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Penny Forward Transcript S2022E9 Where No Blind Actor Has Gone Before Pt II

Posted in Blind Acting, Blind Art, Blind Painting, Blindness Resources, Career, Disability, Nontraditional Jobs, Podcast Episodes, Podcast Transcripts, and Star Trek

Bruce: May fifth, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is launching. And that will be premiering on Paramount Plus, and I play the character of Hemmer.

Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time.  I’m Chris Peterson.

Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.

Chris: We are blind people learning, from each other,  what it takes to be successful in our personal, professional, and financial lives.

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Chris: This is the conclusion of our two-part interview with Bruce Horak. Bruce is originally from Calgary, Alberta Canada, where he trained in theater and improvisation. When Bruce was a child, he lost over 90 percent of his vision, due to retinoblastoma, a rare, childhood cancer of the eye. Bruce has worked for the last twenty-five years as a writer, musician, composer, actor, and painter. And most of his work focuses on themes related to vision loss, perspective, and perseverance. Bruce’s one-man shows, “This Is Cancer,” and “Assassinating Thompson” have been performed all over the world, and won major awards. Bruce can currently be seen in “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” on Paramount Plus premiering on May fifth, 2022, as the blind engineer, Hemmer. We’re going to learn from Bruce about his life and career, and what he feels is key to becoming a successful artist.

Chris: What were the reactions of people that you met along the way to a … a guy with very low vision, as an actor?

Bruce: That’s a very good question. Those reactions are manied, and varied. I’d say predominantly, I was incredibly fortunate to have a network of support from the early days. Duval Lang, my mentor with Quest Theater, he didn’t see it as a limitation. He saw it as a great opportunity. The first show I wrote for Quest Theater, it’s called “What You Can’t See,” and it’s semiautobiographical. It’s about a kid named Lee who has moved to a new school, starting the next day, and he has 9 percent vision. And he’s got coke bottle glasses. And he’s really worried about what the kids at school are gonna think of him. And so he tries to hide it. So he doesn’t wear his glasses in class, and he gets into all sorts of trouble. And, again, this is semiautobiographical. And that particular story, that particular narrative of trying to hide it and trying to fit in as best I could, is really a story of most of my childhood. When I was starting school, there was a question as to whether I was going to go to W. Ross McDonald school for the Blind, which is in Branford Ontario, there was some question of that, but at the time, sort of, you know, early eighties, there was a real fight for integration, so kids with disabilities were being put into the quote unquote “regular school system” and not being shipped off into these academies. My parents really fought for that. My aunt and uncle fought for that as well. So, I was in a classroom with these heavy coke bottle glasses, and I couldn’t see the board. I would have to sit right in the front row, in the front seat, and the teacher would write something on the board and I would even have to get out of my desk and walk up to the board so I’d be six inches away from the board in order to see the thing. And so I, it was really slowing down the education. And then, the technology started to catch up. And so I got a little telescope, and I was able to read the board from further away, and I was given typing classes, so not only could I take my notes at the same rate, but I was actually typing faster than most kids can write. So, (Chuckle.) It’s kind of this odd acceleration and deceleration at the same time, because, you know, again, I’d go out on the playground and it’s like I’d just get hit in the face with a softball. And, (laugh.) You know, in gym class, and the sort of embarrassment of not being able to keep up in certain aspects, but other ones that I felt I was able to excel. Theater really attracted me because it was the arena where I could play anyone. I could get up on stage and if I memorized the layout of the set, and I could get that into my body, I could look, and I could take my glasses off and I could do my fully sighted look, which I practiced all the time. Just walking down the street. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was blind, so I would walk like a sighted person with my head up and my shoulders back. You know, I’m not hunched over, and all of that. So, theater was very attractive for that. You know, speaking of the professional highs and lows of it, it is a field that is full of rejection. You know, whether or not you’re able bodied, you know, very early on in my career, the lessons come at you hard and fast, where you go and you spend weeks working on an audition piece, and you go into the room and you think you’ve nailed it, and it goes to somebody else. (Chuckle.) And, you know, “Why, why, why,” and all those questions, but I think if you live your life on these rejections, you’re really not gonna leave the house. And theater just gave me a tougher skin a lot sooner. I was probably a year after I graduated from theater school, and I had managed to get a few parts. I always got cast as the old guy because of my voice. You know, and I had to put makeup in my hair to make me look older and all that fun stuff, but, (Chuckle.) Yeah, it was about a year after theater school, and the phone wasn’t ringing, and I’d gone out for auditions and hadn’t gotten cast in anything, and I thought, “Well, I’ve made a horrible mistake. Like no …  first of all, I’m no good at this, and then second of all, it’s got to be because I’m a blind guy.” You know, and then, just some friends and I sat down and we started talking about “Well, then, if the phone isn’t gonna ring, we’re gonna have to create our own work.” And that’s really been the hallmark of most of my career is that if the phone isn’t ringing, then I’ve got the time to write another show. To rehearse something. To create another piece. To find another avenue.” Because, yeah. Sitting around waiting for the phone to ring was just total exercise in frustration.

