Saturday, June 29, 2013

Theatre For Thought, June 29, 2013

joel fishbane

Full disclosure: performer Devon Tullock is one of my oldest friends. A few lifetimes ago, we attended theatre school together and at the end of our second year, I went off to study playwriting while he went to Germany to appear in the German production of Cats. Now, 16 years later, Tullock is tackling Cats again, this time in the Toronto revival – and once again he’s playing the magical Mr. Mistoffoles. 

“When they asked me, I said yes and my hips immediately started hurting,” Tullock laughed during our reunion at a coffee shop just steps from the Panasonic Theatre, where Cats will run until September. The Toronto revival of Cats is produced by Nu Musical Theatricals and an army of other producers, including the folks at Mirvish. A spectacle to end spectacles, its score is a catalogue of catchy songs set to the poems found in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. 

“I had no idea what I was doing there.”

I wanted to chat with Tullock because I knew he would have a unique perspective on Cats. Like the show itself, Tullock shouldn’t really exist. Cats is a plot-free extravaganza in which human-size cats sing poetry; Tullock, meanwhile, is a dancer in his late 30's who is still getting work. 

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done,” Tullock admitted. “But it’s also the best thing. Until you dance the show, there’s nothing like it.”  Now in his late 30's, Tullock is at an age when most dancers are stepping away from roles as demanding as the ones found in Cats. But Tullock, who is based in England these days, saw a chance to be closer to his hometown for the summer. He auditioned by video, hoping he might win a place in the ensemble; instead, they offered him the same part he played in Hamburg 16 years before.

Devon Tullock
Since those days in Germany, Tullock has had a busy career almost exclusively on the stage. Throughout his 20's, he was one of those fortunate performers who always had work. Aside from being part of the U.S. Tour of Fame and Mamma Mia, Tullock has also done several seasons at both Stratford and Shaw in both musicals and non-musicals alike. “I went right from the tour of Fame into rehearsals for Lord of the Flies,” Tullock recalled. “I had no idea what I was doing there.”

It wasn’t until his 30's that Tullock finally experienced the frustration that most performers feel: for the first time in years, he found it hard to find work. Much of this had to do with his age. Musical theatre performers have a limited lifespan: the shows generally favour younger casts and require eight shows of high-powered singing and dancing. Tullock hit the same wall that other older actors hit and found he had little choice but to keep going. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he confessed. “This is the only thing I’ve ever known.”

Sixteen years later, Tullock’s hips are still working well

It’s hard not to admire Tullock’s persistence, especially when he himself admits that the theatrical business is as ridiculous as it gets. “But I ridiculously enjoy it,” he laughed. “I enjoy the crazy.” Like most artists, Tullock tried a few other jobs – including teaching and designing wedding cakes – only to find himself drawn back to the stage by the song of the theatrical siren. His post-30’s dry spell ended when Shaw offered him a role in My Fair Lady, restoring his confidence and allowing him to continue working doing what he loves.

Now, this summer, he has the chance to dance the show all over again. “When I first saw Cats, it was magic,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening in front of me.” Tullock’s passion for the show is crystal clear and his dedication to the role has meant putting his body through the ringer. “To do this show you have to be technically proficient,” he said. “But believe it or not, I’m kicking higher now then I was 20 years ago.”  

Tullock isn’t naïve about what step his career will need to take in the near future: Cats may run forever but he will probably have to find other, less demanding roles. But for now he’s enjoying the great irony of returning to the very role that launched his career. “When I took the part in Hamburg,” he said, “It was because I thought it would be my last chance. I knew I had to take the part now – because I didn’t think I’d have these hips again in three years.” 

Sixteen years later, Tullock’s hips are still working well – and he’s still working to prove that, like the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, he’s still one incredible cat.

Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, T.S. Eliot and Tim Rice plays at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre until September 1. For tickets visit

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