Get to Know President David Gale



Biking Buddies David Gale and Theresa Tova have covered many miles together through Toronto’s ravines and bike networks during the pandemic.

Past President Theresa Tova sits down with her friend and biking buddy ACTRA Toronto President David Alan Nathan Gale.

 

 

 

 

Theresa Tova
As close as we are, I’m delighted to help the membership get to know our new president as a multifaceted talent with a long and varied career. You started out in Winnipeg but went to train in the acting program in Minneapolis, right?

David Gale
The University of Minnesota had a tremendous reputation, with alumni like Tovah Feldshuh and former ACTRA Toronto President Sandi Ross. Sugith Varughese and I were there at the same time. I listened to my parents, who thought I needed something solid to fall back on, so I was doing a BA. The idea was I would take a BA with a major in journalism and would also do theatre.

TT
Well, now I understand why you’ve done so much good work in communications at ACTRA.

DG
Even though I wasn’t in the Fine Arts program, I was always acting, rehearsing or performing a show the entire time I was there. I took a few theatre courses as well, but my soul was with the BFAs. I just wasn’t very happy, so I left and looked for opportunities back here. I came to Toronto a little bit begrudgingly, I have to say. Back in high school, I saw a very popular improv comedy troupe who had a songwith the lyrics:  “all aboard the Asshole Train goin’ to Toronto Town…” We all got onto that train, but when I came here, I thought, where are all these assholes?

TT
I know what a difference that can be coming from a small creative community in the prairies into this bigger world.

DG
In Winnipeg, I was in the shtetl. I was performing, but it was all through the Jewish lens. I went to a Jewish school, graduated from a Hebrew High School, went to Jewish summer camp and was part of a Jewish folk group. In Toronto, I wanted to be immersed in something that wasn’t all Jewish. But I knew Paul Kligman from Winnipeg, who took me to the celebrity club near the old CBC on Jarvis. It was filled with old Jewish actors, smoke and booze. I felt so young and green. I did a few things on TV. I did Bizarre with John Byner and one of the last episodes of King of Kensington. I couldn’t believe I was working with Al Waxman.

David Gale playing Cliff in Cabaret (1980)

I’d been in Toronto for under a year when theatre became my next community. I landed a gig playing Cliff in Cabaret. All of a sudden I knew all these people in the cast. They’d tell me about auditions and agents. They got me a job as a waiter at YukYuks, and then I worked at the Limelight dinner theatre where I met lifelong friends Linda Kash and Ellen Dubin. I also landed gigs on TV like Hangin’ In and a cheeky soft, not quite porn, series for Pay TV also starring Pam Hyatt. I also booked a lot of commercials and went on to a decade of looping.

TT
In addition to film and TV and a lot of theatre work, I know you danced and became a TV host.

DG
The hosting started after I met Linda Kash. She was involved with Theatresports, the Keith Johnstone-inspired competitive improv school down at Harbourfront. The Kids in the Hall, Bruce Hunter, David Huband, Jani Lauzon and Mike Myers were all around in those days. So I got involved with improv. I didn’t know it was called hosting then, but as a summer camp counsellor, I was always getting up in front of crowds to lead singalongs. There was a need for a host at Theatresports as well, so I learned through Keith Johnstone how to stand up in front of the crowd, be natural and let my improv flow. It was a big life lesson that I’ve taken to the bank for many years.

Ad for Theatresports Hallowe’en Special with Linda Kash (left) and David Gale (1983)

Around 1980 Brian Macdonald, a director-choreographer responsible for all the Gilbert and Sullivan productions at Stratford, cast me in a musical for Craig Russell called Hogtown. Craig Russell, an internationally-known female impersonator, played a madam.

TT
Oh, I remember so well. Craig Russell played The Imperial Room where I saw his Peggy Lee impersonation.

DG
Right, and then you saw Peggy Lee herself at the Imperial Room the next year. After that, I became a Brian Macdonald performer for a number of years.

TT
When did you join the unions, Equity and ACTRA?

DG
I had one or two credits in ACTRA when you needed six at the time to be a full member. I was in Hogtown as an Equity apprentice at the same time as I booked a commercial, starring and choreographed by Jeff Hyslop. We were dancing down the street, introducing The New Diet Pepsi. One of the Equity actors left the play so they needed another Equity actor and I made sure it was me. So I got my Equity card and my ACTRA card 40 years ago at the same time.

