‘I knocked on the doors till my fingers bled’: Kingston’s Maev Beaty on her journey to Stratford

Kingston’s Maev Beaty stars as Beatrice in The Stratford Festival’s 2023 production of Much Ado About Nothing, showing until October 20, 2023 at The Festival Theatre. Photo by David Hou/Stratford Festival.

Kingston’s Maev Beaty was destined for a life in the performing arts. Having lived on farms in the Thousand Islands region, including Gananoque and Lansdowne, Beaty’s family eventually settled in Kingston when she was around eight years old. Beaty spent most of her youth in the Limestone City and attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI) for high school. 

Since Beaty can remember, storytelling has been an important part of her life, thanks in part to her mother’s work as a youth librarian. 

“People always ask, ‘When did you know you wanted to be an actor?’ I don’t think I ever knew anything different,” she said.

“Storytelling was always a part of my brain. My mother was the children’s librarian at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library for years. So many of my friends and colleagues from that time found their love of storytelling by going to my mom’s puppet shows… The library, for me, was the seat of story, community, and performance. There were puppet shows [and] dress-up days, and that definitely was bred in the bone early on.” 

Eventually, Beaty made her way to the stage, performing in school concerts and plays, including an early stint as Mother Goose around age three or four. The actress said these early onstage experiences came naturally to her: “[One time] we were supposed to do a concert, and our teacher got caught in a snowstorm. So I got up and spoke to the auditorium and [said] we were going to go for it anyway and try our best… The fact that I could get the attention of a room full of farmers as a nine-year-old girl [showed that the stage] was a very comfortable place for me.” 

A 1995 KCVI Drama Club trip to the Stratford Festival sparked Beaty’s dream of performing there. Beaty is fifth from left in the back row. Photo via Ian Malcolm.

In high school, Beaty furthered her passion for performance with the help of KCVI drama teacher Ian Malcolm, whose classes and drama activities allowed her to hone her acting skills while experiencing a variety of theatrical works. During a 1995 field trip to the Stratford Festival organized by the KCVI Drama Club, Beaty began to dream of one day performing in the famed Canadian festival.

“That dream was born because of Ian Malcolm and our drama trips,” she said. 

Throughout her time at KCVI, Beaty frequently participated in the popular Sears Drama Festival (now known as the National Theatre School DramaFest), a national festival featuring student-led productions.

“The Sears Drama Festival started my love of contemporary theatre. We did Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone [in 1995]. We went to the provincial festival… It was those festivals, getting to meet kids from other schools and seeing shows from other communities… that were the golden moments of my high school time,” she remarked. 

Aside from the Sears Drama Festival, Beaty also performed in Shakespeare productions mounted by Malcolm, including a 1992 performance of Twelfth Night to celebrate the school’s bicentennial, her first of many encounters with the bard’s work.

“That show definitely cemented my love of Shakespeare and my love of comedy and plays that are filled with joy and love and life,” she explained. 

As a student, Beaty shared the stage with a number of budding actors, some of whom have gone on to become prominent performers, including Brett Christopher, Managing Artistic Director for the Thousand Islands Playhouse, as well as Broadway veteran Chilina Kennedy.

The curtain call for the final night of KCVI’s 1992 bicentennial production of Twelfth Night. Beaty (centre) played Olivia. Photo via Ian Malcolm.

“People often ask me if I went to an arts high school. Of course I didn’t — just a school that prioritized the arts and the humanities,” Beaty quipped.

While she credited the commitment of teachers such as Malcolm to arts-based education, Beaty said she worries students today are not getting the same opportunities she did when she was in school.

“The value of those arts programs [was] not just to set up our fancy careers, but [for] the compassion, humanity, diversity of thought, and life experience, for all the students,” she expressed.

“I really worry about the lack of it now… You need a champion, and the system, at the moment, does not reward champions.” 

After graduating from KCVI, Beaty studied theatre at the University of Toronto (U of T). Despite being in the theatre capital of Canada, Beaty admitted Toronto wasn’t originally her preferred destination: “My whole plan was to go to Montreal… like my cool older brother, who also went to KCVI and did drama. I wanted to live with my friend Ryan and have fabulous dance parties. But I’m very grateful that I ended up at U of T. It’s such an incredible institution.” 

As a national scholar at U of T, thanks in part to support from KCVI guidance counsellor Linda Huffman, Beaty was able to take advantage of the many theatrical opportunities that come with living in a big city.

“[There was] the Hart House Theatre; [I was] part of the group that worked on the University of Toronto Drama Festival, which was very much a natural extension of the Sears Drama Festival… I credit my career success almost entirely to learning how to make my own work at an early age,” she noted. 

Following her time at U of T, Beaty’s life took the direction of many aspiring performers, as she spent years trying to break into the highly competitive professional acting world.

“I couldn’t really get an agent or equity job until I was close to 30,” she shared.

“I got to do an incredible season of theatre in Calgary at a [repertory] company — that was incredible. But then, coming back to Toronto, it just became the struggle that so many young performers find.” 

For close to 10 years, Beaty balanced waitressing and bartending jobs as she auditioned and took on roles with independent and avant-garde theatre companies throughout the city. While the grind was a tough one, Beaty spoke highly of the experience and how it shaped her as an artist.

“It was fantastic. Those were those golden, bohemian years. That’s where the current theatre leadership was all sharpening their teeth and opening their hearts together,” the actress said, as she noted artists today may not have similar experiences. 

“We could still do that and pay rent. I don’t know if that’s available [today]. I worry because… the space and the freedom to take risks and imagine and write stuff was there because we could live with roommates and afford to pay rent.”  

