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Ask TUTS Alumni:

Bruce Dow

Q: You took the stage of Malkin Bowl in 1981 for the TUTS production of Kiss Me, Kate – what are your memories from this summer?

A: I had just graduated high school, had been accepted into the UBC Theatre Department, and was spending my first summer as an adult (HA! LIES! lol.) working for the first time at the theatre which had inspired me to become an actor! And, I was going to be working with some of the best in the business then, and those who would become Canadian theatre giants. Alisa Kort, Roseanne Hopkins, and Kim Stebner were stalwarts of Vancouver’s community theatre and professional theatre scene, with opera singer Ross Thompson, whose voice could melt butter! 

The show was directed by the Chair of the UBC Department of Theatre, the legendary Dr. John Brockington – bringing all his knowledge of Shakespeare to the piece – along with choreography by Vancouver community theatre super-legend Grace MacDonald.

Through the years, Grace and I (and Dr. B) would work together on a number of projects for MUSSOC (the UBC Musical Theatre Society). My relationship with Grace ran hot and cold – because she pushed me to be better. She drove me nuts! She’d be cute and bubbly with others, and then would be Mrs. Supercrankypants with me. It was difficult, but rewarding. When you’re a young theatre artist, and all you crave is praise, getting pushed is what you want least – though it is also what you most need! 

Through the years, Grace had pushed a number of people to be better, including the late, great Brent Carver, with whom I would later work at the Stratford Festival; Jeff Hyslop, TV star, one of Toronto’s finest “Phantoms”, and with whom I’d eventually work on the Ross Petty Panto, in Toronto… and, I guess, she pushed… me. I turned out okay.

All ‘round, it was community theatre at its best. Professionals, experts, semi-professionals, students, and us beginners were all welcomed, but we were expected to bring our best to every rehearsal and every performance. (Oh! And for the opening number, I had the BEST pair of neon-purple lycra tights! And my hair was HUGE! It was the 80’s after all! HA!)

I was more lucky than I could imagine.

Production photo from the TUTS 1981 production of Kiss Me, Kate

Q: How did your early experiences in community theatre influence your career trajectory?

A: I remember being approximately seven years old: My parents took me to the Vancouver Playhouse to see Julius Caesar; to the Vancouver Opera to see Madame Butterfly; and to Theatre Under the Stars to see My Fair Lady. I knew at the end of that season that I wanted to be on stage! In my mind, I didn’t separate the forms. I grew up never distinguishing Shakespeare, opera, and musicals as being “different”. I am eternally grateful to the Playhouse, the VOA, and TUTS for giving me my artistic grounding in theatre and performance. 

Funny thing was, later, at UBC, Dr. Brockington would say, in his unique style: “Theatre is theatre. It is the world of the play that tells you how you communicate. Do you sing? Speak verse? Dance? Or speak in Prose? The actor’s task is always the same. Be present. Listen. Be active. The ‘how’ comes from the text.” It changed my life. It reinforced what I had learned that special year, aged 7.

I saw a lot of other community theatre through the years. The North Shore light opera – I had a lot of friends doing shows with them. The Metro Theatre, of course, and lots of TUTS.  

But, my parents were very strict. If I wanted to do this “acting thing”, I would have to do school shows only. I always regretted that. I could have learned a lot – and would have had a lot of fun!

Q: Are there any projects in the works you’re particularly excited about – such as, perhaps, the upcoming Diana: The New Musical?

A: When COVID-19 hit North America, I was 10 days away from opening on Broadway for my 5th time in a featured role. The show, whose set and costumes are still packed into the Longacre Theatre, is called Diana: A New Musical. It was helmed by the ®Tony Award winning creators of Come From Away and the writing team behind the ®Tony Award winning Memphis.

Lighting Designer, Natasha Katz, made our show the heaviest electrics show in North America. Set Designer, David Zinn, who designed the ingenious set for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, created a royal blue Buckingham Place “playground” for us. Our costume designer, multi-®Tony Award winner, William Ivey long recreated many of Princess Diana’s famous and infamous looks.

We shut down, thinking we’d be back in a few weeks. It will be well over a year when-and-if we ever do get to go back.

I can’t talk about it a lot, as I am under orders not to (seriously!) – but our producers, Beth Williams (Broadway Across America) and Frank Marshall (the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park/Jurassic World movie franchises) decided not to let the pandemic stop us, and they pulled off a miracle!

