Sara Farb may have just made her Stratford Festival debut this year, but she’s already a seasoned stage performer.
The 26-year-old actress made her professional debut when she was just nine years old in the role of young Jane Eyre at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
“It was huge,” she said. “Looking back it’s astounding I was given that opportunity so young.”
She remembers her first time performing in that production in front of an audience. The seats were totally black, darkened by the stage lights. She felt very little in the big room, but she hadn’t yet developed the nerves that might worry an adult actor performing on that stage for the first time.
“People work their whole lives to achieve something like that, but I didn’t really understand how lucky I was back then, because obviously I didn’t know any better.”
Now, the Toronto native is making her name known among the Stratford crowd, an experience she described as magical and overwhelming.
She was first seen this year as a young boy in Romeo and Juliet, a production that took the show back to its Elizabethan roots, with all of the cast speaking in the proper iambic pentameter – something that Farb said is quite rare, even in the town named for William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Although she prepared her lines as the understudy for Juliet, she never had the chance to actually perform it for an audience. Instead, she played the role of the Page to Paris, a little boy with a big musket. But she’s not heartbroken about it.
“[As an understudy,] you hope to God you never have to go on, and if you do, you hope to God that you’re ready. I was definitely ready… but it’s great to know I have the role of Juliet in my wheelhouse,” she said. “That’s a huge amount of text that I now know.”
Most recently, she performed the role of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter who runs away from her father to marry a Christian, taking with her some of his wealth.
As is typical with all productions of the Merchant of Venice, this one drew some criticism from Jews, many of whom view it as an anti-Semitic story with Shylock as the villain.
However, Farb said she doesn’t buy that argument.
“I know there’s a preconceived notion that it’s an anti-Semitic play, and depending on how you read it and depending on the production and how it’s interpreted, it certainly could be,” she acknowledged.
But that’s not what this production was about, she said.
“What [Stratford artistic director] Antoni Cimolino so beautifully showed in this production was that what it comes down to is a question of humanity,” she said.
“We have, at the crux, this religious disagreement, but when that’s stripped away – and it is quite quickly – what you see is Shylock, who is just a complicated man who struggles to maintain his integrity.”
In particular, the famous “Hath a Jew not eyes” speech, in which Shylock tries to point out that both Jews and Christians are human, is hugely valuable to that interpretation, Farb added.
“If a person saw the play and walked away thinking it was anti-Semitic, it was because they were insistent to begin with and reluctant to have their minds swayed.”
Her next performance will be in Toronto for a night of music by Sting and The Police. Run by Acting Up Stage Company, the night will feature songs that have strong narratives, with a number of musical actors performing the songs. Farb said she’s really looking forward to the concert.
“So many of the songs, I didn’t realize I knew, and I love when that happens,” she said, adding that she’ll be performing a number of songs, but taking the lead on Synchronicity II, Don’t Stand So Close to Me (in a duet with performer Jeff Madden), and Desert Rose as part of a trio.
Farb said she was never going to spend her life chasing any career other than performing. When she’s standing on a stage in front of an audience, she’s comfortable and feels like she’s doing what she’s best at. The industry can be scary at times – especially the lack of stability – but she knows it’s the right decision.
She knows employment won’t be a concern for her for at least another year. The Stratford Festival recently announced that she’s been cast as Cordelia in King Lear for next year’s season.
And she hopes she can stay there for at least a while longer.
“It’s every Canadian actor’s dream to one day perform on a Stratford stage – especially on the Festival stage, which is where I got to do all of my shows this year,” she said. “I can only hope that I’ll be able to stay working in a place that I love and do work that excites me.”