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Acting, modelling, directing: my university career comes to a close

Saying my thank-yous — yours truly, Abigail Whitney
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Abigail Whitney reflects on her artistic journey.COURTESY OF KAYLA ROCCA
Abigail Whitney reflects on her artistic journey.COURTESY OF KAYLA ROCCA

My mom says my journey at U of T began when I was a baby, when she, as a student, would bring me to her lectures. I guess that was her paving the way for me to go to U of T. But I hesitated when I graduated high school. I wanted to go to Trent University because my older brother’s bandmates raved about their time there, but my mom insisted that I go to her alma mater.

I was excited to be accepted directly into the drama program’s 200-level entry course during my first year. I came to theatre after winning first prize in a poetry recitation contest in high school. The experience of reciting poetry led me to recite monologues, and I soon developed an interest in theatre.

During high school I acted in amateur and professional productions; one of my most memorable productions was ​Emotional Creature​, which I performed in alongside an empowering, all-girls cast at Young People’s Theatre, directed by Tanisha Taitt.

My first performance at U of T was in ​Moby Dick! The Musical with the Woodsworth Innis New Drama Society​. I remember being amazed by the students producing, directing, and starring in the production. The following semester, I played the titular role in an original Africanized retelling of ​Cinderella​ by U of T’s African Studies Course Union. Vanessa Jev, the director, told me it was uncommon for a first-year student to play lead in a production, and they joked that my first-year composure was perfect for playing a princess: I was unaffected by the anxiety that would come from additional years of postsecondary education.

Cinderella was my first play with an African diasporic cast and creative team. This production sought African diasporic students to audition for roles, and created a genuine space for us to express our talents. Opportunities like ​Cinderella only come every so often for Black students on campus.

After two very successful runs, I thought my first year would be my best year. I felt I was a part of change happening on campus, but I also felt I wouldn’t get another experience like this again. The experience of ​Cinderella was so unique and unmatched. What could compare to young Black girls welcoming me after a performance wearing princess dresses and tiaras, and fellow students on campus calling me Cinderella? To this day, I’m reminded of Cinderella​ and the importance of Black visibility and experiences in theatre.

Oyin Olalekan — a master’s student doing her thesis project saw me in ​Cinderella and asked me to model for her solo art exhibition. I was thrilled. Soon after, I began freelance modelling and was featured in Afropunk, and on PhotoVogue, where my picture was selected as “Pic of the day” by Vogue Italia​​.

During my second year I was signed by a modelling agency. I was interviewed for a magazine that dubbed me “the girl with the flying cheekbones” — a description I’ve come to embrace. The quote originally comes from the namesake of M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem, “Meditations on the Declensions of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheek-bones.” The poem was also referenced, by chance, in the solo art exhibition that included my first portraits as a model.

I like to think that I began modelling from acting, and that I learned how to model from the skills I learned through acting. I get to be myself and express myself differently through modelling. ​Th​ere are so many possibilities for ​me when I model, and that’s why I continue. It’s an art form that keeps showing who I am.

I continued to act in my second year. I performed in the chorus of ​Electra. In my third year, I played lead in ​Scorched ​directed by Djanet Sears at U of T. Off-campus, I performed as one of the leads in Deanna Bowen’s On Trial The Long Doorway. The production was named in ​“The 10 best art shows of 2017” by NOW magazine, and went on to win Monographic Exhibition of the Year at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries Awards.

I also played one of the leads in Welcome Wagon ​at InspiraTO Festival​, Canada’s largest 10-minute play festival. Welcome Wagon won the Jury Award for ​Best Overall Play. I continued to model, and was featured in CoverGirl and L’Oréal campaigns that year, and even flew to Vancouver — for the first time — for a Lululemon campaign.

I transitioned into directing during my third year. Directing is an empowering process and I’ve found that I learn the most about myself when I’m doing so. ​I co-devised a new piece, created in response to Amanda Parris’ ​Other Side of the Game, and I co-directed ​I Can’t Trust Anyone, Everyone Hurts Me: A Comedy, ​which won the Staging Survivance merit award at the U of T Drama Festival.

I’ve always had an inclination to direct; ever since high school I’d envision how to tell stories onstage. University gave me the opportunity to pursue that aspiration.

In my fourth year, I made my directorial debut with the world premiere of Les Frères, a full-length play written by New York artist Sandra A. Daley-Sharif. The U of T Drama Coalition named me Best Director for my work. I was featured by U of T News in their “U of T students who crushed it in 2018” piece. I was interviewed by The Varsity, and on both CBC’s q​ and Our Toronto​. ​

Les Frères was also featured on ​ByBlacks in celebration of the 215th anniversary of Haiti’s independence on January 1, 2019​. On our closing, Daley-Sharif flew into Toronto from New York to surprise us. This was truly one of my most memorable experiences directing. I developed a great relationship with Daley-Sharif over the course of ​Les Frères​ — she trusted me with her story and allowed me to make it my own.

Also during fourth year, I was in a national Sephora campaign. I remember commuting between that shoot and my shifts as a theatre counsellor at the university. I didn’t quite understand how big this shoot was until I saw my face on campus, at the bus stop corner of Harbord Street and Spadina Avenue on my way to a ​Les Frères rehearsal. Then began the flood of messages from friends over social media who saw my face in Sephora advertisements and stores across Canada.

At the time of the shoot, I didn’t know how significantly being the face of a national makeup campaign would impact other Black women. I was approached in Sephora stores by Black women who congratulated me, and a young Black girl whom I babysat did a presentation about me for her show-and-tell.

In my following semester in fourth year, I flew to London, England, for the first time, on an exchange to study acting. I auditioned for an award-winning drama company, and acted in their submission to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival. Our show was listed among the ​“Top 10 Things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe” by Pocket Size Theatre. I also modelled, and signed on to a British and Swedish modelling agency.

These are just some of the experiences I’ll cherish when I graduate in June, and when I go on to future endeavours. I appreciate that I’ve acted, modelled, and directed while in university. Acting has enhanced the way I model, and modelling informs my directing both in and outside of rehearsal. They’re reciprocal.

I feel that having Black women present in prominent positions in creative industries has enabled me to work in them as well. The fact that I’ve worked with some of the inspiring Black women who came before me keeps me motivated.

Now, in my graduating year, I’m the artistic theatre director of ​the youth​, an art house that gives opportunities to talented Black youth entering creative industries. I was the assistant director for ​Here are the Fragments, co-produced by the ECT Collective and The Theatre Centre, and I worked on ​Infinity, which was produced by Volcano Theatre, and toured Vancouver. I recently directed my second play, ​Father Figures at the 2020 U of T Drama Festival. In May of this year, I will be directing an excerpt seven methods of killing kylie jenner with Paprika Festival, which first opened at the Royal Court in London, UK.

I won’t be able to say my thank-yous when I accept my degree at Convocation Hall, so I hope it’s okay that I say them here.

Thank you, mom for your advice, and for ​so much more​. Thank you to my three sisters and my brother for ​always being there for me, and my brother especially for watching over me. Thank you to my beautiful friends, my extended Toronto families and communities for your incredible support! I am forever grateful for every single person who has been a part of my journey thus far.