After we shut down and all went home, we had done a couple of online readings of new material for the show through the summer (Zoom is great, but a challenge for such things.) Then, in the fall, we all got a sudden phone call: 180 of the company – cast, crew, creatives, musicians and technicians – were all going into a quarantine bubble as per the directions of the Cleveland Clinic. We were going to do the Original Cast Recording, and to film the show for Netflix… and, so we did!

Sometime this spring, the Original Cast Recording for Diana: A New Musical will be released world-wide, and the filmed version will play on Netflix.

It may seem strange to think of a bio-musical about the late Princess Diana as written by two boys from New Jersey – Joe DiPietro, who also won a ®Tony for his book for Nice Work if You Can Get It; and David Bryan, keyboardist for the legendary ‘80s rock band, Bon Jovi – it is strange, I get it. I can assure you, like the end product or not, our authors took great pains to make sure that everything represented, although through a deep artistic lens, did happen. The piece is factual, if not “literally” true.

But the show isn’t what people are expecting. Or, maybe it is! Not for me to say.

I’m long past the days when I think every show I do is “the best thing EVER”! Theatrical experiences now appear as being a shade of colour on a spectrum of light and dark. I loved this process and these people. 

I will say – Diana was a huge fan of pop music, and telling her story in ‘80s pop/rock idioms, with great choreography by ®Olivier Award winner Kelly Divine, kinda… well… ROCKS!

Q: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you were first starting out, what would you say?

A: Learn how to make a budget. Don’t sell your soul just to be “liked”. You are more than just what you are on-stage. You have value in you – the off-stage you. Don’t try to be what you are not. Celebrate what you are and expand what you are!

It’s not about “getting it right”. The best work comes from a very “messy” place.

Q: What advice would you give to those passionate about pursuing an acting career?

A: Ooooh… another good one!

If you are a good singer – get good acting and dancing training.

If you are a good dancer – get good acting and singing training,

If you are a good actor – improve your acting, and get good singing and dancing training.

Don’t just train your specialty. It just reinforces your weaknesses in other areas.

And remember – they are all the same thing. Acting, singing or dancing all come from:

Information which leads to an
Impulse which leads to an intake of
Breath which leads to an

Action.

Get good training (if you’re interested – contact artists like myself who practice AND teach – www.brucedow.com!). And – ESPECIALLY – HAVE A HOBBY THAT ISN’T THEATRE RELATED.

We can very easily disappear into the vortex that is “Theatre 24/7”. When we live, eat, breathe and sleep theatre, it doesn’t make us terribly interesting artists. We need to understand a world of experiences before we can play them onstage.

Q: Any advice for performers looking for a creative outlet or struggling with halted projects during the pandemic?

A: We are more than what we “do”.  We have to remember that. Now is the time we have to live that truth. We need to not sit in waiting, but look within and without for a greater purpose. I’ve watched a lot of very talented people creating works online, and I’ve noticed the work seems to come from two different places, and ends in two very different results:

a. If you are feeling a genuine need to create? Do it. Online. On film. At home, writing, playing, improving your skills. Whatever it is, do it! Post it. Share it. Or keep it to yourself. (Have a way to “un-post” it – or take it down after the pandemic is over!)

b. If you are NOT feeling a genuine need to create (and I sure haven’t felt creative in the least!) then don’t force yourself! I’ve seen so many acts-of-desperation online lately… People desperately trying to stay important, or current, or… to feel loved. These people seem to get their whole sense of self from performing – and it’s not working. Nor is it working for them. 

Rest.

Don’t force what isn’t there. Don’t do anything, ever, just to feel relevant. You are more than just your work as a performer.   

As performing artists, we need to separate our sense of self from our work. And that is very difficult to do. Putting things online, just to get “likes” or “clicks” is bound to lead to great disappointment. And it can prove detrimental to your career. Social Media has become staggeringly toxic over the last year – turn it off! Put down your phone! Walk away!

Your Higher Power/the Universe has given us this time to explore ourselves in new ways. Find out where ELSE your genius lies.

Q: In the past, what has kept you going as an actor when you didn’t get the audition, didn’t book that role, when you hit a dry spell, etc.?

