Bruce: And I asked one of my mentors at the time, “What school should I go to and how should I follow this career path?” And he said, “At the end of the day, it’s not gonna matter what school you went to. When … When you write a script and it goes across somebody’s desk, it’s just gonna be, do they recognize your name, and is the script any good. So, get to know people. Make connections. Be the kind of person who gets invited back into the room. Just be a good person that everyone wants to work with.”
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Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time.
Liz: I’m Liz Bottner.
Chris: And I’m Chris Peterson.
Liz: 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 Part 1 of a 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: Bruce, thanks for being here.
Bruce: My pleasure. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Chris: Tell us about yourself, and your blindness if you would.
Bruce: Well, my name is Bruce Horak, I am legally blind, I have 9 percent vision. When I was about 18 months of age, I was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, which is cancer of the eyes, and it was so bad in my right eye that the eye actually had to be removed, because the fear was the cancer was gonna go up the optic nerve to my brain. In my left eye, there were just three little tumors on the eye, and my doctor in Calgary, Alberta, which is where I was born and raised, he had seen it before, in one of his classes or something. He’d seen this cancer. He caught it right away and said, “Listen, they’re doing this experimental treatment in Toronto. They’re blasting these tumors with radiation.” And my mom said, “Well, get on the phone, let’s get an appointment.” And so, Mom packed me up, and Dad stayed home with the kids in Calgary, and Mom flew to Toronto, and they had this experimental radiation done on the tumors on my left eye. And the thought was that the scar tissue would just develop and I would really just be left with some perception of light and shadow, but by very happy accident, a small percentage of my left retina was unscarred. So I have extreme tunnel vision. It’s like looking down a straw. And then a cataract developed in that eye when I was about four and a half or so. So right before I started kindergarten or grade one I think, I had to have cataract surgery. (Chuckle.) So, there I was, in elementary school, with coke bottle, bifocal glasses, and went to a regular school through elementary school. I really just tried to keep up. You know, I had three older brothers who didn’t really let me get away with anything, so I just tried to fit into the pack as best I could. And, as I get older, I certainly notice much more sensitivity to light. Like if I walk from a bright room into a less bright room, it doesn’t even have to be a dark room, just a small enough shift in the light and it will just completely wash out my vision. A lot of floaters, a lot of flashers, and all that fun stuff. So, it’s basically like being high without having to take any drugs. Wait, can you say that? Can I say that? I did say that. I just said that. You can edit that part. So that’s my blindness.
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Liz: Tell us about your life and career.
Bruce: Well, I, um, … was born and raised in Calgary Alberta. I saw my very first professional play when I was in grade 3. There was a theater company in Calgary called Quest theater, and they would tour to all of the schools. So, one day, they, you know, got us out of our classroom and we went down to the school gym, and it had been transformed into a theater. And these actors came out, they had a set, they had music, and sound, and … just everything. And they came out and performed in our gym, and I was just blown away. And at the end of the show there was questions and answers, and they gave us all these little pencils with the name of the show on it. “Zeke and the Indoor Plants.” And I kept that thing for years. And I thought, you know, from that time on, I wanted to write, I wanted to act, I wanted to do theater. And then, all the way through high school, I wrote, and I got interested in writing plays, and I joined a playwriting group when I was in high school, and took theater. My dad was a drama teacher. He was also a writer and an English teacher. As I said, I’ve got three older brothers, who are all very heavily into the arts, so the path was very clear to me. It was either gonna be theater and music or art. And by the time I got to the end of Grade 12, I decided that theater was gonna be my path. So the year after high school, I worked at a theater company in Calgary called Alberta Theater Projects as a junior apprentice. For seventy-five bucks a week, I got to do absolutely everything. From answering phones in the office to running posters all over downtown Calgary, to sitting in the rehearsal hall and taking notes and watching play rehearsals. And it was one of the most transformative years in my life. I just thought, “This is the world that I want to immerse myself in as much as possible.” And I asked one of my mentors at the time, “What school should I go to and how should I follow this career path?” And he said, “At the end of the day, it’s not gonna matter what school you went to. When … When you write a script and it goes across somebody’s desk, it’s just gonna be, do they recognize your name, and is the script any good. So, get to know people. Make connections. Be the kind of person who gets invited back into the room. Just be a good person that everyone wants to work with. So, be jovial, bring your best self into your work if you can.” And took that advice to heart. I went to Mount Ro college in Calgary, which was a two-year theater program. Which directly fed into Shakespeare in the Park, which was in Calgary, was an outdoor theater, summer theater program. And primarily students, but they would bring in professional actors and directors, as they also did in Mount Ro College at the time. And the people that I met the year at Alberta Theater Projects and my two years at Mount Ro college, and my years afterward working in Shakespeare in the Park are people that I still work with to this day. You know, really, it’s about making connections and just being the kind of person who gets invited back into the room. And, after college, I did a few years with Shakespeare in the Park in the summer times, and in the winter times, I would work with Quest Theater, which was that theater company that came to my school when I was in Grate 3. I met the man who started the company, and I believe he directed that show, Duval Lang, when I was at Mount Royal, and he and I hit it off, and I told him, “I want to write plays, and I want to write plays for kids.” So he invited me to write some stuff for Quest Theater, which I did, and toured absolutely every small town gymnasium in Alberta, (Laugh.) For about three years. Hundreds of shows all over the province in the back of a van with a couple of other actors and a stage manager, and toured all over the province, getting up at 7:30 in the morning and unloading a set into a gym and setting it up, and performing for, you know, a hundred and fifty, two hundred kids, and then answering some questions, strike the set, get in the van, go for lunch, go to the next school, do another show, go to the hotel, and that was kind of the touring lifestyle for a couple of years. Which was wonderful. I mean, I think some of the best training that an actor can get is trying to hold the attention of two hundred kids from kindergarten to Grade six. (Laugh.) I mean, boy, they’re sure honest, and if they don’t like it, they will unabashedly tell you. But if they love it, there’s no better reaction. I mean they’re, it’s, … Yeah. It’s just wonderful.
