Actor Colleen Wheeler arrives at the photo studio, her trademark long, auburn corkscrew hair bouncing as she enters. Within 30 minutes, those curls will all be lying at her feet.
Her flowing locks have become part of her identity on-stage: last year they featured prominently in her gig as Lady Macbeth, with her fiery tendrils playing off the blood that spattered Bob Frazer in posters for the Bard on the Beach show. But they’ve been just as noticeable in her other risk-taking roles, whether braided up on her head as the male Odysseus in The Penelopiad at the Arts Club or pulled back into a loose ponytail as the earthy Linda in Ruby Slippers’ A Beautiful View.
But now, Wheeler says she’s ready to lose them for the first time in her life—all for one of her biggest roles. “My hair has almost walked into the room before I did,” she admits with a smile, posing for a few final photos with her mane intact, as the hair stylist readies his clippers. “There’s a lot of vulnerability associated with losing your hair. Perception changes so quickly: you can’t hide behind your hair—and I have had a lot of hair to hide behind, too!”
While photographer Emily Cooper does the final setup of the camera, Wheeler suddenly exclaims: “Okay, let’s shave it! Let’s do it!”
What has brought Wheeler to this point is the play Elizabeth Rex—Timothy Findley’s heady script about Queen Elizabeth I, on a night when the theatre-loving sovereign visits William Shakespeare and his acting troupe in a barn where they’re lodged overnight. The show, which is set to play at the Bard on the Beach festival’s Douglas Campbell Studio Stage in repertory with Measure for Measure, is an intimate study of gender roles: in the 16th century, Elizabeth has had to suppress her feelings as a woman to rule the country like a man; and she spars with Ned (Haig Sutherland), a gay man who has played women his whole life because “the fairer sex” was not allowed to act in Shakespeare’s time. There’s a key point in the script when Her Highness removes her wig and reveals herself in a rare moment of vulnerability—one that a fake-bald cap placed over Wheeler’s astounding head of hair just couldn’t pull off.
Rachel Ditor, the show’s director, stresses the weight of Wheeler’s decision in the theatre realm. “It’s been a big deal to even ask actors to dye their hair,” she says, sitting on a stool at the back of the studio to witness the big event. “This is a big deal to the cast: it raises the bar for everyone.” She remembers the day Wheeler showed up to see her with a big bunch of gladiolas. “I thought, ‘She can’t do it.’ But she came in and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ She was celebrating the decision with the flowers.”
So here Wheeler is, her three-year-old daughter and husband in tow, ready for hairdresser Chris Bennett to take off her hair. As the clippers buzz and her auburn curls fall in fuzzy clumps to carpet the floor, she remarks: “I can’t believe this is actually happening. It feels so good. I gotta tell you: this feels really liberating. I already feel lighter. I feel totally naked right now!”
Considering herself in a mirror, her eyes more striking and her smile somehow brighter, she runs her hand along the short stubble that will also have to be shaved away once the show opens, and admits, “It looks better than I thought it would.”
A couple of weeks later, on a break from rehearsal at SFU Woodward’s, Wheeler admits she “had a good cry” later on that night. But she is excited about the changes she feels, inwardly and outwardly, without hair.
“Shaving your head as a woman makes you vulnerable, and that can’t do anything but help me and inform me as an actor,” she says. “It takes away my outside femininity and that is a great challenge.”
Along with those questions of what makes a woman a woman, the morning’s rehearsal is very much on her mind as she considers her role as Queen Elizabeth I. In Findley’s play, the queen wants the troupe to perform Much Ado About Nothing to distract her from the pending execution of the Earl of Essex, a man she may have loved. She’s had to reject her passions to continue on as ruler in a man’s world—a role that must have been a terribly lonely one, despite her riches, over her 44 years in power, Wheeler concludes.
“What drew me to the play is that she’s one of the most shit-kicking, iconic characters. I’ve never really played a character like that that’s well-known in history,” says Wheeler, who has immersed herself in books about the so-called Virgin Queen. “She was so ahead of her time as a woman. She ruled at a time when women didn’t run a country. The pressure to marry was massive, and she didn’t want to do that because she wanted to rule. And she didn’t want to have children because that was pretty much Russian roulette on her life. They pressured her to name an heir and she refused to do it, because if she did there would be plots against her life.”
Elizabeth I has often been portrayed as steely, severe, and cold, but through the play, Wheeler has found some sympathy for the sovereign. “She had to sort of cover up her femininity,” Wheeler says. “She had to be one of the boys; she never had a child—never had a chance to be a woman.”
Wheeler laughs and says it’s ironic that the costumers at Bard are now wigging her for the role—something they never could do over her many years with the summer festival because of her voluminous mane.
So, far from limiting her opportunities on-stage her shaved head may actually open doors, Wheeler believes. “I feel lighter metaphorically. I feel like I could be more people now,” she says.
In fact, compared with the daily challenges of acting in the bold roles Wheeler regularly takes on, shaving her head is almost secondary.
“I don’t think acting is for the faint of heart. You’re vulnerable out there; you’re taking a huge risk,” the artist says, showing the strength and commitment that lies beneath her affable smile. “I take it very seriously. I think it’s a very important art form and a very scary thing to do. It’s not easy. It’s a real leap of faith to expose yourself to an audience.”
And lest there be any confusion, this committed artist is not just talking about exposing her scalp.