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Liz: What was it like for you to go from being that kid in grade school, sitting in the audience, and yearning to be on stage, and then to be able to finally be on stage, what impact did that have on you?

Bruce: It’s an absolute thrill  to entertain and to be on stage and to be performing for people. From an audience point of view, it’s like magic. You’re just, you’re transported, and you could be miming something and it’s like you can see that thing in front of you, or the music kicks in and suddenly you’re taken to another place, and as an audience member, there’s … there’s this beautiful synergy that happens. And as a performer on stage, it’s … it’s a kinetic thing. I recently re-experienced that, because, you know, we’ve been in lock down for a couple of years and I haven’t been in a theater performing for two and a half years or so, and I was just in Calgary Alberta, back in the old home town, doing a show at Berdicum Theater with the Shakespeare Company. Rebecca Northan and I adapted McBeth. And we did a two-person McBeth with a musician. We dawned these silicone goblin masks and pretended as though we were goblins who had just discovered Shakespeare and we’re getting into this world. And getting in front of an audience again, and hearing the collective sighs, and laughs, and applause is … it’s electric. And it’s that feeling of connection that two years of isolation has really shown that we’re just hungry for it. We need to connect and we need to be in rooms together, sharing these experiences and sharing these stories. And for me to get to write, create, produce and perform that kind of stuff is … Yeah. It’s the greatest high there is.

Liz: What are you currently working on?

(Bruce chuckles.)

Bruce: Currently, I’m uh, … well, I can’t … I’m making a birthday card for my girlfriend, but I shouldn’t say that, so let’s edit that out, because …

(Liz laughs.)

Bruce: She’ll hear this and she’ll know that there’s a card coming. (Laugh.) What am I currently working on? Well, I’ve … I’ve got a show called “Assassinating Thompson.” And in “Assassinating Thompson,” I paint a portrait of the entire audience, while I tell the story of how I became a visually impaired visual artist, and I solve the mystery of who killed Tom Thompson. Tom Thompson was a Canadian landscape painter who, at 39 years of age, in 1917, packed up his canoe, and paddled off across a lake and disappeared. And eight days later, they found his body. And to this day, there are a myriad of theories as to what happened. And in the show “Assassinating Thompson,” I solve it. (Laugh.) Well, “I solve it.” Let’s say that. We’ll put that in quotes. So, this summer, I’m gonna be presenting “Assassinating Thompson” in Ottawa at the national Art Center, and then next February, March, April, I’ll be touring the show throughout the beautiful province of Manitoba Canada. And that show I’ve been touring since 2013. It’s a … absolute highlight for me to do that. I get to paint a portrait, which is one of my favorite things to do in the world, and I get to tell some jokes for seventy-five minutes. And, uh, well, the other thing that’s happening, of course, is, May fifth, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is launching. And that will be premiering on Paramount Plus, and I play the character of Hemmer. So this was filmed last year here in Toronto. Season 1 will be airing on the fifth of May. And the character I’m playing is an Enar, which is a subspecies of the Andorians. I am blind, I’m an engineer, and I …uh, … what else can I say? Other than uh, … I’ve signed a bunch of NDA’S. How about that?

Liz: That’s fair.

Bruce: No spoilers, but that’s uh, so that’s coming up.

Liz: So everyone go watch it. (Chuckle.)

Bruce: Mhm.

(They chuckle together.)

Liz: That’s what you could say. “Go watch it.”

Bruce: That’s right. Go … Go watch it.