TT
How about Loving Spoonfuls, your other big career break that everyone still loves to watch. Who came to who with the idea?

DG
The producer, Allan Novak and I went to the same Jewish day school. We did our first show together where I was the front end of the horse and he was the middle. We went to the same summer camp and did a film program together. We also both came to Toronto at the same time, and after 10 years as best friends, Allan said we needed to travel. So we went on an extended trip to Asia with a video camera. Allan would always be behind the camera, and I’d be interacting with street peddlers, kibitzing and making them laugh. Allan knew comedy as an editor who had worked on Codco and Kids in the Hall. He saw the rapport was really there. He had an aunt in Winnipeg who liked to tell jokes and made the best chicken soup and perogies. And there I was, his friend, who loved to interview people and make everyone feel comfortable. So we went to Winnipeg. We shot in her kitchen, around her house, and went shopping together. Allan cut the show and took it to the head of WTN. Without even showing her the video, he sold her on the idea. Loving Spoonfuls was picked up, and we did four seasons, 68 episodes and three specials.

Loving Spoonfuls (2000)

TT
Loving Spoonfuls was very well recognized by the industry with lots of Gemini nominations and a win for you as Best Host.

DG
I believe its success was because up until then, they had chefs cooking. We took it out of the studio and focused on real people cooking in their homes. It was much copied after that.

TT
So we can blame you for reality TV?

DG
Exactly, but we did a kinder, gentler reality TV. We shot with different nonnas, bubbas, yayas, grandmothers of all different nationalities. Every episode was like a docu-comedy cooking show. We heard their life stories, how they came to Canada, about their families, their troubles. The women were in that twilight time of their lives and all of a sudden, people wanted to celebrate who they were. Those days, on cable, they repeated episodes six times a day. So the grandmothers got a lot of exposure and became instant celebrities in their communities and neighbourhoods.

I knew my way around the kitchen, but I learned it was much better if I screwed up so they’d slap my hand. We featured all grandmothers except for one grand uncle, Geoffrey Pimblett from Pimblett’s Restaurant in Toronto’s gay village. He did the first half as himself and the second half in drag as Queen Victoria.

TT
I’m sure they were trying to fix you up as well. Were you out in those days?

DG
When I started my career, being out in theatre was one thing, but in the film and TV world, there was a stigma to being out. You were going to be limiting your career. I heard homophobic ideas from an agent suggesting I should try to sound less gay. Back then, there were very few out actors of my age range in film and TV. But in Loving Spoonfuls, I didn’t hide it. There were times where you could see that I was getting along very well with an adult grandson. We shot with Paulino Nunes’s Portuguese grandmother from the Azores. Paulino was with us too, because she wasn’t comfortable with English and needed a translator. At one point, she brought out a mini piano, put it onto the cutting board, and started playing and singing a religious song in Portuguese. Paulino and I started dancing together, which was delightful and funny. Gay men would always come up to me and say, I love how gay you are on that show.

I built a connection to the gay community working with Bruce Bell on his theatre piece about gay hustlers and starred in Brad Fraser’s play, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. I also started hosting gay events and doing shows at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

TT
I also know you as a script doctor, director, creator and actor. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

DG
I called myself a master of being a jack of all trades. I liked to be doing theatre, TV, writing, hosting and improv. I remember landing Duddy, the musical version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, starring Lonny Price.

Duddy L to R: Dom Feore, Sal Bienstock, Larry Mannel, Jay Brazeau, David Gale, Ted Pearson. (1984)

We were going to travel across Canada before landing on Broadway with me understudying the star. Well, the show didn’t work, and we never made it to New York. After Duddy, I was fourth pirate from the left in Pirates of Penzance in Stratford with Brent Carver and then there was the Miss Canada pageant.

TT
What?! Excuse me?

DG
I was part of the singing-dancing ensemble performing interstitial Roland and Romaine choreography. I had to go to Dancers Anonymous after that. I had reached my dancer’s bottom. I didn’t feel like I was getting respected enough as an actor and quit dancing.

