BAG IT: The actress (with costar Monique Smith) in Thicker Than Water.
It takes a deft touch to make a potentially odious character someone understood, let alone likeable. But that's precisely the dazzling feat Shawna-Kae Burns accomplishes with her breakout, bravura turn as Natalee in Dahlia Harris' oestrogen-spiked drama Thicker Than Water. "I remember struggling with the role because I just didn't like [the character]," Burns admits over the phone. "But Dahlia suggested that I try to see her as a principled woman, and I think after that talk I got a better understanding of her."
The advice certainly worked. So much so that Burns went on to create one of the year's most riveting portraits of dogged determination and ruthless ambition. But, as she explains, commercial theatre is still relatively new territory for her. "It was a challenge for me, truly, because I've never been in this kind of commercial theatre production before," says the 29-year-old, who also drew hefty praise for her work in Fabian Thomas' compelling vision of In The Red and Brown Water earlier this year.
While pursuing undergraduate studies at Mona, Burns worked with director Brian Heap and the University Dramatic Arts Society (UDAS), known for staging daringly experimental pieces that meld poetry and existential drama. "I've always been drawn to outside-the-box pieces, which come with depth and transport the audience to a whole different world," says Burns, who holds degrees in social work and languages and presently teaches a foundation course at the Edna Manley College.
What's more, she knows just how fortunate she is, as a rising star, to have appeared in two of the year's most acclaimed stage productions. "I am blown away, because I've been around the energy in the theatre industry for years, but now it feels like I'm becoming part of it," she says. "It's humbling and kind of a surreal experience so far. It's a learning process."