At one time, Jennifer Rider-Shaw mesmerized local audiences with her outstanding performances at Red Deer College and in a several community productions.
These days, the gifted actor continues to surge ahead having landed the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Rider-Shaw made her Stratford debut in 2010, appearing in Kiss Me, Kate and Evita, followed by Jesus Christ Superstar and Camelot last season. A graduate of the Red Deer theatre arts program and Sheridan’s music theatre performance program, Rider-Shaw, 25, was also a contestant on CBC’s Triple Sensation.
During her time in Ontario, she has also appeared in Ross Petty’s Robin Hood, Drayton Entertainment’s The Wizard of Oz and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at Theatre Aquarius.
“I auditioned in a dance call for the ensemble of 42nd Street back in July,” she explains. “I had worked on Evita with the director (Gary Griffin) back in 2010 also at Stratford. The call went well and then I headed off to Winnipeg to do a production of Hairspray.
“Towards the end of that contract I wound up returning to Stratford mid-season to replace one of the ensemble girls in Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar. It was sometime in early fall I received the offer to be in the ensemble of 42nd as well as Pirates of Penzance.”
Last November, Rider-Shaw headed to California with Jesus Christ Superstar, and she was notified she was being considered for the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. She made a taped audition to send to the director in Chicago. Two days later, she flew back to California and later wound up auditioning again in Chicago. She ultimately landed the coveted role.
In the meantime, Rider-Shaw’s time at Stratford has been life changing.
“It is a community that is full of life, packed with art and it’s beautiful. Stratford was my second gig out of school and it was so cool to watch the professionals work. To be honest, I didn’t feel that I belonged here. Of course I loved it, but I spent a lot of time just in awe of the incredible talent and professionalism I was surrounded by. I learned so much about the sort of person I want to become, the sort of artist I want to be.”
There was also a focus on musicianship and dancing, which Rider-Shaw is also passionate about.
“I grew up extremely involved in competitive dance but when I was at Red Deer College, I didn’t have time to be dancing every day. Sheridan offered challenging dance classes in a variety of styles.”
Her dedication through the three-year program paid off richly. She graduated with high honours and was the valedictorian for the graduating class of 2009.
Red Deer College was also a defining period in her life.
“It was my dad who suggested I audition for the program at RDC. I had a few friends from community theatre who were auditioning and I figured it would be fun. At the beginning I was just there to have fun. I was creative and artistic, but I wasn’t all that serious about acting — I was certainly not at the top of my class.”
But one day, that all changed. She recalls learning about Stanislavski and method acting and something clicked. “My teachers noticed a change and were helpful in providing guidance. In the second year I knew that if I wanted to work I needed more education — I knew about the program at Sheridan so I flew out and auditioned.”
Rider-Shaw credits her family with providing abundant support over the years, plus the inspiration to follow her dreams. She kept busy refining her dance skills, and during that time her dad, Ken Shaw, started volunteering for Tree House Youth Theatre.
“He tried to get me to audition for their production of Secret Garden and I refused. I was terrified at the prospect of auditioning. So my dad worked on that show and I went to dance camp instead. I think I came in for one of their rehearsals though and had an immediate pang of regret. I wanted to be a part of it, they were all having so much fun.”
She then started up singing lessons and auditioned for Tree House’s touring Christmas show. “That was my first theatrical experience and I loved it. Everyone was so accepting and fun.”
Still, dance remained her priority. “In the spring I’d be at competitions all over Alberta, parents and RV in tow. I loved it, we all loved it. The competitive dance world is its own community. I have a lot of fantastic memories from those years.”
As mentioned, her family has been a solid support through the ups and downs that are intrinsic to an actor’s training and working life.
“I knew a few people in school whose parents did not support them going to acting school. The parents would not help financially at all, didn’t come to see the performances, they wanted their kids to pursue more lucrative paths. I can honestly say that without the support of my family I would never have gotten where I am.
“I had many emotional breakdowns, felt I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough, short enough, blonde enough, dark enough. I called home in tears a lot, and I’m so grateful that I had a home to call and parents who understood and cared.”
As she looks back, Rider-Shaw is thrilled and grateful to be where she’s at.
“I can’t recall who it is that said something about people can’t truly act until they are over the age of 25. They don’t have the life experience or the emotion to draw on.”
She admits she started acting school as a fairly naïve 18-year-old after leading a fairly sheltered life.
“Over the years I’ve learned a lot about myself, I’ve traveled and moved and loved and lost. So acting is a muscle — it has to be worked to gain strength and flexibility. And by no means am I saying that I have all the answers now. I certainly don’t, but I’m several steps farther down the path than when I was 18.”
In the meantime, she is enjoying the journey.
“As long as I keep getting hired and I keep enjoying the work, I will continue to work in the theatre. I also have an interest in nutrition and would love to learn more about that. I also love to travel, I backpacked around Europe last year, and in January I volunteered at a farm in Costa Rica,” she said. “I’ve also recently started giving workshops at my old schools about auditioning and career management, that’s also something I would love to do.
“I’m quite content where I am right now though.”