After years of dance classes and music lessons, after working through the ranks of Judy Russell productions in Prince George then studies at the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Shelby Meaney finally earned the starring role. But it wasn't the training alone that got her the part - she was cast as Maria in The Sound of Music just for being herself. According to Russell, Meaney has a pied piper quality that made her a natural fit for the famous nanny who transforms the Von Trapp family.
"Shelby has this amazing ability with children; they just feel instantly comfortable and safe with her," said Russell, who has watched Meaney hone this ability as one of the teachers at her Enchanement Dance Centre. Meaney lifts her shoulders and tilts her expression in a shrug of guilty pleasure.
"I don't think I've played a character I'm so similar to. I was sort of born to play Maria," she said. "I love to teach and I love music more than anything in the world. I was raised on Guns 'n' Roses and Pink Floyd, so that's what I'm excited about with this character because that is what she's all about, even though the music is a different form. She is exposing those kids to progressive and expressive new music than what they are used to in their family."
Still, she admits, getting across the personality of Maria through performance of script lines and body movements was more difficult than she anticipated. She had a moment of epiphany as a person when her opposite-lead character was having one, too. She and co-star Matt Russell were rehearsing the beloved scene in the play when the hostile Capt. Von Trapp was in the middle of berating Maria for her methods of caring for the children using common music and interpersonal affection when, out of the corner of his ear, he is stopped in his tracks by his children's heartfelt singing from the next room.
"There was a look that came over Matt's face when he - the captain - realized those were actually his children. That's when I finally sank into Maria," Meaney said. "I totally understood her, in that moment, because that is what I want to do every day. Like Maria, I want to bring that love of music to people, and show children how that opens the door to a love of life. When you see, as I have, how that affects them to their little core, then you can feel for Maria. I just had to find that."
It didn't come easily. That process started back in her own childhood when her family made profound personal sacrifices to keep their little girl in dance and voice lessons, because they could plainly see the path Meaney was on.
"I am so grateful to my mom," Meaney said, her voice catching on the words. "I feel for people who don't have that in their lives. I am so incredibly privileged that I was given that gift as a child and now I get to share that with children, with audiences, and I thank my lucky stars and my family every day for what I get to do."
She has been in those Enchanement classes since she was three years old. At the age of 15, Russell gave her the opportunity to teach there. At about the same time, she started voice training with Robin Norman. On the academic side, she was attending South Fort George elementary school and on to high school at PGSS. At home, privately, she was teaching herself how to noodle on the banjo and guitar and ukulele.
All the while, Russell was giving her opportunities to use that training in real-life applications. First, there were successive productions of The Nutcracker. She was part of shows like Guys And Dolls, Gypsy, Annie, Hello Dolly, HMS Pinafore, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Tommy, and more.
When she moved to Toronto for the Randolph school, she was in traditional big-stage shows like Hair and Sweeney Todd, plus Ronnie Burkett's original play Provenance. She did a circus show in the fringe festival setting. She even got to play vastly against type by getting the Shakespearean role of Shylock in a rendition of The Merchant of Venice.
She was exposed to other life experiences, too, which helped steel her character. Her favourite, perhaps, was spying a poster in the window of a little neighbourhood bookstore. It advertised an appearance by author Eric Burdon. Meany knew, from that musically steeped upbringing, that he was no mere author and she showed up - the only female and the only one under the age of 50 - with banjo in hand which Burdon happily signed after having a quick chat with this novelty of a fan.
"My favourite band ever is The Animals," she said. "I love me some Freddy Mercury, but Eric Burdon is the best of all time because he is also a musician in his singing, not just a singer. He never sings anything the same way twice."
That influence was put on blazing display in Judy Russell's production of Spamalot last year. When Meaney moved back to her hometown for science studies at UNBC, she stuck with the performance passions now ingrained in her personality. She took on a number of students needing instruction and choreography help, and Russell gave her the small but dazzling role of the Las Vegas floor-show diva and the dual part of the hilarious Lady of the Lake. Nailed it! And set Meaney on a clear course for a part with enough weight to go with her considerable theatre muscle.
It was a problem easily solved by Maria.
Perhaps it is an act of additional, subliminal rehearsal, but while she is learning The Sound of Music she is also being that mentor to children. Meaney just finished a round of musical theatre camps she is doing this summer, and more are to come. From Aug. 3-9 she will lead a youth camp at Enchanement and from Aug. 10-21 she will do another at the Sunset Theatre in Wells (call the respective venues for registration information).
Then, at the end of August, Meaney is off on her greatest adventure yet. A school affiliated with Randolph Academy has contracted Meaney to teach a year of dance, singing, acting and other performance skills. The school, which has some friends of Meaney's already on staff, is located in Jordan.
"I am going there to expand my horizons. That's why I went to Toronto," she said. "To tell you the truth, when I first went to Randolph, my thought was that I wouldn't be coming back. But our community rocks, first of all, and sometimes you have to leave to see that clearly. I feel that travel opportunities give me so much more to bring back to my community. You always have to be going out there learning and innovating and growing. But this time, I do know I want to come back to Prince George."
Meaney's Maria will come down from the Alps to charm the Von Trapp family and the Prince George audience from opening night on Tuesday until Aug. 1 at the Prince George Playhouse. Tickets are on sale now at Studio 2880 and at the door while supplies last.