TT
Is that when you shifted to directing and creating your own material?

DG
I decided to change the course of my career. I saw a two-person review with Christina James and Ted Pearson. It was clear to me that they had great talent and lovely presence but needed a director. I knew them both well so I talked to them after the show and they agreed. I ended up writing songs for them as well. Directing and writing gave me a new course.

TT
Was that shift sustainable?

DG
I still needed a day job. I had been dancing in shows for 10 years, and one of my friends in Pirates of Penzance was teaching aerobics. It was the time of Jane Fonda. I went to one of his classes. He was entertaining and funny, and I thought, I can do that. And within weeks, I was. So 20 years later, just like Jane Fonda, I’ve had two hip replacements.

TT
You’ve helped others create shows as a dramaturge, but what about your own creative outlet during that time?

DG
After Stratford, I wanted to take more control, so along with directing, I put together an improv comedy troupe working with the likes of Neil Crone, Paul de la Rosa and Wendy Hopkins. I called it Club Improv with the hopes of eventually opening an improv club. The musical director I hired was Randy Vancourt, who would go on to be my writing partner. The improv comedy troupe went, but Randy and I shared a love for musical comedy. We created a duo called Gilbert and Glick and wrote a number of theatre shows featuring comedy songs and shtick.

We had a great run playing events with me hosting or co-hosting and with Randy on the piano. Eventually, we were approached by the artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre to write a musical. That’s when we came up with Chutzpah à go-go, a musical review about growing up Jewish on the prairies.

Chutzpah à go-go L to R: Randy Vancourt, Charlotte Moore, Barbara Barsky and David Gale (1994)

TT
Which was a Dora award-winning success.

DG
Yes, we took it from a little theatre festival on Queen Street across the country to the Centaur, MTC, Canadian Stage and to the U.S. Happily, Randy and I still work together with virtual shows we’ve booked through the pandemic.

After Chutzpah I enjoyed 5 years of TV work from Loving Spoonfuls to Second Time Around. I’d hosted the Doras, won a Gemini award and was dying to do a TV talk show. So I put together a dynamite proposal for The David Gale Show, with great guests lined up, including Rick Mercer, Sharon Gless and Maggie Cassella. But it didn’t fly, just bad timing.

TT
What impresses me when you mention all these stars is how many artists you know. You have a very large circle, and when you became president, you had already earned the trust and confidence of so many in the industry. Shall we talk about your ACTRAvism? How did you get involved?

David Gale at the Canadian Labour Congress

DG
I was asked to host a workshop panel on audition technique at an ACTRA conference with Kirsten Bishopric and Chris Owens. I’d been part of a focus group on hosts at ACTRA, but I’d never been to a conference.

I did a lot of prep work. David Sparrow and ACTRA staff must have made note that I was motivated. They asked me back to do Audition 2.0. I was at my second conference, and I stuck around for the plenary. There was a table of executive leaders, including you, Theresa Tova. Caring, smart, interesting, motivated volunteers who were leading this union. Sometimes the member’s questions were challenging, but even they were handled well. Then-President Karl Pruner and Executive Director Brian Topp knew what they were talking about. They were doing good work. The fact that ACTRA Toronto could organize a dynamic day-long conference, offering workshops and panels including lunch and a plenary, was quite enticing. After hosting at a few more conferences, I bumped into David Sparrow at a Fringe show. He took me aside. He was producing and starring in his full-length feature film Teddy Bear and needed somebody who would take over as Conference Chair. I said I’d think about it.

David also invited me to come to the next council meeting. They needed an alternate that day, and so instead of observing, I was at the table, with voice and vote. This was pretty cool, but of course, I held back saying anything because I didn’t want to presume to know how these things work.

TT
Yes, there’s much to learn when you first come to the table.

DG
Near the end of that first meeting, I was asked for my opinion on a topic by Karl Pruner. So I spoke my piece, and people responded. Again, I thought these councillors are so committed, so intelligent, so present at the table dealing with real issues that our members care about, some issues I didn’t even know existed before. So I said yes to the conference chair position and ran for council that year and got elected. Within a month, I was elected to the executive as Member at Large.

TT
In for a penny, in for a pound.

