Learning to wrestle with God and God’s people: From thespian to therapist
“What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans…” – Genesis 32:27-28
Since before the written word, the theatre has proved a secular platform on which we “wrestle with God and humans.” There, we wrestle with both the grandest and basest aspects of our human condition. Prehistoric images show man dancing out the story of his battles to survive. In the Western theatre, the Greeks transformed the religious rite into a theatrical one when Thespis first inhabited a character, turned from the altar, and spoke directly to the gods. Shakespeare continued the conversation by elevating our understanding of, and our appreciation for, our own human frailty. Contemporary drama (musical theatre, opera, dance, television, and film), whether serious or frivolous, continues to ask the question: “Who are we in relation to each other, and in relation to what we hold to be true?”
I chose a career in theatre because I wanted to explore who I am in relation to the universe. The theatre has been my life for the last 34 years. I have been an award-winning actor, a director, composer/librettist/lyricist, and theatre educator since before I graduated with my first Master’s degree in Theatre.
I also chose theatre because I sought the approval it offered. I know – now – that God loves me. But for a long time, I could find no place that would offer me public affirmation of and access to God’s love. I am LGBTQ+. When I discovered I was rejected by the church, the theatre became my option for love and approval.
The theatre was a good home. I found validation and recognition, and I know that the work I do in the theatre also helps others; it is a kind of secular ministry; a vicarious therapy session for the audience. Humans have always found comfort in seeing their stories as reflected from a stage. They find hope in seeing others, often kings and princesses, face the challenges they experience in their daily lives.
However, more recently, I have found less satisfaction in the work. I still believe in the purpose and power of the theatre, but I no longer personally need to partake in that purpose. I still desire to explore, share, and give of myself – and yet I now want to serve the world in more direct, tangible ways.
Therefore, I chose to change the direction of my life – to see if I can offer something more, something different, to the world. Who changes their whole direction in the last part of life? (I’m 57. I’m not quite in the “last part” of life, but I can sure see it coming!)
So, here I am. I am a first-year Master of Pastoral Studies student (Psychotherapy and Spiritual Care emphasis) at Knox College. What I have found here has exceeded all my expectations. I am working harder, thinking more deeply, and widening my heart and mind in ways I didn’t know possible. The academic standards at Knox are very high – definitely not for the faint of heart. Pass or fail, I find great satisfaction in accomplishing studies which challenge me more than they may reassure me.
The student body and faculty are representative of the full range of cultural and spiritual diversity for which Toronto is world-renowned – and so I feel at home. Though of Scots/Swiss descent, my comfort food is Asian (I was born in Vancouver), and my music is jazz and hip-hop (African American in source – I discovered jazz through my parents, and hip-hop through my friends while living in New York City). I am in awe of my many fellow students who are being as challenged as I am – and yet are doing their studies in their second – or even third – language!
At Knox, my exploration is welcomed, my participation expected, and my options questioned – and so my personhood grows. I have been open with my fellow students about my LGBTQ+ness. I have been met with some generous and loving support… as well as with the usual, expected silence. I hope my presence will enlighten those who may need it. I believe, strongly, that one may encourage change simply through the act of being present.
The theatre was wonderful to me – challenging, exciting, a real journey. It is still a beautiful realm where all God’s creatures are welcome to explore their human-ness. Now I need to explore more, and to give more deeply. Perhaps I feel the need to speak less – in a performative way – and to listen more with my heart (though you wouldn’t know that from my presence in class!). I have explored what I can in the secular realm, and, so, now, “I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son).
For a long time, especially in my theatre work, I identified with the biblical Jacob, who wrestled with God and with humans (Gen. 32:27-28). I still do wrestle with both and continue to explore who we are in relation to each other, and in relation to what we hold to be true. But at this time in life, another image also comes to mind. I think about the Ethiopian eunuch who encounters Philip the Evangelist while reading the Book of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40). During this time at Knox, I am looking for someone to offer guidance, so that I may better serve others.
Bruce Dow is a Master of Pastoral Studies student at Knox College.
Bruce’s previous involvements: Broadway: Diana, a new musical (on Netflix in Spring 2021); Jesus Christ Superstar; The Music Man; Anything Goes; Jane Eyre. Stratford Festival: 12 seasons of leading roles in musicals and Shakespeare, including The Tempest (starring Christopher Plummer). Toronto: 2 Dora Awards as Best Actor and Best Actor Musical for his work at Buddies in Bad Times Theatres; 2 Dora Award nominations for his work with Canadian Stage and the Musical Stage Company. Helen Hayes Nomination for his work with the Tony Award® winning Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, DC. TV: Rick Mercer Reports, Murdoch Mysteries, Anne with an “E”, The Strain. Solo jazz recordings available on iTunes & Spotify. And, strangely enough, perhaps best known as the voice of “Max” in the Total Drama Island animated series. Bruce says, “If you have teenagers around the house, they’ll have heard of it!”