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INSPIRE: Young local actor premieres new film at TIFF

Shayla Brown recently performed in her first feature film directed by Canadian film royalty Sarah Polley, alongside multiple Academy-Award winner Frances McDormand

Shayla Brown says she hit the jackpot with her first feature film.

The 19-year-old actor from Midland premiered her first film at the Toronto International Film Festival recently with a star-studded cast and crew.

Women Talking is not only directed by Canadian writer, actor and director Sarah Polley, but the cast is also filled with acting powerhouses, including Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, Gemini, Genie, and Canadian Screen Acting award-winner Sheila McCarthy, Cannes award-winner Rooney Mara, and many more.

“It wasn’t something I was expecting to do at 19, because that’s not normal,” says Brown of acting in a film packed with “so many amazing women.”

“I was definitely intimidated when I saw the cast list.

"For my first feature film, I really did hit the jackpot,” says the thespian who got her first taste of the stage as a sheep in the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Women Talking is based on a book by Canadian Author Miriam Toews. Both the book and film surround sexual assaults that take place in a Mennonite community.

“It was a very heavy film,” says the vision-impaired, queer actress.

The film follows group of women in a religious colony struggling to reconcile their faith moving forward after discovering that they’ve been subject to years of sexual abuse.

Brown explains that this film was so special because there was a sense of community with all of us.

“It was extremely safe cast,” says Brown, noting that it had to be given the content.

“For us to get the best performances we needed to be vulnerable. Knowing that this cast was going to take care of me, I could really give myself to my character.”

Brown adds: “You have to have a supportive space. No other job asks you to be this vulnerable and this emotionally open.” 

The blind actor says that theatre allowed her to open up.

“The world asks blind people to really to do a lot," she says.“Either you’re really independent or you ask for help once and you’re helpless.”

Getting to walk across stage by herself in various roles gave the young actor a sense of independence.  

Brown recently portrayed her first lead role as Matilda in the play by the same name for her high school graduating class’ final production.

Despite having witnesses a few of these productions, Brown thought she would be less emotional as the curtains dropped on that last performance.

That was not the case.

“There is this whole community in theatre,” explains Brown. 

She says this community spirit was in every place she ever graced the stage as a member of the children’s chorus for the King’s Wharf theatre, to the recent Toronto production of George F. Walker’s comedy “Orphans for the Czar.”

“With the support you get from the people that you’re working with, you learn the tools of collaboration in community and school theatre. By the time I made it to Toronto, I didn't feel any different in those rehearsal rooms.

“You’re still working together, collaborating, it’s just a different calibre. It’s a lot of playing,” notes the accomplished actor.  

After a few busy years in her budding career, Brown took this summer to regroup, and attended the Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy where she had the chance to direct a production for the first time.

The artistic director at the academy, David Connolly, asked Brown to assistant director Frozen Jr.

 Brown says it was a nice change of pace after the seriousness her first film.

As for directing, Brown says that Sarah Polley has been a force behind me since I finished Women Talking. “She told me, ‘You need to write and direct your own stuff’,” laughs Brown of the fortune of having such a talented and accomplished person offer that kind of encouragement.

“She really thinks that I have something and she sees something,” says Brown, laughing that she has to do something now, because Polley made these comments in public. 

As a blind actor, and someone how identifies as queer, Brown says she’s a minority, and that has given her a lot of story ideas. 

“I haven’t written before, and yet [Polley] tells me that I should,” says Brown who says she does have Polley’s number so she can call her when she needs the guidance. 

Brown says that taking the summer to reflect has given her time to think about what she wants to do with her career as she auditions to various performing arts programs.

“My advice to young actors is that you’re going to go through slumps where you feel like you’re never going to work again. I feel like that after every big role. Keep auditioning. The opportunities will find you.”

We’ll be paying close attention to what may come next for Shayla Brown, because the opportunities she’s found will only turn into more.