Chris: So that’s actually how I found you, because I read an article about this and saw your intro clip that they released on

startrek.com

and all kinds of other places, and in the article that I read, it said that you are “Star Trek’s” first blind actor, which kind of blew my mind. And that got me to wondering, did you know that going into this? And had you ever done television before? And what has this whole experience been like for you?

Bruce: Did I know that I was the first blind actor? I did not know that. I suspected as much, I know that there was an actor in a wheelchair on “Discovery,” but in terms of actors with disabilities who’ve been on the show, I don’t know. I was super excited to even just have the opportunity to audition, and then actually getting it just blew my mind. I had done an episode of a show called “Warehouse 13” about ten years ago. And I did a short film called “Gitch,” and that was around the same time, probably about ten years ago now, or twelve years ago now, I guess. And these experiences were … they were great, but I just … you know, it didn’t hook me. I know a lot of people who get into film and TV and they get really hooked by the buzz of it. I just, I really missed the audience. I missed the live performance energy. And, you know, when I was in Toronto auditioning for the film and TV stuff, and I got those two bits, you know, I had an opportunity to go back out on the road and do my own shows. And I thought, “Well, this is really where my love is and my passion is, so I’m gonna keep doing it.” And then when I came back and auditioned for “Star Trek,” and it was all over Zoom, the auditions, and then I was … I went into Toronto to have a meeting with the producers, and a costume fitting and a wardrobe and suddenly I realized, “Oh, wait. I think this is actually happening.” (Laugh.) “This is gonna happen.” And then, the whole experience with shooting it, I was really nervous to be honest, because, you know, those cameras are really expensive. And I get into a new environment and it takes me a long time to acclimatize, to adjust to where things are, and everything’s moving, and I was just really worried that I was gonna end up being a liability, you know, running into lighting equipment and things like that. (Laugh.) And I expressed those very early on, and they’re amazing. Every day, there’d be … I had an assistant with me who would just be like, “Hey, there’s a step here, and there’s a lighting thing happening here, and … and, I don’t know if you’re counting your steps, but it’s 25 from here to there,” and, like, they were just so far beyond what I was expecting. You know, I’m so used … you know, in the world of theater, to just kind of managing my own and figuring it out on my own. And maybe it’s that particular crew, maybe it’s a shift in the world, I hope it’s a shift in the world, you know personally, but, you know, people are just kind of … they were looking out for me, and I felt so incredibly taken care of, that it made it really, really hard to pack up my trailer. (Laugh.) And go, “Okay, that’s … that’s a season wrap, and there you go, and it’s … Got to go back to the real world for a little while.” But no, I mean traveling to space was … yeah, it was a real thrill. And, honestly, just getting to set foot on the bridge of the Enterprise, I mean I think I was pretty teary. (Chuckle.) I was raised a Trekky, so yeah, I was pretty star struck just by the set. (Laugh.)

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Liz: You’ve touched on this a little bit, but what is next for you?

Bruce: Well, producing “Assassinating Thompson” in the summer in Ottawa. And then the Manitoba Theater center tour next year in Manitoba. I mean there’s a lot of irons in the fire, but in terms of what is actually signed, sealed and delivered, those things. I have an ongoing portrait project that I’ve been working on since 2010. My goal is to paint 1000 portraits, and, where am I at now? I’m almost at 700. So I’m getting there, slowly but surely, and since the pandemic, I’ve actually been doing them over Zoom, which has been amazing. Because usually, someone would come and sit with me in the studio and take maybe an hour and a half or two hours to do a portrait, but now I can do it over Zoom, and they can be anywhere in the world. Which is just amazing. Again, it’s another great opportunity to connect with people, meet new people, and to give someone a really, truly unique experience, which is to have their portrait painted by a visually impaired person.

Chris: Can you talk a little bit about what that process is like? How people get involved in it and …

Bruce: Yeah. So the portrait project, people find me through my website,

brucehorak.com

and they can book a portrait sitting, and there’s a little calendar that will pop up and they can just enter their details, and it will automatically schedule a time, and it lets me know that someone’s booked a portrait sitting, and then a zoom link, and we meet over Zoom. And it takes about an hour, and I take some screen shots while we’re chatting, and I just really like to get to know people. And get their vibe, and I try to capture that in the painting. Because of the damage that I’ve had done to my eye, I tend to see a lot of auras and floaters and things like that. So those tend to get incorporated into the painting. They’ll influence the colors that I’ll use, and the palates, when I build up a canvas from the online portrait sitting, I will do a digital drawing. So that’s either a jpeg or a PNG that can simply be E-mailed, or, someone will often schedule to have a canvas done. So then I’ll record the session, and I’ll edit the session down to maybe two minutes or so. So you have an audio portrait, and the digital portrait, and then you can also order a canvas of it. An actual painted canvas.

