In a city full of established women theatre actors, two emerging talents are primed to join the pack. Here's how they got to centre stage.
First theatre memory?
Michelle Polak: At three, I covered my face and white frock with makeup at a summer-camp show. The audience loved it.
Sarah Martyn: At seven, I saw a high-school production of Oliver! with my cousin and her boyfriend. I was hooked.
What made you want to enter theatre?
Polak: In theatre, work is play and play is work. You don’t have to separate the two.
Martyn: Growing up on a farm, I pretended I was an orphan abandoned at birth, starving, crawling across the field. I wanted to tell and be in stories of other people’s lives.
When did you realize you might be good at it?
Polak: When I realized how much I loved it.
Martyn: Performing a trial scene in The Crucible, I had an epiphany. “I’m my character. I’m a witch. I can do this.”
Major influences or mentors?
Polak: On family trips to New York City, I was exposed to all forms of theatre.
Martyn: Brazilian director Augusto Boal, whom I met in London, England. He believes theatre is a powerful political tool that can be used for self-empowerment.
What’s your show about – in one sentence?
Polak: It’s an all-female show about search and discovery.
Martyn: It’s about three powerful women in downtown T.O. dealing with sex, greed, betrayal, love and ambition.
Who’d play Hamlet to your Ophelia?
Martyn: I’ll take Hamlet, thank you.
Polak: How about Peter Farbridge playing Ophelia to my Hamlet?
Theatre artists you’d like to work with?
Polak: Jennifer Tarver and Jan Komarek (again), and Soulpepper, Liisa Repo-Martell, the Wooster Group and Peter Brook (for the first time).
Martyn: Simon McBurney, Robert Lepage, Dean Gilmour and Linda Griffiths.
Last play you saw and loved?
Polak: Jan Komarek’s Anatomy Of Beauty.
Martyn: Darren O’Donnell’s White Mice. Clever, riveting, political.
Polak: The Josephine Baker story, Medea and, later on, Martha in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Martyn: Haven’t written it yet.
You’re an agent. How would you describe yourself?
Polak: She’s hard-working, talented, accessible and fearless – if she trusts the director. And I wish she’d stop doing theatre so I could put her in film and TV.
Martyn: Carol Burnett meets Meg Ryan on speed.
Worst part-time job?
Polak: Selling designer baby shoes.
Martyn: Phone psychic.
Best career move?
Polak: Taking a year and a half off in 1997, only to return whole-hearted, full of passion and risk.
Martyn: Deciding not to audition for everything, and slowing down to think about what I really wanted to do.
TV/film vs. theatre?
Polak: Great storytelling is great storytelling, no matter what the medium.
Martyn: In theatre, the exchange between actors and live audiences is magic.
Is there a place at the table for up-and-coming talent?
Polak: Yes. When you focus on something with love, enthusiasm and passion, good things beget good things.
Martyn: I’m having fun at the kids’ table, but eventually I’d like to sit with the adults. No, wait! I am with the adults – I’m at Passe Muraille.
If you weren’t in theatre, what would you like to be doing?
Polak: I’d be a midwife, which is what I started to do when I left theatre a few years ago.
Martyn: I’d like to be farming with my dad and brother.
Worst stage experience?
Polak: On a tour that included a four-day snowstorm in Winnipeg, we performed to an audience of six – the organizer, his family, the town librarian and a local reporter.
Martyn: I performed my play Tequila! at a comedy night at Brock University to drunk guys playing pool and video games. They cheered when I took off my shirt and booed when my character said she’d never give another blow job.
Pleasures and piss-offs about the T.O. theatre scene?
Polak: I’m privileged to work with so many gifted artists who believe in process, not product. I’m pissed off with how much money has been taken away from the arts and school outreach.
Martyn: I wish people experimented more and took greater risks.
Future theatre plans?
Martyn: I’m writing a play about an Ontario farming family. It’s autobiographical… and it isn’t.
Polak: To work my ass off.
The Daughters Of Sheherzad
Born: Montreal Came to Toronto: 1992 Trained: Ryerson Theatre School Profile: Intense, physical-based performer who goes for the guts of a role Career highlights: Mesmerizing as the devil in Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights and Not Faust, a riff on Stein’s play, Polak has also become an attention-grabbing Fringe and SummerWorks mainstay What: The Daughters Of Sheherzad, by Modern Times’s Soheil Parsa, in which five incarcerated women play out tales written on the walls by previous inmates, previewing from October 17 and opening October 20 at Artword Theatre (75 Portland, 408-2783) Buzz: An instinctive and vulnerable performer, Polak should generate sparks in a strong multicultural ensemble.
Born: Sparta, Ontario (south of London) Came to Toronto: 1995 Trained: York University MFA acting program Profile: Mischievous upstart with quiet charisma is making a name for herself Career highlight: A few days into her badly attended Fringe 1998 show Tequila! Liquor? I Don’t Even Know Her!, an executive from HBO told her to keep at it, she had talent What: Sheroes, a look at three female roommates, a bag of stolen drugs and raves, opening October 12 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson, 504-7529) Buzz: She’s got chutzpah. After phoning Passe Muraille’s Layne Coleman at 2 am to promote Tequila!, she eventually got into the Playwright’s Unit to work on Sheroes. A week before previews, though, an injury forced a late cast change. Will the show survive?