NAC Theatre: Visually impaired actor sees theatre and art in a whole new way

Andy Jones, as Scrooge, and Bruce Horak, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, in the NAC English Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. Photo: John Lauener

The irony of Ebenezer Scrooge’s blindness to his own past isn’t lost on Bruce Horak.

That’s because Horak, who plays The Ghost of Christmas Past in the National Arts Centre stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, is himself visually impaired.

Scrooge, as you’ll recall, has turned his back on his own past – his love for his erstwhile fiancée Belle, the life-affirming example of his joyful old boss Fezziwig — in favour of the single-minded pursuit of wealth.

It’s the job of the Ghost of Christmas Past to whisk him back in time, to begin the expansion of Scrooge’s shrunken, Grinch-like heart.

“This blind actor comes out and blinds Scrooge with his own past,” says Horak, who lost 90 per cent of his eyesight to childhood cancer.

It’s a nice turn of phrase that makes the paradoxical point that blinding Scrooge actually opens his eyes again to what really matters.

“Each ghost has a stake in Scrooge’s reclamation. They have a desire to see him change,” says Horak. In this way, The Ghost of Christmas Past “is a bit of a parental figure and a confessor figure.”

Horak – who’d carved out stage territory with solo shows like Assassinating Thomson (about the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson, it was part of the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2013) and This is Cancer as well as working with Tarragon Theatre and others – wound up in the NAC show after attending a conference on disability in the arts.

Those on hand included NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley and Jack Volpe, a deaf actor. After the conference, says Horak, “Jill called me up and said, ‘I have this crazy idea, and you and Jack would be perfect.’”

Both men wound up in A Christmas Carol, which debuted in 2016 under Keiley’s direction. It’s back this year, with Horak and Volpe returning as the spectres of Christmas Past and Yet to Come respectively, and both doing double duty as narrators. Newfoundland comedic performer Andy Jones is also reprising his role as Scrooge.

Casting Horak and Volpe was clearly an idea whose time had come.

When Horak, who is also a painter and a musician, started acting in his hometown of Calgary in the 1990s, there was little room for actors with disabilities.

“I was very reluctant to come out as a disabled performer and did everything I could to keep that far down on my resume. I really learned to appear at least as fully sighted,” he says. “Coming up through school, I didn’t see examples of disabled performers on stage … and so I never saw a viable career path for myself. I was fortunate there were directors and producers in Calgary who were open to that.”

Attitudes toward disabilities in the arts have shifted in the past few years, he says. Shows like King Arthur’s Night and Kill Me Now, which starred actors with disabilities working alongside other performers, underscored that when they played here earlier this year as part of Canada Scene and the 2016-17 NAC theatre season respectively.

Changes in attitude or not, “the stage can be a pretty dangerous place” for a blind actor, says Horak. “I have just enough vision to navigate.”

His impairment means he’s blind in one eye and everything he sees with his remaining eye has an aura, a kind of halo, around it.

“I see the aura when I’m on stage and that can be distracting. I see it as a pulse or vibration.”

He uses rehearsals to make the stage a safe place. “Everything becomes muscle memory, and I use echo location to some extent.”

His blindness has pluses, Horak agrees. “Listening is definitely enhanced. That’s something I’m really grateful for. (Visual impairment) has also slowed me down and given me an appreciation for what I can see.

“Refraction of light and the way light distorts in my visual field is quite beautiful.”

Horak brings that distortion to his painting. He’s done some 500 portraits, using acrylics. When painting, he tries to use the aura he sees as the portrait’s base tone.

There is a drawback to that, he admits. “The aura can be really seductive and a way to avoid actually painting.”

A Christmas Carol is at the NAC until Dec. 24. Tickets: NAC box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.