Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Six actors to watch

A fresh crop of young Toronto talent worth following in 2014

Flerida Peña. Credit: N Maxwell Lander

When examining the crop of young talent we’re highlighting for our theatre issue, two themes emerge: self-producing and versatility. In a city where fierce competition for every role or gig is a given, it only makes sense to put up your own work. And whether they’re moonlighting as drag queens or researching new plays about bear culture, this passionate, hard-working cohort defiantly refuse to be labelled as simply “actors.” Instead, we like to think of them as “people you should know about.” (Check out all the beautiful shots of the actors above.)

Flerida Peña
Flerida Peña burst onto the scene this year with her solo show Sister Mary’s a Dyke?! “The inspiration for Sister Mary came out of my frustration at finding out that a lot of the people that went to my all-girls Catholic high school were secretly queer,” she says. In the show, she played Abby, a naive Catholic schoolgirl whose coming-out narrative goes to some unexpected places. “In my mind, it totally makes sense for a school to be a lesbian Catholic terrorist cell,” Peña explains, “where the students are the soldiers and the teachers — the nuns — are the generals in this holy civil war against Vatican City.”
Upcoming: Peña is working on two new scripts: a story about an estranged father and daughter who accidentally reconnect on the TTC and a musical about lesbians.

Spencer Charles Smith
Spencer Charles Smith is like a young Sky Gilbert. If you don’t believe us, ask Gilbert. “I invited him to a workshop of my play Spoon,” Smith explains. “He then wrote To Myself at 28 and asked me to play himself at 28. He told me later that he wrote the play with me in mind because I reminded him of his younger self.” The connection means a lot to Smith, who hopes to build a queer Canadian performance archive. A co-owner of Glad Day Bookshop and artistic director of Straight Camp, Smith is busy developing a new solo show about his love of hairy men and ambivalence about bear culture and its nomenclature. “As liberating as the campy labels are, they are also exclusive and perpetuate a hierarchy of beauty, which contradicts the inclusive nature of the bear community.”
Upcoming: Smith is working on Straight Camp’s Stumble, Topple, and Stand, his solo show about bear love, and planning Spoon’s return.

Katie Sly
Performing began as a means to an end for Katie Sly. To write a play as part of Buddies’ Young Creators Unit, she was required to perform her own work. “When you need something bad enough, you’ll do whatever you need to get it,” she says. Her show, Evil Love Songs, which explored her experiences as a bisexual woman, was the first in a string of queer plays she performed in this year, including Obscuring Jude, and Spencer Charles Smith’s Spoon. She is now collaborating with Smith as part of new queer collective Straight Camp. “‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ is a quote I live by,” Sly says, “and Straight Camp embraces that belief.”
Upcoming: Sly is working on an expanded version of Evil Love Songs, a new play called Serenity Wild for the Groundswell Festival in April, and Straight Camp’s first collective creation, Stumble, Topple, and Stand.

Andrew Pimento
For Andrew Pimento, a solo show doesn’t mean just one character. In Stockboy, which debuted at Videofag this year, he played eight characters of different ages, genders, races and sexualities. “I’m a character actor,” he says, “and this kind of work feels like chocolate tastes.” He’s working now on a follow-up, Phoenix, which features darker material. “It’s about gay men who have been set on fire,” he explains. His script focuses on Steven Simpson, an autistic gay teen who was set on fire at his own birthday party; a Jamaican man whose house was set ablaze as he slept; and one of the victims of the infamous 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack in New Orleans. “I’m trying not to write an ‘issues’ play, but rather give these people who are brought together via a common plight a chance to express their voices and share themselves.”
Upcoming: Pimento is planning Stockboy’s return and polishing up the script for Phoenix, which he hopes to workshop this spring.

Shaista Latif
Like others on this list, Shaista Latif is a graduate of Buddies’ youth program; she produced her solo show Graceful Rebellions as part of their Young Creators Unit this year. The play charts the lives of three queer Afghan women: a bride, a warlord and a second-generation Afghan-Canadian writer. “Guess which one is most like me?” Latif asks playfully. The show has since toured to Halifax for the Queer Acts Theatre Festival, an experience Latif calls “a game changer.” Next, she wants to turn Graceful Rebellions into a full-length, multi-actor play. “It’s going to take a few years,” she says, “but I’m determined. And crazy.”
Upcoming: Latif will appear in Scheherazade at Next Stage in January. She’ll also be working as assistant director on fellow queer Afghan-Canadian Kawa Ada’s play The Wanderers at Buddies in March.

Tyson James
Tyson James became a familiar face on the queer theatre scene this year thanks to back-to-back performances in two Buddies shows: Arigato, Tokyo and Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical. “It was an exhilarating way to ‘officially’ arrive in Toronto’s theatre scene,” James says. Of course, some audiences have known his drag alter ego, Cassandra Moore, for years. “Both my careers have very different audiences,” James admits, adding that he doesn’t personally consider the disciplines separate. “There’s different skills at work, but at the end of the day, I come from theatre and approach all of my work with that work ethic in mind.”
Upcoming: Cassandra Moore will make appearances at WorldPride and at her Saturday night residency at Buddies After Hours. Meanwhile, James can be seen in the remount of Queer Bathroom Monologues at Buddies in June.