“He probably has the biggest heart in showbiz,” says Kyle Golemba, a triple-threat performer engaged in his fourth season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It’s a statement that has been made of many people over the years, but, in Canadian theatre, it is perhaps most often heard uttered about Bruce Dow.
The multi-hyphenate Dow – actor, director, teacher, coach, recording artist, cabaret performer – is igniting the stage at the Avon Theatre in Stratford this summer as King Herod in Des McAnuff’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Anyone who thinks Dow’s hilariously dark-comic interpretation of “Herod’s Song” is just a bit of song and dance, doesn’t know the multi-faceted Bruce Dow.
“Everybody knows that Herod is a bit of a show stopper,” says Dow. “But I knew with Des directing it, and with Rick Fox musical directing… it would be a pretty fun adventure, and it wouldn’t be just a straight-out-of-the-box, campy Herod.”
Dow was born in Seattle, Washington, but spent his formative years in Vancouver. He completed an MFA at the University of British Columbia, with a major in directing and a minor in theatre history. He began his theatrical career as a director and created his first show in 1986 in Kamloops, BC, for the Western Canada Theatre Company. Following that, he directed productions for UBC and other West Coast companies.
When asked about the move from directing to acting, Dow reveals his mercurial side. “I’m always just excited by what comes along,” he says. “I never thought I’d end up in the original Canadian production of Les Misérables, but that’s what moved me from Vancouver to Toronto… I [played] Dying Peasant and Romantic Student Number 36,” he jokes. Following that early success, Dow experienced an eight-year period of struggle, including an ongoing battle with anorexia and bulimia. In 1998, he landed his first major role at the Stratford Festival as Sancho Panza in Susan Schulman’s production of Man of La Mancha. The experience had a liberating effect: [recovering from eating disorders] made me stop thinking, ‘If I’m like this, I’ll get to do whatever I want.’ All these roles came along that I never would have thought of, and they just landed in my lap, and I had a career.”
Now in his 12th season at Stratford, Dow followed up that success with roles that included The Baker in Peter Hinton’s stylized production of the musical Into the Woods, the pansexual Emcee in the Stratford production of Cabaret, Pseudolus in Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – which originated in Stratford and played Toronto’s Cannon Theatre as a part of last year’s Mirvish subscription series – and Trinculo in McAnuff’s production of The Tempest. When asked how he chooses his roles, Dow answers with a sense of wonder, typical of the open-hearted performer. “Actors always get asked, ‘What is your dream role? What do you want to play?’ and I say, ‘What have you got?’”
Dow’s process as a performer combines an American dedication to research and focus on backstory with a British approach to practical technique. This is one reason Dow’s characterizations always contain such depth; even at his most gloriously, outrageously theatrical, his characters contain multitudes.
Dow has also served as a tireless mentor to the younger generation at the festival, including hosting seminars on the business of theatre and making himself available as an audition coach. In Kyle Golemba’s apt words, “Bruce takes care of the people around him… He’s the kind of guy who will drop everything.”
Golemba and fellow Stratford company member Steve Ross approached Dow to collaborate on a video for Dan Savage’s It Gets Better anti-bullying campaign, featuring artists and technicians from the festival. Even given the extent of his role as mentor, teacher and coach to so many emerging talents, Dow seems graciously – and authentically – unaware of the effect he has on those who he has touched, both audience and collaborators alike.
During the curtain call for the performance of Superstar that I attended, I noticed tears in Dow’s eyes during the extended standing ovation. “I always feel grateful to an audience when they move from ‘Oh, you’re fun!’ to ‘Oh, you did something to me.’ I love that feeling,” he says thoughtfully, before adding, “Also I keep expecting someone to run into the theatre and point at me and yell, ‘Fraud! Fraud! Get rid of him.’”
With a possible Broadway transfer of Superstar – which would be Dow’s fourth credit on the Great White Way – what does the future hold for Bruce Dow? “My mom had a great phrase, which is ‘Life takes you by the tail and swings’ and I seem to have been living by that… far too much for my liking!” he says with a warm chuckle.
Watch the It Gets Better video that includes Dow: