CALGARY – Bruce Horak’s journey to create his show Assassinating Thomson dates back to 2013 and the Vancouver Fringe, but his personal journey as an artist dates back all the way to childhood. “I was diagnosed with what’s called Bilateral Retinoblastoma, which is cancer of the eye, when I was eighteen months old,” Horak says. Treating this condition resulted in the loss of over 90 per cent of his vision, including complete blindness in one eye, tunnel vision, and light sensitivity.
Even in his younger years, though, Horak was determined that he not be judged by his condition. “As soon as I got my first contact lenses in grade 11 and got rid of my big coke-bottle glasses, I figured out pretty quickly how to look like a sighted person,” he says. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a visually impaired or blind actor. I wanted to be judged on the merit of my work, instead of like a caveat: ‘he’s okay for a blind guy.’ That was a big fear of mine.”
Years later, however, Horak’s art guided him to overcome that fear and to embrace his own unique perspective. “Trying to interpret my visual impairment in visual art meant coming to an understanding of how I see,” he says. “Instead of trying to look like a sighted person, I was able to look through my own eye and appreciate it.”
It was in the process of visual art that Horak’s idea for Assassinating Thomson, his semi-biographical account of Tom Thomson, crystallized. “Over the course of the year that I was developing it, I was kind of stymied as to what I was going to do with the show,” he says. “At the same time, I was working on a portrait series. Inevitably, in a portrait sitting, there would be the questions of ‘how did you get started?’ or ‘what’s this all about?’ and I would explain about my eyesight and tell the story of my cancer. I was sitting with a friend, doing her portrait, and over the course of that, the show just kind of came out of my mouth.”
From there, Horak realized he could weave a narrative back and forth between painting a portrait, while also telling the story of Tom Thomson. Thomson, a member of the famous Canadian painters that came to be known as the Group of Seven, mysteriously died at the age of 39. “There’s lots of theories about it,” Horak says, “but nobody has published or written the theory that I put forward.”
Alongside presenting that theory, Horak creates a painting of the audience, over the approximately 55-minute runtime. The portraits are then live-auctioned off at the end of the show, with proceeds from the Lunchbox run going to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Horak’s dual narrative in Assassinating Thomson is something he wants people to enjoy on multiple levels. “I hope that there are opportunities for blocked creatives to start to unblock,” Horak says. “For me, it certainly took a long time to have the courage, to just go for it.”
Assassinating Thomson is playing at Lunchbox Theatre Feb. 11–March 2. For tickets and more information, visit lunchboxtheatre.comAssassinating Thomson, Lunchbox Theatre