The Woman Inside Ms. Valentine: Khursheed Sethna

Shirley Valentine

We recently took some time to interview Khursheed Sethna, who plays the title role in the upcoming VOS production of Shirley Valentine.

What do you do for a Living?

I wish there was a simple answer to this question. I just turned 50 and am a study junky so I have a few strings to my bow. I have been a Speech Therapist and Voice Coach for 26 years and was lucky enough to study with Cicely Berry at Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England. My claim to fame is that I went to the same University as Lawrence Olivier so I at least walked in his footsteps! So yes I do make a living as a Speech therapist (Healing Interactions) mostly with people who have had acquired brain injury.

More recently I launched my business as an “Inside Out Voice Coach” and I work with actors and performers as well as Speakers and Presenters; to help them free their voice inside and out. My Speech Therapy and Voice background helps me work with the physical aspects of the voice, including prevention and maintenance. I happen to have a diploma in Traditional and Transpersonal Psychotherapy from the Transformational Arts College in Toronto so I have the counseling, coaching background that addresses the “Inside aspect”. I am also a qualified Holodynamics consultant which is a method of working on limiting beliefs and old trauma using a tracking system through visualization. I have found that working with the voice, especially with individuals, always seems to bring up blocks that are not just part of the mechanics of the voice.

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I have many years of acting training, not in a formal university environment but through numerous classes with some of the best teachers in Toronto, like Sears and Switzer and other teachers from Theater Ontario and Equity Theater. This led to a position as drama teacher for Parks and Rec in Georgina and I did drama teaching for Flare Modelling.

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I know I am not answering this directly at all, but I love the Voice and Drama aspect of my work especially backed up by my Holodynamics and psychotherapy background. I want everyone to be able to express themselves freely and have Power, Passion, Presence and Flair in their performances and presentations. My Voice in Action Workshops have been very successful here and in California.

This testimonial, from one of my clients who is an actress in LA., will perhaps give you an idea of how what I do for a living is so rewarding and powerful.

““Khursheed is amazing.  She has the ability to work with your voice from the inside out.  She has helped me clear emotional blocks as well as given me tools to unveil my true voice.  I listen to my past voice recordings and compare them to the present and there is more clarity, confidence, and command.  Thank you Khursheed!
-Grace, LA actress, Beverly Hills, CA

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How Did You Get Involved with VOS?

I moved to Port Hope from Mississauga in 2009 April. I had lived in Mississauga for about 8 years and had focused on my career and learning to live the single life again. I knew that what I missed most was being around Theater folk. In Newmarket and Aurora, my life revolved around my theater family and after my divorce I seemed to leave it all behind.

I had put out the intent that I would love to join a group again. I think it was at the Port Hope fair that I came across the VOS booth and it was Liz Clarke and Susanne Pacey who were so kind and welcoming that I wanted to join immediately. I believe I walked over to Liz’ office and gave her my membership and then I went out for Fiddler on the Roof. No one knew my theater background and it was a whole new group of people. Theater folk are Theater folk. Most of them welcome people with open arms. I got a chorus roll and met Steve Shortt, our President in his first production. He was my hubby! I have not done much else on stage but have been out to crew back stage for White Christmas and Spamalot and had a lot of fun being part of the energy.

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How Did Shirley Valentine Come About?

I was actually asked to do the Accent and Voice Training for Shirley Valentine as I was familiar with the Liverpool accent and through my own training and experience have coached accents especially Brit ones. The Irony is that the last big role I played was “Mrs. J.” in “Blood Brothers” also by Willy Russell in 2001 before I took a time-out from theater. At the time I used the movie, “Shirley Valentine” to help learn the Liverpool accent from Pauline Collins (who I grew up watching, as I was born and brought up in England”) I’m not quite sure how it happened but I ended up auditioning for the role. I just needed to be Khursheed the Brave I guess as I think I had lost Khursheed Sethna the risk taker somewhere along the way. When Florence called to ask if I would like to spend two weeks in Greece next February I was elated and terrified at the same time. I asked her to repeat it one more time so that when I put down the phone I wouldn’t think I had imagined the whole call. I guess I wont be doing the accent training for this one.:)

What is the Process like Preparing for a one-woman show?

Very interesting! I realized I hadn’t really given it much thought. I have done quite a few big leads so that part wasn’t so daunting, apart from the fact that I am older and the brain does not retain the way it used to. The really big difference is that it is just the director and the actor most of the time with the Stage Manager present at times. It could be a nightmare if the director and actor cannot work together. I am so happy and grateful to say that Florence is a wonderful director to work with in that she respects me as an actress and I feel completely safe in her hands. She is allowing collaboration and joint exploration and allowing the freedom to develop the character.

I have tackled this project differently to most other projects. I have not dissected the script as I usually do. One of the first things I did or that happened was that I got to know my fellow characters. It may be a one-woman show but I do have a Cast of characters who I am getting to know individually. As I have an affinity with voices and accents I felt I could give each of the characters a voice of their own which gives me the opportunity to play and walk the walk as a Voice Coach. Some characters have been more difficult than others and Florence and I have had to pull a few back from going over the top.

My process is to make sure that there is an intent behind the words and that I know “what I want” behind every beat and every thought. I strive to be present in every moment and to feel and be what the character is feeling and being. I like to know the character’s own bio, where she came from, what her childhood was like. I take what I know from the script and then I add from my own getting to know her.

