The York University Alumni Engagement team recently sat down with York alumni Katelyn McCulloch (BFA ’11) and Oksana Sirju (BFA ’17), both actors at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Sirju is known for her stage work as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viola in Twelfth Night, and The Good Woman in A Party for Boris (York University); as well as her work in TV in a recurring role on Workin’ Moms (CBC). McCulloch’s stage work includes her roles as Maid Marion in The Silver Arrow (Citadel Theatre), Pea in Jerusalem (Company Theatre/Outside the March), and Heart of Robin Hood (Mirvish/MTC); her film work includes roles in Mary Kills People (Global), Mindfudge (CBC), Reign (CW), and The Aerialist.
When Oksana Sirju was a theatre student at York, Katelyn McCulloch, then a theatre alumna, visited the career centre to speak to theatre students and share her tips on getting the best out of your York experience. When Sirju recalls her visit, she remembers approaching McCulloch to ask her how she was succeeding in her career, and McCulloch replied, “You’re not special – it’s going to be hard, you’re going to have to schmooze, you’re going to have to do everything to make it.”
For both alumni, the trajectory has been upward since that encounter. Both have found success as actors – and as close friends – with the Stratford Festival and in other theatre, film and television productions. For the 2019 season, which concludes in November, McCulloch’s roles have been as a bully in The Neverending Story and Abigail Williams in The Crucible, and Sirju’s include Jane Seymour in Henry VIII, Rachel in Nathan the Wise, and a nurse in Birds of a Kind. Both in their second seasons with the company, they reminisce at the Festival Theatre on much of what they’ve been through as actors, as well as students, though attending York at different times.
For MuCulloch, after traveling from Nova Scotia to Toronto for her university audition, her choice was a no-brainer. “I had auditions lined up, but when I went to York, the feeling of the audition was so special that I didn't go to my other auditions,” she laughed. While students in their third and fourth years were part of the audition process, she recalls having an understanding of the culture of York very quickly, as well as a sense of community. Though she found the audition daunting, she was very excited.
“I actually felt like I was learning a craft, and I hadn't thought about acting that way before,” said McCulloch. “I was just a young excited high school kid, and I got into a program where everybody is the star of their high school and everybody has ambition and passion, everyone is curious and excited. But I soon felt really empowered.”
Sirju echoed similar sentiment that the audition process was “intimidating” and was like diving into the deep end – but the experience was great. During their times at York, both often felt overwhelmed, but were able to build strength within the York community, as well as connections to the theatre community outside of the university. They attest to having tools they learned through York they have put to much use, including how to look more closely at the craft they idolized for so long.
Nowadays, the pair stay busy balancing their time between rehearsals and shows. For both, fulfillment comes from continuously learning something new during their time in Stratford. For McCulloch, it can be daunting not always knowing where her career will take her next, but there is a sense of community among her fellow actors in small-town Stratford. For Sirju, working with other artists at Stratford inspires her, much like her time at York, where she credits her education as life-changing.
“It was definitely overwhelming, but I think what I enjoyed most is that York really forces you to take a look at yourself and to ask yourself ‘Why am I here? Why do I want to do this craft? What is it that I love about theatre?’ York will give you so many obstacles to make you want to quit, but at the end of the day, I thought, ‘I've been working really hard on this and I've been growing in this area and I can learn even more.’ York was life changing.”