Anyone who appreciates a doctor’s good bedside manner can probably thank a professional actor currently playing the role of the eccentric Ethel Banks in the Classic Theatre Festival’s production of Neil Simon’s hit comedy, Barefoot in the Park, which the Capital Critics Circle calls “a very entertaining production,” running until August 2 at the wheelchair accessible, air conditioned venue at 54 Beckwith Street East (at Harvey).
Catherine Bruce, originally from Ottawa but now a resident of Toronto, has played professional stages across Canada, and is also a familiar face from countless TV series, as well as commercials for everything from Celebrex and Lotto 649 to a spot as a hockey mom in a Don Cherry ad. But among the most interesting and challenging of her many diverse roles is that of “patient” in what’s known as the Standardized Patient Program. It’s there that she joins other actors in role playing for the benefit of young doctors, physiotherapists, and pharmacists in training, as well as foreign-trained doctors upgrading their Canadian credentials.
Bruce often has to imagine what it’s like to have a specific physical or mental ailment and, with the aid of preparation sheets, acts our her role over the course of a very exhausting day during which she and each doctor-to-be have 7 minutes together, followed by two minute breaks, after which the process begins anew.
“It can be emotionally draining, especially when you are dealing with life and death issues and you are playing this role 7 times an hour, all day long, with a different set of physicians,” Bruce says. She was part of one of the original such Canadian programs through the University of Alberta in the mid-1970s, and as with all roles she plays on the stage, she devotes endless hours to preparation and character development. She knows that just as she needs to connect with an audience in the theatre, she needs to be as real as possible in the medical environment to help prepare doctors for the real thing.
Bruce says when she visits her own doctors, she is often called out as someone who has gone through the program given some of the terminology she uses to describe her own issues. “Not a lot of patients talk about palpating their knuckles with their doctors,” she laughs.
Among the eccentric roles Bruce has brought to life over the years have been previous Classic Theatre Festival gigs as the eccentric aunt whose powers of witchcraft are just above sub-par in Bell, Book & Candle, as well as the frustrated Mrs. Bradman in Blithe Spirit.
She has also performed in a variety of diverse venues, such as playing Pat Womansbridge – a spoof of the loquacious CBC broadcaster Peter – for a series of General Motors gatherings, as well as at the annual auto show.
Most satisfying for this veteran actor is losing herself in a role to the point that even people who knew her may not recognize her. “I play a lot of characters and it is satisfying when people don’t recognize me afterwards,” she says.
Like her fellow performers in Barefoot in the Park, many of whom use theatre in non-traditional venues, she points out that “theatre needs to move people. It’s an intimate shared experience with the audience, and as experiential creatures, theatre is a way we acquire knowledge. Film offers that too, but theatre is of the moment. It’s like music – you often hear people say ‘you had to be there – you can hear the recording but it’s not quite the same.’ Theatre is like literature, it opens your eyes to how others see the world.”
When friends and audiences ask what it’s like to play the same role day in and out for weeks of rehearsal and then the run of a show, Bruce responds that she is passionately in love with theatre.
“I look up every night before I go on stage and thank the theatre gods. It feels like being a race horse, you just want to get out there and run. It’s such a privilege to do this work – what more could anyone ask for?”
Barefoot in the Park tickets are available by calling 1-877-283-1283, or by visiting www.classictheatre.ca. The Festival’s second show of the season, the thriller Wait Until Dark, runs August 70-30, while the morning Perth through the Ages theatrical walking tour, The Maid and the Merchant, runs Wednesdays to Sundays at 11 am. The Lonely Ghosts Walk returns Friday at 8 pm.