Joe Norman Shaw as Joe Buchanan in Faultline Photo from Faultline

Actor-prof nurtures creative spirit

  • October 18, 2023

The sprawling line of cinephiles who attended the Anatomy of a Fall premiere screening at the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) on Sept. 22 overheard numerous people exiting the Eau Claire Cinemas raving over a feature they viewed.

These movie buffs experienced Faultline, a crime drama shot and set in Calgary and powered by a cast and crew almost entirely comprised of Calgarians. Portraying the pivotal supporting role of Joe Buchanan is Joe Norman Shaw, the director of drama at Calgary’s St. Mary’s University. 

Faultline tells the tale of Paige and Jessie, two sisters whose lives are shattered when their mother commits a shocking crime. Twenty years later, Paige receives new information about her mother’s past, which leads the sisters down a potentially life-threatening rabbit hole to uncover the truth.

Shaw, a 66-year-old with over four decades of character acting experience,  chose to embody Joe Buchanan because he is morally ambiguous — a highly coveted character type among thespians.

“I think the intriguing part of the role is that you do not know until the end if he is a good guy or bad guy,” said Shaw. “He is presented as someone who is warm and friendly, but you can also see some hidden agenda under the surface.”

Anna Cooley, the director of Faultline, said the veteran actor delivered a multifaceted performance while avoiding telegraphing too much information to the audience.

“What Joe brought to the character of Joe,” said Cooley with a knowing chuckle, “was this vulnerability that came with the brash businessman he was playing. The arrogant, rich white guy who has done very well and maybe made some sketchy choices to get where he is. That is a run-of-the-mill character. But Joe brought a sympathetic tenderness, leaving the audience unsure of what is going on with him and second-guessing his culpability in the story.”

Cooley had never worked with Shaw, a product of Anderson, Indiana, before Faultline. However, she had long heard of his work mentoring performers through the Company of Rogues Actors Studio he founded in 1993.

Faultline co-lead actress, producer and writer Kirsten Lankester was a student at Rogues over 20 years ago. And co-lead Stacie Harrison, also a producer, taught at the studio for years.

In Cooley’s experience, Shaw and his team nurture actors and actresses more willing to author bold characterizations.

“There is just this level of comfort they had with going outside their comfort zone,” said Cooley. “I have always had a respect for actors and their ability to be vulnerable and go for it in a way that I find very hard. I know that to get people to a place where they can do that, you need to make them feel safe. Every actor I have talked to who has come out of Rogues has had a good experience with that process.”

Shaw coaxes a similar bold, creative spirit in each student he has educated at St. Mary’s over the past 13 years.

“I love working with passionate young actors and productively harnessing their energy and creativity,” said Shaw. “We have a nice little program at St. Mary’s. It is a drama minor, and a lot of the kids coming through the program go on to become teachers, but many get the acting bug.”

Acting classes with Shaw feature concentrated scene and monologue work in the fall semester and intensive craft mounting multiple stage productions during the winter. He is contemplating what plays he and his students will interpret over the next few months.

Shaw can draw on an impressive resume of stage performances throughout his long career to maximize the potential of each of his students. He entered the industry as a theatre actor in 1981 and soon broke through to earn plum role after plum role. He starred in Angels in America, Glengarry Glen Ross, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelve Angry Men and Unidentified Human Remains, to name a few plays, in theatres or festivals across Canada and internationally.

As for his television and film work, Shaw has 62 credits listed in his International Movie Database (IMDB) profile.

Faultline is Shaw’s first screen gig since a three-episode stint in the series Damnation from 2017 to 2018. Teaching at St. Mary’s and the Company of Rogues Actor Studio have been his primary roles in recent years. Previously an instructor at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University, also in Calgary, the small private Catholic university stands out as special to the veteran actor.

“I like the intimacy of (St. Mary’s). We get to work quite closely with each of the students as I would have 12 to 16 people in a class rather than 25 to 30. You get to spend more time building relationships and guiding them in their journey.”

Shaw has felt this welcome feeling of togetherness time and time again during his long career. It was present on the sets of Faultline, which was filmed this past February with a crew of 50.

The producing team is currently securing a streaming and distribution deal.

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