In a case of life imitating art, Red Deer’s Jennifer Rider-Shaw is getting her big break at the Stratford Festival this summer by playing the lead role in a musical about a young woman getting her pivotal moment in the spotlight.
Getting cast as ingenue Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street at the internationally-renowned Ontario theatre festival is definitely mind-blowing, admitted Rider-Shaw.
“I was so excited because I don’t ever expect to get anything when I audition,” said the Red Deer College Theatre Studies graduate, who was taking a break with her family recently before returning to Stratford to begin rehearsals on the musical this month.
Like most singers, actors and dancers in her field, the 25-year-old gets rejected more than she lands jobs in Canada’s musical theatre industry. But Rider-Shaw was accepted into the general ensemble of Stratford’s upcoming 42nd Street as well as Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
And she felt she could be on the brink of something momentous when asked, while attending a remote yoga retreat in Costa Rica earlier this month, to return to Ontario for a second audition for a role in the 42nd Street musical.
Changing her flight home from the tiny village of Punta Banco turned out to be somewhat like swimming upstream. But she decided, “I’d rather go through all of this and not get the role, than not go through it and always wonder if I could have gotten the role.”
So on Jan. 13 — “It was a Friday the 13th, just my luck!” — Rider-Shaw took a two-hour taxi ride to a larger Costa Rican community. She then got on a commuter flight on a 12-seater aircraft to another centre, jetted into El Salvador, then finally got on an international flight to Calgary and Toronto.
She was thrilled to learn that the exhausting journey paid off, with her casting as the fresh-faced gal who gets off a bus from Pennsylvania and fast-tracks it up the ranks in a Depression-era Broadway musical.
Since landing the part of Peggy is Rider-Shaw’s big break, it’s crossed her mind that one reason she was given the role was because her own story is so similar to that of the fictional hoofer.
But Rider-Shaw stressed that she’s not nearly as naive as the part she will play.
For one thing, she’s learned not to take anything for granted. “I always think every job could be my last. . . . There are a thousand other girls who would want a role and probably a thousand other girls who could probably do a good job.”
The key is to keep working hard and not take rejection personally, she said. “You never know why you didn’t get a (part). Maybe they wanted somebody with blond hair, or maybe I’m too tall or too short. . . .”
Rider-Shaw was first hired by the Stratford Festival for ensemble parts in Evita and Kiss Me Kate in 2010, but didn’t make the cut in her 2011 Stratford audition. She instead lined up other theatre work in Toronto and Winnipeg.
It was while she was singing and dancing in Hairspray at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage in “46C and humidity,” her makeup running down her face, that Rider-Shaw got a message from her agent.
She discovered the Stratford Festival needed a “swing” person and was offering her the chance to understudy all of the ensemble parts for a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Rider-Shaw jumped at the opportunity, learning the lyrics and dance steps to seven songs in a week.
She was put to the acid test when one of the cast members got ill for a month and she had to go on stage. Then another person got sick and she was out in the limelight again.
Rider-Shaw believes her impressive quick-study skills did not go unnoticed, and probably helped her when she successfully auditioned for the 2012 Stratford season.
But her triple-threat talents actually began to glimmer many years ago in Red Deer, when the then-named Jennifer Shaw (she had to add the Rider to her name to avoid a conflict with another actor already signed to actors’ equity) started dancing at J.D.’s Fabulous Feet and acted with Central Alberta Theatre.
When she began searching for a career direction after high school, her father, who works in the City of Red Deer’s electric department, suggested Rider-Shaw give the college’s theatre program a try.
She discovered her talent for musicals through college roles in Sound of Music and The Country Wife. But she also recognized her skills needed further honing, so she enrolled in the musical theatre program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.
Before graduating from Sheridan in 2009, Rider-Shaw was signed by an agent who was impressed by her school performance in Brigadoon.
She was also a contestant on the CBC-TV reality series Triple Sensation. Although Rider-Shaw was eliminated before the final six contestants, she felt she gained experience, friendships and contacts.
The first professional job for the actor was with the Ross Petty Christmas Pantomime at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. But whenever the theatre opportunities dried up, Rider-Shaw got by working at Starbucks.
And she’s never sure that she won’t be slinging specialty coffee again one day.
In the meantime, Rider-Shaw said she intends to take any theatrical job that’s offered her. And she hopes that one of them will lead back out West. “I’d love to work out here and spend a length of time with my family while making a paycheque.”
Since Rider-Shaw’s folks see her in everything she does, they will be flying out to Ontario this summer to catch her performance as Peggy in 42nd Street at Stratford, It runs from the end of May to the end of October.