In a way, budding actor Karina Bershteyn has Harry Potter to thank for her career choice.
“It’s funny actually – the moment I realized I wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry was when the first Harry Potter film came out,” she said. “I just remember seeing these other 11- and 12-year-olds up on the big screen and thinking, ‘I could do that,’” she said.
Now 21, Bershteyn is among the next crop of theatre stars who will be performing in Theatre Sheridan’s production of Rent, at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto from May 16 to June 3.
Set in New York’s East Village, Jonathan Larson’s Rent is a modern take on the Puccini opera La Boheme. It tells the story of a group of friends and artists who are learning to survive, falling in love, finding their voices and living for today. An inspiring award-winning musical, Rent tackles themes of addiction, poverty, AIDS and relationships.
“This show is one that really speaks to me, because I feel as though the story is universal to people of all ages and all walks of life,” Bershteyn said.
“I’m excited to be able to share this story once again. This is a brilliant opportunity being given to us graduates, as we are entering the business. It’s like our big hello to the industry.”
Part of the graduating class of Sheridan College’s music theatre program, Bershteyn has a passion for performance that began at a young age. She started taking dance classes at eight years old and attended theatre camp every summer.
Having a good understanding of her Jewish heritage influences how Bershteyn approaches certain works. “If I am doing a monologue from a play that deals with Jewish history or themes, it makes my ability to connect to the piece that much easier because my personal history can relate to the history of the character,” she said.
In Rent, Bershteyn plays Mrs. Cohen, the lead character’s mother. As well, she has several ensemble parts and is a featured dancer.
“When creating the character, director Lezlie Wade told me she wanted Mrs. Cohen to be a typically overprotective, over-caring Jewish mother from New York,” Bershteyn said.
“I didn’t need to use my imagination very much, because I grew up with a mother exactly like Mrs. Cohen, except for her being from Russia instead of New York. There are some things about growing up Jewish that really only those of us who grew up that way would be able to know what that fully entails.”
While involved in the production, Bershteyn has had the opportunity to work alongside some of Canada’s top theatre professionals.
“Lezlie Wade, [musical director] Bob Foster and [choreographer] Marc Kimelman have been absolute inspirations. They instil their knowledge and passion into everything they do, and it makes the rest of us want to give just as much to this production.”
She said one of the nice things about working with professionals of such high calibre is that they are efficient. “They won’t let us get away with anything less than excellence, which is fantastic because it pushes us to be the best we can possibly be.”
While still a new talent, Bershteyn has already been cast in a number of productions. Last summer, she played Bebe in A Chorus Line (Rose Theatre) and Salome in Robin Hood (GADZ Productions, Theatre Aquarius).
Before that, she reprised the role of Janet in The Rocky Horror Show at Port Mansion Dinner Theatre in St. Catharines, Ont., for two years in a row. Both years she was recognized for her performance at the Niagara Music Awards. This season, she played Linda in Blood Brothers and Diane in the musical Come From Away, developed by the Canadian Music Theatre Project, an incubator for the development of new musical theatre.
Bershteyn said she’s most proud of what she accomplished playing Linda in Blood Brothers. “It was a challenging role in that it demanded a lot both physically and emotionally. Though there are many funny moments, the show is overall very dark and the characters go through a lot of hardships, so it was great to see how far I could push myself working with extreme circumstances.”
Bershteyn said her family members are now very supportive of her theatrical ambition, but at first questioned her career choice. “My parents and my grandparents immigrated to Canada from Russia, so you can imagine their upbringings were very different from mine. After I booked my first paying performance job when I was 14, my parents slowly became less and less skeptical. They could see that I really was serious about this, and that it wasn’t just a phase.”
After Rent closes, Bershteyn said she’ll be auditioning for other shows. “It’s all very much so up in the air, but to me that just means a whole world of opportunity awaits.”
Bershteyn said she would like to continue performing in professional theatre in Canada and internationally. She also plans to work her way into film and television.
“I feel that with the training I have had, and the training I will continue to do, I am equipped with enough of a variety of skills that I can delve into many different sides of the industry,” she said.
“Most of all though, I just hope to be able to make my living performing because it is what I love most, regardless of what form it is in. That, to me, is the greatest success I hope to achieve.”
Bershteyn advises aspiring threatre professionals to “train, train, train. And after that, train some more. Always be open to learning more, because as an artist, the learning is never over. And with that, never compromise who you are or your integrity. As long as you are respectful to those around you, people will respect you for choosing to be who you are, instead of trying to be who you think people want you to be.”
For tickets to Rent and more information, visit www.mirvish.com.