This particular show has an extra dimension; one of choreography even though it is not a musical script. In the first act Shirley is literally cooking a meal in her kitchen and so it is like learning dance steps and singing the lines at the same time. Florence has been wonderful in developing this with me. Alan, our Stage Manager is busy building my kitchen as we speak. It has been fun doing some of the rehearsals in my own kitchen.

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How Do You Keep Your Voice in Shape?

Ah Joel thanks for asking me that question. One of the main reasons for taking on Shirley Valentine, or perhaps the reason it came into my life at this time was the fact that I was on a crusade for people to free their voice and find themselves and express who they truly are. Shirley not only represents that freeing of voice and self but the play allows for many voices and use of many acting skills. The voice, as you can imagine, gets a real work out in terms of volume, pitch range, power and stress.

I have to admit doing a two hours+ rehearsal, where there are no other actors, is challenging. I have to use all the knowledge I have and all the training I have and give to keep my voice healthy. I don’t warm up as much as I should before rehearsals so will need to do that more. I need to drink more. I am fortunate to know how to use my breathing and placing my voice so that it puts the least strain on my vocal cords. I am aware if I am straining at all fairly quickly and will then adjust so that there is no damage and long term difficulty. I am hoping to do a workshop with VOS and share some of these skills someday.

What Other Productions Have You Worked on With Other Groups?

Wow! I will attach my theater resume as there are quite a few. The most memorable leads right now are Blood Brothers, Whose Life is it anyway, Gondoliers, Nunsense and Oliver. I got my Best Actress in a Musical THEA award for playing Nancy in Oliver. I loved that role. She was so raw and I could relate to her in many ways. I find that most roles I do come along at the right time for me to do some exploration in my life or after I have addressed something in my life. Theater can be the best form of Therapy if you let it touch you. Hmmm I like that I may use it again.

One of the most challenging roles was playing the female version of “Whose Life is it anyway”. Playing a paraplegic, paralyzed from the neck down and in bed for the length of the play was a whole other challenge. A talking head and yet the feelings and passions ran deep. Loved that role! I have been very fortunate to play some wonderful roles, some I really would not have felt I was up to but the directors had more faith in me. One of those was Tessa in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Gondoliers”. I am an actress who sings and definitely not the other way round.

Every production, even the most painful have some precious memories. “Par for the Corpse” was one such play but I remember that the Character I played was so obnoxious and bitchy that she had the audience in the palm of her hands and just had to move in her way and got a laugh. Audience laughter is quite a heady drug. Yes I have had some wonderful experiences in many productions. Playing Sister Robert Anne in Nunsense was probably the most fun I have had with the audience.

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What Keeps you Coming Back to the Stage?

It’s funny you should ask that. I truly thought my acting days were over. I love to teach and direct and so I honestly thought that if I went back to theater I would do more of that as well as do Inside Out Voice Coaching with Actors and Performers. What brings me back is the theater and all that it holds; the people and the lights and the audiences and the Theater ghosts and gremlins I suppose. What brought me back this time? Well how many people have the opportunity to play Shirley Valentine in their life time? I have been fortunate enough to play Mrs. J. and now Shirley, two of the most coveted roles for women I believe. That, my friend, also brings you back; fantastic roles written by brilliant playwrights.  I am excited to be getting back on stage and am nervous with anticipation.

What is Your Favourite Show?

I honestly would like to say I love them all equally or some such appropriate comment, but Blood Brothers is the closest to my heart. We put it on in Aurora and it was a roller coaster from start to finish. Group politics, people thinking Mrs. J should be a blue-eyed blonde (Amy Sky played it in Toronto?) All the external stuff made the cast and crew gel so beautifully and it was the most loving, caring, talented ensemble I had ever worked with. The show makes you laugh and weep. The last scene at the funeral singing, “Tell me it’s not so” (I think that was the name), was always heart wrenching because at least a few audience members would be sobbing. I hope VOS puts this show on some day. If I am too old to play Mrs. J. I would love to direct it.

What Does the Shirley Valentine Story Mean to You?

Wow you ask the tough ones! I relate to Shirley on so many levels. I have some experience with abuse and I have been divorced mostly because I lost my spirit and my passion. I have been to Greece many times when I still lived in England and love the place and the people. I know many Costas’ though must admit I was never as brave as Shirley to play full out.

Shirley to me is every woman’s journey when she does what society expects of her. She meets her man and loves him and then she marries him and he goes to work and she goes to work and it becomes about finances and house hold chores. Then somehow the respect goes and all of a sudden it is a pattern that no one actually chose but one just falls into. The girl dies and the woman settles. Often the woman has the model of her mother and does not expect more for herself. The passion dies and you wonder what it is all for? I don’t think it is anyone’s fault and neither does Shirley. We don’t really question much with our first love or our first experiences. If we are lucky enough to grow with our partners then that is fabulous. Some of us just let our spirits die and our life force leaves us and we almost sell out. We forget who we are and are afraid to ask for what we want if we even know what that is.

If we are lucky we have an awakening or an opportunity presents itself where we find our way back, or perhaps for the first time to the goddess within, the passionate woman we can be. Shirley played all her duty roles to perfection and now it was her turn; her turn to live a life of meaning and purpose and give up the “wasted life”. Sometimes it truly is lonelier to be in a marriage than to be alone. I have been fortunate to coach and counsel many Shirley Valentines and continue to help them to free their voice.

Thanks so much, Khursheed, for taking us into your world, and we can’t wait to have you take us inside the world of Ms Valentine soon!

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