A: Wine? Used to be wine and cigarettes. Wine and cigarettes and tall men… oh my! Ha!

Actually, it’s very hard, being rejected – or worse, it’s hard “feeling” rejected. Most often, we bring that feeling on ourselves. Most often when we don’t get a part, it’s not because we were bad, or untalented, or auditioned badly, or were “rejected”.  But that’s how it feels. That’s when we have to remember that though our feelings are real, the thoughts that come with them are not.

Feeling untalented or that you did a bad job doesn’t mean either of those things are true.

But, I did find a way to make it easier….

When I go into an audition now, I don’t go in to “get the part”, or to “get them to like me”, or to “show my skill set”. I set myself a task for the audition piece (song, monologue, scene) I’m about to go do, and I do it for myself. That way, every time I leave an audition I can feel I “nailed it” – or maybe I didn’t and it needs work – but it’s not about “did I get it” or “do they like me”. It’s an opportunity for me to work on a piece in a room of people. It’s not about “getting the part”.

Does that make sense? We forget to “do the work” when we go in to do an audition.

So… don’t focus on the “audition” aspect, focus on the work you need to do in the piece you are doing. (Also – ignore the excitement in the waiting room! We all want to chat with our friends and talk about our excitement, and we forget why we are there. Then, they call our names, and it’s too late – our focus is gone. Say “Hi” to your friends, and then give them their space and you take your own.)

I learned long ago that whether I get the part has more to do with what the director had for lunch (if their egg-salad sandwich is repeating on them! or if they had a fight with their spouse!) than with what I do in the room. So I don’t take it personally.  

Also – ask yourself: Do I want to work with these people? Do I want to spend the next “however long”, days and nights in a room with these people? I interview them, more than they interview me. 

Dry spells will happen, whether we like them or not. Key is to remembering that it’s not about “you” and never has been. You can work on your craft, but very often we just aren’t working because we aren’t what they want right now — and we can’t change that, nor fight it, nor is it our fault.

There was a time, not too long ago, when all Broadway wanted was 6’ tall, leggy blondes. The “Stroman look” (odd, because Stroman, herself, is so petit!) – but, all that has changed. The pendulum swings in all directions and then it swings back.

We cannot change ourselves to meet every change in casting trends. Casting trends change like the wind. We are fickle creatures.

Bruce Dow (far right) as the Cowardly Lion in The Grand Theatre’s 2016 production of
The Wizard of Oz.

Q: Were there any defining experiences in your personal life and/or your career that shaped the creative you are today?

A: Whoo… good one… 

For 15 years, I was anorexic and then bulimic while trying very hard to be something I wasn’t.  

I wanted to be a certain kind of leading man… and it made me very, very sick. 

I remember starring at the Stratford Festival, and after rehearsal driving to the Tim Hortons that was across the street from the KFC (it still is) and then going back to my apartment to “layer” chicken and donuts. I ate them in succession. So when I vomited them back up, I would know which “layer” I was on, and would know when I was empty.  

As I said, it made me very sick.

I got help. I ate. It stopped. Recovery took a long time and I still have many of the strong impulses associated with binging and purging. And I put on a lot of weight… I thought my career would be over.

But, I ran into a couple of amazing directors who offered me: either parts I’d never thought of (Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha and Pseudolus in Funny Thing, both Stratford), or parts for which I would be very much a non-traditional casting choice (The Emcee in Cabaret, Stratford). And I SOARED!

Now people ask me what parts I want to play, and I’m excited to say, “I don’t know.” So much of my career has been unexpected. I have a few roles I’d like to play, but they are vastly outnumbered by parts I have yet to hear of.

As a director, now, I rarely cast to “type”. It’s such a toxic practice. And it doesn’t get the best work out of the best people! 

The same goes for my gender identity journey. I came to realize that, within the industry, being true to yourself is the most important thing. You’ll get enough judgement from the public and the profession – so why add to it by judging yourself?!

Q: Are there any past roles/projects/performances that you hold particularly close to your heart and why?

A: I am most grateful for those directors who saw beyond my “type” and cast me because I was right for the part in their eyes.  

That includes the above mentioned Emcee in Cabaret (Stratford) – I’m no Joel Gray nor am I an Alan Cumming; and The Baker in Into The Woods (Stratford).

