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astering a Shakespearan role is thought to be the true test of an actor’s ability, and that opportunity often comes only after a seasoned career. But in a small town in Ontario, Canada, one young South Asian woman is beating the curve. Youthful and soft-spoken, actress Nazneen Contractor hides a magnetic stage presence behind her pleasant demeanor. As a part of the repertory company of Canada’s prestigious, Tony-award-winning Stratford Festival, Contractor garnered a leading role as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and nabbed smaller parts in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Swanne: Queen Victoria (The Seduction of Nemesis).

From ballet to the Bard

Born in Bombay, raised in Africa and Canada, and trained in ballet, the 22-year-old thespian decided on a whim to try her hand at acting. “I didn’t want to be a ballerina; I had no aspirations to be the next Karen Kane. I liked ballet because it was fun and beautiful, but I really enjoyed performing and telling stories. I loved the idea of being other people,” she says. After spending seven years studying ballet, Contractor made a sharp turn and decided to go with her instincts—a decision that, understandably, came as a shock to her family. “I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do. I just felt that ballet wasn’t the right thing for me—it was a big blow for my parents.”

Destiny came calling while Contractor was pursuing a sociology degree at the University of Toronto. She was seeking smaller roles on television when she answered an open casting call for the Stratford Festival specifically requesting ethnic minorities. It was an unusual move for the conservative company. “They have this terrible reputation for being white-bred, but that’s changing. There are directors we have who do color blind casting, and that’s great, and there are some that don’t. It just so happened that the director of The Adventures of Pericles [Contractor’s first role with the Stratford Festival in 2003] was there looking for a Marina. I auditioned, and got a callback, and another callback, and then I got the role. It changed my life.”

For The Swanne, a new Canadian play set in London in the 1800s, I read volumes and volumes on life in London, books that I would never normally read. That’s what acting makes you do—it’s a lovely way of educating yourself.

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All the world’s a stage

Life as a part of a repertory company is tough but rewarding, says Contractor. Besides the negative aspects that come with any job—like competition and envy—there are those inherent to living and working in Stratford. “We all live together in a small town and the small town mentality can come with it. People talk, and it can become quite incestuous. You can avoid it, though. And it’s such a small thing in the long run.” And though her hometown of Toronto is only an hour and a half away, the separation from family and friends is difficult to deal with alongside the pressure of performing. “Of course I miss my parents, my friends; it’s a totally different lifestyle for me. I have to be much more disciplined and careful. Because you’re performing, you just really have to be careful with your body and voice.”

But the positives far outweigh the negatives: Contractor is awed by the reputation of the Stratford Festival and her illustrious colleagues. “Some of the greatest actors in North America work here, and to work on the same stage—I can’t conceptualize it.” And prepping for her roles provides built-in opportunities for research, which she relishes: “For The Swanne, a new Canadian play set in London in the 1800s, I read volumes and volumes on life in London, books that I would never normally read. That’s what acting makes you do—it’s a lovely way of educating yourself.” Most importantly, Contractor enjoys the unconditional support of her parents. “I’ve met tons of men and women my age whose parents don’t support them. I’m very lucky. My parents are very proud and supportive and 100 percent on my side, trusting the fact that I’m putting my education on hold.”

I don’t want to call it racism, but it’s hard for some to see someone Chinese saying Shakespeare; it’s not in their perspective. I think that’s complete baloney. I think that if you train someone and they bring something to the role, then that’s good. I think it’s important that someone Indian—a woman, and young—is speaking Shakespeare.

To thine own self be true

Contractor vehemently disagrees with the perception that only Caucasians can do Shakespeare. “I don’t want to call it racism, but it’s hard for some to see someone Chinese saying Shakespeare; it’s not in their perspective. I think that’s complete baloney. I think that if you train someone and they bring something to the role, then that’s good. I think it’s important that someone Indian—a woman, and young—is speaking Shakespeare. Hopefully it will open the door to others. You can’t change people’s minds but you can hopefully open them.” And while many of her past roles have been as women of East Indian or Middle Eastern descent, Contractor doesn’t think that her ethnic background has typecast or hindered her. “It doesn’t really bother me, because I’m new to the profession and want to get my foot in the door. I’ll take anything I can get, as long as it doesn’t compromise my dignity. It would only bother me if they said, ‘We’d love you for the lead role but your skin is too dark, so we’d like you to play a convenience store clerk.'”

Fiercely proud of her heritage, Contractor strongly identifies with her Parsi background. Parsis—Indians of Persian descent—are followers of the Zoroastrian religion who left Iran in the early tenth century and settled in western India. “I’m a Parsi through and through, 100 percent thoroughbred. It’s very important to me. I’ve always been very proud of my culture and family and religion and more than happy to speak about it. ‘Good thoughts, good words and good deeds’ is the mantra of Zoroastrianism, and striving for that is a challenge in my work and life.” Contractor’s connection to her culture has proven to be an asset in her career—especially during her first engagement with the Stratford Festival. “In The Adventures of Pericles, the protagonist travels throughout the world, and Shakespeare made up these places that didn’t exist, but sounded exotic to the Elizabethans. Our director set it in Thailand and India, which is exotic to us in North America. So I taught the actor to do the namaste [a traditional Indian greeting] properly.”

There’s a lot of me in Hermia: She’s tough, but a little spoiled, she’s very emotional and passionate, and I love playing her. Every moment that Hermia feels in the play I have felt in my life in some context.

Perchance to dream

Playing Hermia, one of the leads in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is especially meaningful for Contractor because she identifies with the character. “There’s a lot of me in Hermia: She’s tough, but a little spoiled, she’s very emotional and passionate, and I love playing her. Every moment that Hermia feels in the play I have felt in my life in some context. I’ve had a boyfriend whom my parents disapproved of; that’s the tragedy and injustice you feel when you’re younger I think anyone can relate to.”

Now that she’s conquered the stage at Stratford, what’s next for this accomplished young actress? Question Contractor about her dreams for the future, and she eschews the typical desire for fame and fortune. “A few years ago I would have told you [I’d like] to win an Academy Award, but being here has taught me that I really love this craft. I’ve fallen in love with it head over heels. The greatest reward would be to do this for a living for the rest of my life.” n

Published on October 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of the Stratford Festival.
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