Bruce Horak explores Tom Thomson, himself in 'Assassinating Thomson'
BY DENNY SCOTT
Bruce Horak ties his own origin story as a visually-impaired artist with Canadian artist Tom Thomson’s unsolved murder in Assassinating Thomson in this year’s Blyth Festival season.
Horak lost his eyesight to a childhood cancer and has nine per cent of his vision remaining. He takes to the Blyth Festival’s Harvest Stage later this year for the show, which is more of a piece of live performance art, nearly a decade after he first unveiled it in 2013 for the Fringe Festival circuits.
Horak, in an interview with The Citizen, explained that the history of Thomson called to him. Thomson is said to have been a significant influence on the legendary Group of Seven, though he died before the formation of the group and is often considered an unofficial member. Thomson disappeared during a canoeing trip in July of 1917 and was found several days after going missing with mysterious injuries. Officially, his death was labelled accidental drowning, however his experience in the wilderness, having grown up in rural Ontario, has led some to believe there was more to Thomson’s death than the official record.
“I attempt to solve the mystery while I paint a portrait of the entire audience in one hour,” Horak said of the show’s content.
Horak has worked on a number of historical projects, including art history and shows about historical figures, and when he found out about Thomson, he couldn’t resist researching him and his life.
“I found a number of bizarre parallels between his life and mine,” he said. “We had the same birthday, we both didn’t start painting until we were older and one of the people who was thought to have killed him was named Shannon Fraser, which was the name of my high school girlfriend. It was kind of interesting, so I started developing a show about Thomson and the mystery.”
While he was studying Thomson, Horak had a “side hustle” of creating portraits and paintings and he was constantly asked about why he got into painting and found that he could interweave the stories together. That experience led to the form of the performance, in which he paints a portrait of the audience while sharing both Thomson’s story, as well as his own.
“It’s a mix of performance, art, storytelling and theatre,” he said.
Horak thinks the performance will do well outside, and will be just another venue type to add to the list as he’s performed in a number of different spaces.
“I’ve done the show in various different venues including galleries, theatres and school gymnasiums,” he said. “Doing it outdoors will be great with a landscape to paint, the painting itself will be quite dynamic.”
Horak has experience performing outdoors as well, saying that some of his earliest acting experiences were with Shakespeare in the Park.
Horak is from Calgary, Alberta and attended Mount Royal College’s Conservatory Program after which “he got right down to business working at various regional theatres across Canada.
“I’ve been producing and creating since I got out of school,” he said.
Some of his more memorable experiences in theatre include performing A Christmas Carol at the National Arts Centre, in which he performed alongside a deaf actor.
“It was developed primarily as a more inclusive and accessible show,” he said. “It really had an impact on me.”
He’s also participated in other programs geared towards accessible and inclusive theatre including Summit in Stratford, a National Arts Centre program featuring 13 differently-abled artists.
“That was my first foray into disability art,” Horak said, adding that theatre practices shift as a result.
While he’s now very open about his vision situation, Horak said he wasn’t very forthcoming about his disability when he first started acting, and Assassinating Thomson deals with that issue.
“As an actor with a disability, there are some preconceptions and prejudices,” he said, adding that he has an “invisible disability” or one that he can hide, while others face more visible challenges.
The performance offered Horak an “opportunity to look through [his] own eyes instead of trying to adapt” to other situations. “That was pretty huge,” he said.
Horak is based in Stratford, having moved there last year to be a part of the Stratford Festival. Despite the cancellation of the theatre season in the city, he decided to stay there as “it felt like a safe place to be.”
As for who will enjoy the show, he said it’s proven to be a show for pretty much everyone.
“I’ve done it for all ages including elementary school, junior high schools, high schools right up to people in their 90s,” he said. “People who are interested in art, art history, Canadian art or just storytelling will enjoy it. It’s a pretty broad-ranged kind of show.”
The show ends with an auction of the piece from the evening, Horak said, the proceeds of which will support a local charity.
Assassinating Thomson opens Sept. 15 and its 11-show run ends on Oct. 2.