was AMAZING. I went right over to Sara Topham because I’d also grown up watching her- I’d seen her very first shows at the festival and continued to see them as she went through- so I also was a big fan of hers. And she couldn’t have been more lovely and friendly and gracious and all that, so we hit it off pretty well right off the bat. It was a really good first day for all that it started out kind of nerve-wracking.

Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites from 2011?
I do try and see everything. We’re really lucky as members of the company because we’re allowed to do that when otherwise we might not be able to afford to. My favourite of last season? I loved Misanthrope. I really really enjoyed it, I thought it was beautifully acted and also just really beautiful to look at. I’d never seen it, and I’d never read it, actually, so it was one of those entirely new plays [for me] because my exposure to it had been really limited before. So I really enjoyed being able to see that. Last season was so good, it’s so hard. Obviously, Jesus Christ Superstar was a big hit and I was lucky enough to get in to see that. I would say those were probably my two favourites. There really wasn’t anything that I didn’t enjoy. I loved being in both the plays I was in, if that’s allowed. I really loved them both, I felt always excited to show up at the theatre; and I felt that they were both plays that allowed… we had long runs with both of them but it never felt like it got old.

Your Lady Anne was my favourite thing about Richard III. How did you approach that role?
Aw, thank you!

In terms of coming to that role… it’s an interesting role, right? It’s one of those roles where I think there’s a lot of preconception about who she is and why she’s where she’s at and how that big monologue is supposed to go at the beginning and all this kind of stuff. And I think I’m also maybe a fair bit younger than what I think normally goes for a Lady Anne. So when I was first cast- I knew that I was going to be a part of a production that was quite different because it was Seana playing Richard! So, that alone, it changes, you know that in the room is gonna be where you discover what really is in this production, in this particular version of telling this story.

But in terms of before I got into rehearsal, I did what I always do- sort of just reading the play a lot and sitting with whatever kind of images or whatever comes up through that. And getting familiar with the actual history of that era, I find helpful, because I find it really complicated- which feud is which and whose family is whose and who are you related to and who are you friends with, who do you hate? and all that kind of stuff- I think it’s exciting that way. So I did a fair bit of research into that.

Then, once I was in the room, it was really just about going for it and trying to find how is it that someone who clearly has real courage- the women in Richard are the only ones who take him on, who really look him in the face and say “you are despicable” and they curse at him. The power of the women in that play, they can’t use swords, but they have words. So it was a really great gift, the first I got to speak Shakespeare at the festival, to have this young woman who really goes for it. And I think she’s fighting a losing battle from the beginning because she feels pity, she’s capable of really feeling and Richard can manipulate her because she really is a compassionate person. And one of the things that was really interesting in working out that big scene, particularly, at the beginning, was so many people have asked me “how are you gonna begin to make that believable?” and I did a lot of research, just about people saying “well, it’s unplayable. You just have to play her like she’s dumb and she just gives over”, which I thought was maybe the most boring thing I could have chosen to do. So I wasn’t about to do that. And the interesting thing was, in really playing it and in really interacting with Seana as Richard, and also really getting underneath where she was coming from, the kind of grief that she was feeling, the kind of isolation that she would have been facing at that time- it was a precarious time for women on their own. And then, within the scene itself, to discover this man, or this monster, this thing that she had thought was just a complete monster, to have the ability to cry and be human and show human feeling and conflict and that kind of thing. I always found it really kind of straightforward, that once he became human, it became more about “well, I can save him. This poor wretch who’s murdered, and has implicated me in that as well”, which is a horrible thing to realize; “I think I can save this guy”. And it was funny, sometimes I would believe that, during that scene I’d think “I won”. And that despite all the terrible things that had happened, all the crimes that he had committed and what that cost already, in her life, that from now on she had power over him and she would be able to save him, redeem him, and thereby also redeem herself from whatever part she felt she had in his crimes.

I would love to do it again; it’s just a really amazing part to be able to step into.

Your My Theatre Award nomination is actually for your delightfully dorky take on Young Kate in The Little Years.

You said you studied science in school; did you have a lot of fun playing a little genius?
I LOVED her. I really adored Young Kate, in that way when you finally step into a character- I just thought she was so delightful! And so open and honest, all those things that kids are. Fragile and still bold- she was a really wonderful girl to step into. And then the fact that she was WAY smarter than I am, or ever will be, or ever was, but just to be able to step into that role, as an actor, to get to play someone whose brain is in the sciences. I did experience that a lot, especially going through school, because I loved math and I loved science, and I got good grades. I really really enjoyed doing it. But it’s something that, since I became an actor, you know we don’t use it all that often except at tax time. So, it was really nice to actually get a chance to dive into that world, even superficially, and read some books about quantum physics and listen to crazy lectures that were mind-bending. I did really enjoy that, yes.

Next season you’re slated to take on Katherine in Henry V. Isn’t most of her dialogue in French?
It IS!

Are you fluent?
I speak Spanish, actually; I grew up in Mexico for a couple of years, so I never learned French. But, funnily enough, last season, during Richard, I had that giant break in the middle of the show, and so did Yanna; and Yanna wanted to learn Spanish and I wanted to learn French, so we traded lessons for each other over the course of the run. So I got a really basic thing; then when I was cast, I went “oh, I’d better work on this a little more”. I’m actually doing the Rosetta Stone course to learn French. It’s going very well. Thankfully all the dialogue in Henry V is written for me, so I don’t have to formulate it on my own, but I kind of love it. I love this idea of playing someone so completely other, someone that actually thinks in a different language- it’s fun to play those people.

Do you have any clues about the production yet? Any idea how they’re gonna pull off translating for the Anglophones?
I don’t know, actually. It’s not something that I’ve had a chance to ask anyone about yet. I wonder, the two scenes that she’s in- the scene with Alice, her nurse, I think it’s pretty clear, even though a lot of it is in French, because she’s trying to learn English. Then the other, with Henry, she’s largely trying to speak English, so hopefully that won’t be too much of a problem. But definitely I’m curious to know what the plan is.

You’re also playing Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. You were our pick for that part when we did the Dream Cast months and months before the casting announcement. Are you planning on bringing a little feistiness to the oft-boring and silly ingenue?
Of course! I don’t believe in the “boring and silly ingenue”, I think that Shakespeare was smarter than that and I think young women are smarter than that. It’s so interesting, particularly in this play, where you have these young women who don’t necessarily get a whole lot to say, but I think that sometimes Shakespeare writes volumes in silence, and I think there’s a lot more to Hero than just the silly girl who wants to get married and who will agree to it at whatever cost to herself.

I can’t speak so positively yet because obviously this is all just me musing and not to do with [director Christopher Newton] and what he’s gonna go for in the production. But I was thinking the other day about when she ends up marrying Claudio anyway- she goes back and they get married and it’s a happy ending cause it’s a comedy and all that kind of stuff- I had thought “how do you reconcile this? How is this okay that she would go back to this man who was so vicious and awful?” And I thought “well, maybe it has something to do with…” often in the comedies you see people get married and go “I wonder how long that’s gonna last?” because they don’t really know each other, they just had this kind of courtship that wasn’t really challenged. And I wonder if one of the things that’s actually quite promising for Hero and Claudio is that she’s seen him at his worst, at his very very worst. And if she can look at that and go “okay, I understand who you can be, and I’m willing to make a life with that man- not with the man I want you to be, not the man you should be- but I’m willing to understand that that’s part of you and I’m still willing to take it on”. And a young woman who can do that, I think there’s something really interesting in there.

You’ve taken on some really great roles in your three years with Stratford. Do you have any dream ones you’re itching to play?
Ohhh, it’s so hard to say because you don’t want to jinx anything, you know? I would LOVE, before too long, if the opportunity came up, I’d love to play Juliet here. And I would love, one day, to play Isabella in Measure [for Measure].

Ah, they haven’t done that in a while.
Yeah. There’s so many Shakespearean women I’d love to play. Down the road, I’d love to take a go at Lady M, which is obviously like “he, he”; I don’t think anyone would go for it now, but, you know, give me a couple of years.

I’d love a chance to get into- I’ve never done Chekhov, I’ve never done Moliere, I’ve never done Oscar Wilde- there’s a lot of playwrights that I’d love a crack at. So, we’ll see. I always feel as though the path opens up where it’s supposed to. And I feel really blessed; I look at what’s in front of me and the opportunities have always been really good. Hopefully that continues, and I’m sure I’ll be happy no matter what.

What have you been doing in the off-season?
I’m actually a member of the Birmingham Conservatory this year, the training program.

So you didn’t have an off-season.
Basically, yeah. I overlapped. I had 12 days off between the end of the conservatory and the start of rehearsals for Much Ado About Nothing.

If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
It’s such a hard question because every time I’m involved with a new project it feels like a defining moment. I think being able to take on Rachel Corrie in My Name is Rachel Corrie was a huge step for me in Toronto. And I think the first time I stepped on the festival stage- actually, Sara took me backstage, it was really late, about 11 o’clock at night, it was all shut down but we sort of snuck in, we asked the guard if we could go through, and she had me take off my shoes and just walk out onto that stage and breathe with it for awhile. That was such an extraordinary experience.