Stage & Dance

Sidney Shaw, Lexington actor and director, dies at 73

Sidney Shaw in 2002

After open auditions for the 1993 Shakespeare Festival in Woodland Park Sheila Ferrell went home to her husband, Joe Ferrell, and told her about a new actor she met.

"I told him, 'I have no idea if he can act, but we have a new friend,'" Ferrell recalled.

At callbacks, Joe Ferrell saw Sidney Shaw for the first time, and not only did he like him, he cast him as the leading role of Sgt. Waters in that summer's production of A Soldier's Play.

"He was almost too good to be true," Ferrell said. "He talked about himself as a numbers cruncher for IBM, but he knew that play and he knew where it was going."

Ferrell would go on to cast Mr. Shaw in numerous leading roles, including the title role in Shakespeare's King Lear and George in Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Shaw's two-decade-long Lexington stage career.

The curtain fell on that career Tuesday when Mr. Shaw died because of complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer he had been battling since 2005. He was 73.

Mr. Shaw's daughter, Kimberly Shaw, said her father was a disciple for the stage to the end, telling a nurse when he checked into hospice care last week that he would help her develop an appreciation for Shakespeare.

Mr. Shaw was a native of Danville, Ill. He majored in theater at the University of Illinois and then went to New York hoping to start a career as an actor. In the late 1960s and '70s, he got work at places like the American Shakespeare Festival and the Manhattan Theatre Club. But theater wasn't making ends meet, so when he and his wife, Julia, had Kimberly, he took a job at IBM. That brought him to Lexington in 1992, and to Lexmark, where he worked as a sales compensation analyst.

"Coming to Lexington allowed him to have the theater career he always wanted," Kimberly Shaw said Tuesday.

A Soldier's Play led to a storied stage career both as an actor and director. Among his behind the scenes projects was a University of Kentucky production of The African Company presents Richard III and his final project, the Billie Holiday stage biography Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, which he brought to the stage at Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bar and Grill last year with jazz singer Jessie Laine Powell playing the lead.

"My mom said that seeing that play through was the happiest she had ever seen him," Kimberly Shaw said.

Tuesday, Powell recalled Mr. Shaw and Kimberly Shaw approaching her after a performance, and Mr. Shaw telling her he had been scouting her for two years for the role.

"I said, 'You're crazy. I've never acted a day in my life,'" Powell said.

Soon, they reached an agreement that he would help her write a stage play about her life story and she would play Holiday.

By this time, Mr. Shaw had already been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, in 2005 and been through his first rounds of treatment. Powell said Kimberly Shaw has already committed to helping her continue to perform Lady Day and get her own story on stage.

"He was always ill, but he never said a thing about it," Powell said. "He was always encouraging and never discouraging. He was one of those extraordinary people that wanted people to grow."

Joe Ferrell said Mr. Shaw not only filled a void as a black leading man on Lexington stages, but he also helped draw other black actors to the theater.

"He had a remarkable strength, but also a gentleness," Ferrell said. "He always wanted to make things better."

And he led by example. A tall, athletic man with a lyric voice, he took on parts such as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Kimberly Shaw said her father initially discouraged her from going into theater, based on his own experiences trying to break into the New York scene, but supported her once she embarked on a career as an arts administrator.

Asked what void Mr. Shaw's death will leave in the Lexington theater community, Ferrell said, "People will just miss Sidney, just his presence."

Mr. Shaw is survived by his wife, daughter, brother Joseph Shaw of Champaign, Ill., and sisters Iris Harper of Peoria, Ill., and Pamela Wilson and Maria Shaw of Champaign.

Visitation will be 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Peter Claver Church; funeral Mass will be at 2:30 p.m. at St. Peter Claver, followed by a reception including a champagne toast at Natasha's Bistro and Bar.

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