Liz: What advice do you have for other blind people who may want to follow in similar footsteps?

Bruce: I’d say, “keep at it.” The reward has to be in the creation. And then the act of creation. And anything beyond that is kind of gravy. And get excited about the work that you’re doing. Push yourself to be at the top of your game. And don’t be afraid to share it. Art has the beautiful advantage of being able to bring people together., and you will find your people, sharing that art work. Yeah. Don’t give up. Just don’t give up.

Chris: I talk to a lot of people who wonder a lot about, and often times feel that they have imposter syndrome. Is that something that you’ve ever felt, and do you have any advice for pushing through that?

Bruce: Oh, the dreaded imposter syndrome. Yes. I have faced that, daily. (Laugh.) Hourly. Often times, I get through that by reaching out to my friends, my colleagues, and my family. And they will often times cut through it all, and just get to the nugget of what’s bugging me. It’s usually a fear of being honest and being vulnerable, and when I’m truly honest, when I’m truly vulnerable, that’s, I think ultimately, yeah. It’s a bit like exposing your soft belly, but you’ll be amazed at who comes along and rubs it. Oh, that’s a dog thing. (Laugh.) No. It’s … It’s, it’s more than that. It’s, it’s … When you’re honest and when you’re vulnerable, it allows other people to be the same. And imposter syndrome there’s a … there’s a real fear, barrier that has come up. And, yeah. You’ve just got to go through it. You just absolutely have to go through it, because what’s on the other side is gold.

Chris: Well Bruce, thank you. I cannot tell you how hard it was to resist making this whole thing about “Star Trek” for me, but …

Bruce: Ah.

(They laugh together.)

Chris: But I really appreciate you coming on, and  your advice is gold. Thank you so much.

Bruce: Well, it’s been absolutely my pleasure. Yeah. If there’s anything else, just feel free to reach out.

Chris: Hey, can you tell people where they can reach out, follow you, support you, all that kind of thing?

Bruce: Yes. You can find me at Bruce Horak, at, well, I’m on Instagram at Bruce Horak, Twitter BruceHorak, Facebook, Bruce Horak Paintings, I’ve also got a website, that’s probably the best place to find me, which is just

brucehorak.com, that’s H-O-R-A-K dot com, and yeah. Reach out. Send a message. I’ve got a monthly newsletter that I send out called “The Hobosapian Chronicles,” I’ve started referring to myself as a hobosapian back in 2010 when I put all my things in storage and hit the road and just took … went gig to gig for uh,… . yeah, ten and a half years, until I landed in Stratford Ontario. But I still continue the monthly chronicle, and that gives you an update on what I did for the last month, and what I’m gonna be doing, and also some thoughts and musings on the creative life, and I’ve also got a Patreon account, and huge thanks to my patrons, ’cause that’s a big part of how I feed myself. And, yeah. If you sign up for Patreon, you get an original work of art every month in the mail, but also I do weekly updates and behind the scenes stuff on work in the studio, and, what else can I tell you? Book a portrait sitting. It’d be great to sit with you. Thanks.

Chris: Thanks again, Bruce.

Bruce: Thanks.

Chris: Is there something you’d like to talk about? We’d love to hear from you. Visit pennyforward.com/podcast

to learn how to contact us or to leave us a voicemail that we may share on the air. And while you’re there, please make a small donation to support our work to develop accessible and affordable financial education programs for people who are blind.

Liz: The Penny Forward podcast is produced by Liz Bottner and Chris Peterson, Audio editing and post production is provided by Byron Lee, and transcription is provided by Ann Verduin. Music was composed and performed by Andre Louis, and web hosting is provided by Taylor’s Accessibility Services.

Chris: Penny Forward is a community of blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Visit

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to learn more about who we are and what we do. For all of us in the Penny Forward community, I’m Chris Peterson, …

Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.