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Mel Tuck

April 5, 2010 | by  |  Art
NAME: Mel Tuck

OCCUPATION: Director/Teacher/Acting Coach

BASE OF OPERATIONS: Austin-Tuck Studios, Suite 503, 68 Water St., Vancouver

Mel Tuck has taught in universities and technical institutions across the country, including Ryerson, CDIS, and the University of Alberta. His former students include many of the best-known Canadian actors of this generation, such as Eric McCormack, Molly Parker, Nia Vardalos, and Barry Pepper, as well as the majority of acting instructors in the city of Vancouver. Tuck has been an actor, an educator, and the director of more than 200 pieces of theatre from coast to coast. He has weathered the rise and fall of the Gastown Actors’ Studio, the collapse of which put him through bankruptcy and back again.

Now, after a rich career of over forty years, Mel Tuck remains an authority when it comes to the education and development of actors of all ages.

What’s your philosophy on teaching actors?

Ever since the film industry came along, here in Canada, the whole process of teaching acting has changed. Before, the emphasis was always on characterization, the idea of neutralizing yourself, and trying to bring out character. But since the film industry has come into the picture, basically, you’re being forced to deal with who you are. A lot of actors don’t like that, and will say: “I don’t want to be me. I want to be somebody else. Do I have to do it that way?” Well, no, but you’d better find some way. Your way.

The thing is, in this industry, they’re going to judge you by what they see walking through the door. Whether you’ve got skill, or ability, or whatever, they’re going to judge you primarily based on your appearance. So, you have to become very aware of that, and what it means. The point is, you have to free yourself from any idea of perfection. It’s irrelevant. I have no idea what that word means. What is, is. Truth is truth. Art is art. And, if you’re sitting there in a scene, thinking, “I have to feel something here,” well, maybe, maybe not. Because, if you don’t, then what do you do?

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

My very first teaching assignment was while I was still a student. I was twenty-three, and suddenly my mentor, Tom Peacock at the U of A, asked if I would teach a class while he was away. I got a few acting jobs at The Citadel while I was still in school. I was an Equity member before I even graduated, and I was an ACTRA member about ten seconds after that. And, when I graduated, I was the only student in the class. It didn’t start off that way. Either people dropped out, or they were kicked out, but by the end of it, it was so bizarre, because it was just me.

Somewhere around 1972, I was in Toronto, and things were getting a little tight for me, and I wasn’t getting as much work as I used to, so I went to Ryerson, and applied for a job as a director.  I had a decent amount of teaching credits, and teaching/directing credits at that point, so they hired me. Then the guy who was the director of the acting program quit, and said to the chairman, “hire this guy.” And they went along with it, even though I had all these other commitments, like making a TV version of Freedom of the City and playing Hamlet. From that time forth, I went out on fewer auditions, but nothing was coming, and the teaching thing just became what I was doing. I have to admit, in all fairness, I really liked doing it. It was fun, and I was having a good time. I mean, some of the people that I was the boss of were twice my age.

I stayed there for 13 years, before I finally said, this is it — I can’t do this anymore. I’d had arguments with the administration, many times over, mostly about students that they thought needed to be eliminated from the program. With Nia [Vardalos, producer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding], it was like the final nail in the coffin. I remember saying to them, “If you get rid of this girl, I’ll quit.” And she quit. So I quit. For me, it was, and still is, a matter of integrity. I can’t do something badly, or do something that I can’t put my faith in. If I’m asked to teach something that I don’t believe in, I don’t know how to do it. So I had to leave.

Shortly after you came to Vancouver, you founded the Gastown Actors’ Studio, which is known for some of its famous graduates.  Can you lead us through the rise and fall of that institution?

The original idea was to have something in place for working professionals, somewhere they could upgrade their skills, and work out, like going to the gym. And, at the same time, we started the Studio Theatre over at 34 Powell. At that point, when that started, Gastown went wild, and suddenly became huge, and I wasn’t all that involved in it anymore, because my energy was directed toward getting the theatre going. And I was having problems with my brother, who came in, and was supposed to be Mr. Moneywise, but he wasn’t. He worked there for two years as the general manager.

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

I mean, he was qualified.  He was a Chartered Accountant, as well as having a B.A., but he’s got — problems. He took a hunk of money, and ran off, and he ended up in Japan. I had a sense that something was going on. I kept saying, I have to know the details of what’s going on here, and he never told me. He would take the money when it came in from the students, and he’d just spend it. He would buy drinks for everybody at the bar. $6000 worth of bedroom furniture. Stuff like that. As far as what was really going on, I don’t think anybody really knows. It was a mess.
And when I finally took a look at what he’d done when the full-time program was initially set up, it was ridiculous. The ratio of students to teachers was, like — we had ten students that first year, and he had ten teachers. We had two or three financial people come in after he left, and they said, “this full-time program is the way to bankruptcy.” Then, one day, the government decided that we weren’t an educational institution anymore, and suddenly we had to pay back all this GST. We were accredited, but we weren’t an educational institution. Go figure. There was all this confusion over whether or not we fit into a specific system, and that’s always been a problem for the arts. I’ve been to court twice now, all the way up to the Supreme Court, and they always seem to like me and think I’m smart, but they never rule in our favour.  Because they don’t understand what we do, and no matter how hard we try to explain what we do, the whole process of creativity isn’t something you can quantify.

Since then, we’ve had to sort of climb out of that hole. But now, nine years later, we’re free and clear, and we’ve got our credit rating back — but it was insane.

What’s coming up?

I’m directing a show called Collected Stories. I got to a point recently where I’d been through a couple of messes, and been involved in some shows that were not an easy process, and I thought, “forget it. I’m not going near any of this ever again.” But then, I got a call from a student, who was looking for a director, and this was something I’d always wanted to work on, so I said, “okay, I’ll do it. But I’m just directing. I don’t want to produce this thing.”

I think it’s a wonderful piece. I think it’s important for people to see, because it’s about mentorship, and, ultimately, everybody’s had a mentor. We’ve all had somebody who wasn’t related to us, and was important in our development. The play is about writers. It’s about a mentorship that becomes a competition, and ultimately culminates in a betrayal. And, when that final scene hits, there are no conclusions drawn. You, the audience, are left to draw them on your own. All the information is there, and it allows us to realize that, sometimes, we have to come to terms with both sides of an issue.

Now, I understand that a great deal of the people currently teaching acting in Vancouver are former students of yours. Can you give us a rundown on who they are, exactly?

Ben Ratner, Michelle Lonsdale-Smith, Kate Twa, Nancy Sivak (very briefly), Linda Boyd, Martin Cummins, John Cassini, Debbie Podowski, Peter Bryant. They’ve all studied with me for various amounts of time.

You’ve also taught or directed a number of Canadian celebrities. Who are they?

Oh, God. Well, the most famous of those is probably Eric McCormack. Then, there’s David James Elliott, who was on JAG. Barry Pepper, Molly Parker, Nia Vardalos, Martin Cummins, Nick Lea, Ian Tracey from Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence, and Jared Keeso, who just finished playing Don Cherry in Keep Your Head Up, Kid.

COLLECTED STORIES runs from April 14-17, and 21-24 at PAL Theatre in Vancouver. Mel Tuck welcomes students and auditors to his class, and can be contacted at 604-681-0709, or by email at melatuck@hotmail.com


Jesse Donaldson is a journalist and historian whose work has appeared in VICE, The Tyee, subTerrain, and SadMag. If you think THIS is neat, an expanded "This Day In Vancouver", is now available in book form, in bookstores everywhere, and online at Anvil Press.

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2 Comments


  1. This was awesome. Thanks. More like this.

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