Then there were the directors who weren’t put off by my musical theatre credits, who took me seriously as an actor and let me play Leigh Bowery in Of A Monstrous Child and Larry/Harry/Barry/Garry in PIG. Tough plays, both. But I got Dora Awards for them! lol (Toronto’s Jessie Richardson Awards)!

Best audience reviews? For the Emcee in Cabaret, people used to come up after the show, when I was selling my CDs in the lobby, and say, “When you came on stage, you were SO FAT we thought you were going to be terrible. But, you were really good!”  

Amazing what audiences feel free to say to you. But – you can get my CDs on AppleMusic, and Spotify! So what they said doesn’t matter!

Q: Are there any hidden talents that have come in handy throughout your career?

A: I’m hopeless at so many things. Plus, I wear my heart on my sleeve. So I don’t have much to hide, and what there is isn’t really hidden. Lol.

My geeky knowledge of history, music history, and culture has served me well. I’m a bit of a walking encyclopedia, and I learned how to write essays in school, and how grammar works. That helps a lot when reading a new script.

I like to knit.

I miss fishing on the West Coast.

Q: How has the pandemic influenced your career – for better or for worse?

A: There is no live theatre industry (outside of a very few COVID-free pockets).

I’m doing a couple of cartoon voices to pay the bills. But the theatre is dead, and I think it will be for at least another 18 months – if not 2 to 3 years. It will take until the fall of 2021, at least, until enough people can be vaccinated. After that, people will have to build up their financial situations to a point where they have disposable income. Then, it will take a long time before people feel ready to travel next to a stranger, in order to sit next to a stranger in a theatre.

It may prove different for not-for-profit theatres that can figure out new audience-actor configurations – but for Broadway and the commercial theatre, it’s all about “cramming them in”!

So, I’m exploring writing and composing, and I’m exploring my work as a cabaret artist. And I’ve gone back to school. I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do: a Masters Degree in Psychotherapy and Spiritual Care at the University of Toronto.

It’s really important that we try to grow, multidimensionally, as people during this pause, and not just sit there, lamenting that we are not performing. Use this time to grow!

If Broadway comes back sooner than later, I will be a better actor because of it! And if it doesn’t come back for a while, I might turn out to be a really good therapist for performing artists. So – remember my name, and give me a call! 

My mom used to say, “Life takes you by the tail and swings.” We can fight it, or go with it and grow.

Bruce Dow (centre) as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, Stratford Festival, 2005

Q: Favourite Shakespeare play?

A: Oh… tough one… changes daily. Today: Timon of Athens/King Lear double ‘bill’!

Q: Favourite movie of all time?

A: Raise the Red Lantern, dir. Zhang Yimou starring the glorious Gong Li. Amazing story. Glorious cinematography and some of the best acting I’ve ever seen.

Restrained and elegant.

Q: Binge-worthy TV show recommendation?

A: Lately, we’ve been bingeing the classic anime films from Ghibli Studios on Netflix. Also we’ve gone back to watch all of The Golden Girls, from the beginning. It’s an amazing series – we tend to remember the “jokes”, but it’s the issues they dealt with, and how they handled them that made it such a special experience.

Q: Favourite book of all time?

A: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder. If you haven’t read it – do.

Q: Ultimate quarantine guilty pleasure?

A: Battle Bears. A free download from Apple. You are a bear, in space I think, trying to rid your ship of the “huggables” – bright coloured stuffed bears that want to hug you to death. So, basically you are running around shooting at cute things that say “Hug me! Hug me!” … I need help! Ha!

Bruce Dow is an American/Canadian actor, best known for his 5 featured roles on Broadway; his 12 seasons in leading roles at the Stratford Festival; and his Dora Award Winning performances at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the world’s largest, longest running LGBTQ2IA+ theatre. He also has a surprise fan base for voicing the character of Max in Total Drama Pahkitew Island, and for his appearances on Rick Mercer Reports and Murdoch Mysteries.

For the Festival Players of Prince Edward County (Artistic Director, Graham Abbey), Bruce is the Director of the Academy for Young Actor Training – an intensive training program for young artists already enrolled in a college/university or conservatory training program. The Academy for Young Actor Training has its roots in heightened text work, based largely on the practices of the Stratford Festival, the National Theatre School of Canada, and of the late John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom Bruce studied.

Learn more about Bruce HERE