DG
I had two big issues at the time. One was many non-union hosts in the world of television were getting screwed. They were working too many hours for too little money with no moral or economic rights. I didn’t have that situation with my union producer. I was getting compensated fairly, but I could see from my friends who were working in that world, that was not the case.

TT
When you came onto council talking about hosts, it made so much sense to us. We had just successfully organized models on those shows. We tried to organize musicians and singers on Breakfast Television but were not successful. The issue was already on our radar, but you focused it with your hands-on experiences as a host.

DG
The second issue, a lack of a Canadian star system, has always been a tough sell to producers and the media. The appetite from producers here is to keep us in a lower pay scale based on minimums. It’s power that they’re not willing to share. And even our media would rather write about American stars.

TT
It’s a wake-up call to look at how our most successful actors are offered jobs at minimum and still have to audition. As VP Communications, you committed yourself to making changes.

DG
Yes, we went digital with our magazine Performers Online, we introduced ACTRA spotlight on performers, and I went back to hosting, building a star system one podcast at a time.

TT
You also worked on many other files. What are you most proud of?

DG
I’m very proud of our vibrant and active YEAA committee, the Young Emerging Actors Assembly. I had a chance to foster that with Eli Goree, Bryn McAuley and Clara Pasieka, under the guidance of Then-President Heather Allin. We threw a couple of really kick-ass parties during TIFF and then went on to have an association with the Reelworld Film Festival where YEAA Shorts premiered, and some went on to Cannes, CBC Gem, and Air Canada. The committee nurtured tremendous talents, including Katie Uhlmann and Simu Liu.

Other accomplishments include ushering in the three-day conferences and producing, directing and co-writing the ACTRA Awards in Toronto. And then, most recently, I’m proud of the fact that we have our first queer committee, outACTRAto. Working with the tremendous drive of the unstoppable Joanne Vannicola, we’ve accomplished a good deal in three years. We put together an advocacy short film called Queer Your Stories that has played all over the world. We’ve created an association with the Inside Out Film Festival and a short film competition supporting queer stories, queer writers and queer performers. We also created a Guide for Working with Queer Performers so that the industry could appreciate where people are coming from, changing language to better understand terminologies around sexuality, gender, and their interplay. And now casting directors and agents have been coming to us to understand how to appropriately and respectfully put out breakdowns in an inclusive way.

TT
I’ve been at outACTRAto meetings as a guest. They are an impressive group of fearless advocates. I think you should also be proud of the work you’ve done as an executive member at ACTRA National. With Keith Martin Gordey from B.C., you took on the mammoth job of co-chairing the Constitution and By-laws Committee and successfully maneuvered us through a structural governance change.

DG
It is a big change. I went into it trying to make sure everyone’s voices from across the country were heard and that everyone felt they were being treated fairly. We listened. Studies were done. People were brought together, and it was an interesting dance. Ultimately, it landed in a way that ACTRA Toronto still remains in a position of influence with proper representation, and other branches also feel they have made gains.

TT
You’ve been in leadership for 14 years. And now, here you are, in the second year of COVID, taking on the huge responsibility to be the spokesperson at the forefront of all conversations that affect our 15,000 members. As you’ve become president, is there anything that surprised you?

DG
The first thing that comes to mind is the confidence and support that council had in me to be acclaimed into this position. It was quite an overwhelming experience. I understand that I’m making history as the first queer president of ACTRA Toronto, and with that come huge responsibilities. I want every 12-year-old queer kid to know that they can have a career as a performer here in Canada, free of homophobia and discrimination.

I think another surprise was just how fast it comes at you. Important things have to be decided right away. When people have confidence in you, you have to deliver and deliver fast.

TT
The reason I and others have faith in you is, we know that you can go into any meeting, David Gale. You can walk into meetings with a Premier or Minister, and your voice is heard and trusted. You talk with the history of an artist who’s been through it all, who understands our industry and can speak to the truth of what our issues are as performers.

DG
Yes, I think that’s a big part of the job and when in doubt, I can just cook with them.

Theresa Tova is the immediate Past President of ACTRA Toronto and serves on its Executive, as well as Treasurer of ACTRA National.

(pictured Theresa Tova and David Gale, backstage at the ACTRA Awards in Toronto)