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Chris: You spent a lot of time creating and performing your own work, and I’d like to hear a little bit about that.
Bruce: Well, yeah. I started writing … wow. Really, back in Grade 3, Grade 4. I think I wrote my first movie in Grade 6, which was called “Revenge of the Furry Eye Balls.” Don’t look for it, it’s not even on VHS. But, yeah. I got out of high school,
I started writing, I wrote for Shakespeare in the Park, I wrote a family show for them, and in 2001, I met up with Ryan Gladstone out of Vancouver, now. He was in Calgary. And we started touring on the Fringe Festival Circuit, which is a theater festival that travels from Montreal Canada all the way to Victoria. It goes city to city, we spend two weeks in each city. And it’s like a traveling circus really. It’s just these acts from all over the world, and you go from one city to another all through the summer. I think it almost spanned about four months. And you just take your show on the road. And we, Ryan and I, and our friend Aaron and his brother Jeff, and various and sundry others, under the name Monster Theater out of Vancouver, we toured, and they continue to tour to this day. And every year, we would write a new show and we would put it in the van and take it across the country. And it was an incredible way to meet people, to gain audiences, to try out your new work. And Ryan and I really worked that stuff for a long game. And so the first show that he and I wrote together was called “The Canada Show,” which is the complete history of Canada in one hour. And that show toured for, and I think it was presented for almost fifteen years. Maybe even longer. And that was really when I got further in the bug of touring and writing and creating. Specifically, more streamlined shows that were easy to put into a suitcase. And so, in 2006, I wrote a one-person show called “This Is Cancer,” which is, again, semi autobiographical. I tell my own story, but I tell it from the perspective of cancer. And Cancer in this particular show is egotistical, arrogant jerk, who believes that humanity is in love with him. Because humans are, they run for cancer, and they raise money for cancer, and there’s cancer this, cancer that. He googles himself and he’s, “Oh, cancer has got more hits than Jesus.” And he’s wearing this head to toe gold LeMay speed skating outfit. And he makes drinks for the audience, and he sings songs, and it’s a real, kind of a bouffant piece, except that cancer just loves people. And, being the son of Aphrodite and Aries, and being immortal himself, so Aries the god of war, and Aphrodite the goddess of love. And so, cancer immediately falls in love with people. But, because he’s Cancer, they get sick and die. And, of course, half way through the show, the audience are given the opportunity to tell Cancer what they really think of him. And, inevitably, somebody tells him to go … hang himself, essentially. So Cancer has a big hissy fit, and he goes and gets his black book of all the famous people that he’s … that he’s, quote unquote “loved.” And, you know, he goes through, and there’s Sammy Davis Jr. and all these other people that he finds in that black book. He finds Carl Horak, who is my father, who passed away of cancer in 2003. And so Cancer tells the story of Carl Horak and how Carl had this baby named Bruce, and Bruce had these beautiful eyes, and Cancer fell in love with his eyes. We sort of go down the autobiography in the last third of the play or so. And the lesson that Cancer learns from this baby’s mother, ’cause my dad, when he found out that I had cancer, he went to his doctor, and my dad only had one eye. And the doctor said, “We need to find out how you lost your eye.” And so my dad went, found his medical records and discovered that when he was a baby, when Carl was a baby, he had retinoblastoma. His parents hadn’t told him that. They’d told him that hewas just sick. And then my dad also found out that retinoblastoma is genetic. And that he passed it on to me. And this devastated my dad. He had no idea. He … almost took his own life. And, in the grief and in the turmoil of realizing that he’d passed on this genetic form of cancer to his son, he said “Oh, I should never have gotten married and I should never have had kids.” And my mom said, “Well look what you would have missed. Look what you would have missed if you hadn’t have had this experience.” So the lesson of that show is one of hope, and is one of appreciation. And this is a really major theme I think in a lot of the work that I’ve done, since “This Is Cancer,” is creating work that inspires some hope, and inspires some appreciation, because I think it’s essential to getting through.
Chris: That’s all the time we have for today, but tune in again in just two weeks to hear the conclusion of our interview with Bruce Horak, where we will hear about what Bruce is currently working on, and what it was like to step on to the bridge of the Enterprise in his roll as Hemmer on the new Paramount Plus original series, “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” premiering on May fifth, 2022.
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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 Lewis, 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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Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.