Following years of hard work and determination, Beaty got her first big break with help from a fellow Kingstonian. While performing a monologue as part of The Wrecking Ball, a political cabaret show, Beaty was seen by Canadian playwright and Kingston native Judith Thompson, who immediately wanted her for her latest production, Palace of the End, at Canadian Stage. 

Beaty recounted, “She didn’t even know my name, let alone that I grew up in the ‘fruit belt’ in Kingston and grew up reading her plays. [So] I auditioned and I booked it.”

At the same time, Beaty was also hired to play Helena in Canadian Stage’s famed Dream in High Park production. This, she said, was “the perfect combination of a new Canadian play by Judith Thompson and of the greatest Shakespearean comedic heroine parts… I felt like that was the time when I [became] a working actor doing plays in Toronto.” 

After establishing herself as a professional actor in Toronto, Beaty still dreamed of one day performing as part of the Stratford Festival, a dream that would take years to turn into a reality. Much like the grind of becoming a professional performer, Beaty faced years of rejection at Stratford before finally finding her place in the festival’s roster.

“I was rejected three times from the Stratford Conservatory. I auditioned three times under different leaderships… I knocked on the doors of this place till my fingers bled because I felt, since that school trip, that this is where I wanted to be,” Beaty said. 

After accepting that a role at Stratford might not be in the cards, Beaty was unexpectedly invited to audition for the festival’s 2014 production of King Lear, just after giving birth to her first child. That year, Beaty would go on to be cast in two productions at the festival, playing Goneril in King Lear and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since 2014, Beaty has gone on to appear in over 12 productions at the Stratford Festival, including a number of Shakespearean works, as well as several contemporary plays.

As for what makes the festival such a special place, Beaty pointed to its rich history of producing groundbreaking high-quality theatre for 70 years. 

“From the art side, the Festival Theatre, the Studio Theatre, and now the Tom Patterson Theatre, all have such a special magic,” she said. “After decades and decades of filling those spaces with actual human energy, sharing storytelling together, it lingers in the wood, it lingers in the air… You feel like you’re part of a continuum.” 

In 2023, Beaty is once again performing in two Stratford productions, taking on the roles of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Annabelle in Wedding Band. She described the former as her dream role.

“I saw the Emma Thompson film when I was 16… I went home and read it, and I said ‘This is the part I want to play before I die.’ I held that dream for 30 years,” she said. 

In Much Ado, Beaty’s Beatrice is a feisty heroine whom Shakespearean scholars have often thought of as a feminist ahead of her time. In this particular production, Beaty has the opportunity to bring a light-hearted nature and a sense of joy to the role.

“It’s funny, it’s hilarious… People will… come up to me, stop me on the street, and laugh and cry at the same time. They’re so moved to have had that that collective experience. That’s why we’re addicted, because it’s not the same as sitting at home. It’s the fact that everyone shared that joy together,” Beaty said of the audience’s response to the play. 

While Much Ado About Nothing is an iconic Shakespearean comedy and has been produced 12 times at Stratford, allowing Beaty to embody a popular character and make it her own, the actor’s experience in Wedding Band has been markedly different. The play was written by Alice Childress in 1962, but 2023 marks the first time it has been performed at Stratford. While Wedding Band may be new to most audiences, Beaty claimed it’s one of the best scripts she’s ever read.

“I think it’s a play that should be done as much as Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, or The Glass Menagerie… It’s absolutely a classic, and nobody knows it,” she said. 

The play tells the story of a forbidden romance between Julia, a black seamstress, and Herman, a white baker, living in South Carolina following the First World War. The production navigates the complexities of their relationship amid the US Civil Rights Movement and the 1918 flu epidemic. 

Maev Beaty as Annabelle in Wedding Band, Stratford Festival 2023. Photo via Stratford Festival/Bre’Ann White.

Since opening at Stratford back in June, Beaty said audiences have responded positively to Wedding Band and its impact amid a racial reckoning that is underway in places like Canada and the United States: “You can feel the energy of people encountering it, not knowing where it’s going to go. The story covers a lot of human experience in a couple of hours… It’s a really huge offering, and you can feel the excitement from the people who connect with it.”

With the 2023 Stratford season set to end in just over a month’s time, Beaty said she doesn’t quite know what’s next for her, after having the opportunity to finally play the role of a lifetime.

“The amazing part of [this experience] is, what do you do once you’ve achieved your dream? I’m kind of thrilled to find this. There’s been a room inside me that’s been dedicated to this dream. Now the door has been opened and the wind has swept through and there’s space to think of what’s next,” she expressed. 

While Beaty noted there are other theatrical roles she would like to play in the future, she’s also started to consider other opportunities beyond the stage.

“There are definitely a handful of shows I’d like to make, or be in, that I dream about. I am also very interested in the next chapter and how I can be of service. My ‘mama heart’ wants to say, ‘How can we make space, prioritize, and advocate for this essential part of the human experience, which is live performance and the arts? How do we make sure that that gets available to young people and they get to experience it?’” she said.

Aside from her work in theatre, Beaty has also begun to dabble in the world of film acting. She was recently featured in the 2023 star-studded film Beau is Afraid, starring Joaquin Phoenix. A complete list of Beaty’s theatre and film credits can be found on her website.

Audiences still have the opportunity to catch Beaty in both of her 2023 Stratford Festival productions, but those who want to see Wedding Band should act fast, as the production, directed by Sam White, closes at the Tom Patterson Theatre on Sunday, October 1. Meanwhile, Much Ado About Nothing, with Chris Abraham at the helm, continues its run at the Festival Theatre until Friday, October 20. Visit the Stratford Festival’s website for ticket details and more information about the festival.

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