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Jacob James: The Man Behind Billy Bishop

October 16, 2012

Jacob James, appearing as Billy Bishop in Billy Bishop Goes to War

Jacob James is in his second tour of duty with Billy Bishop Goes to War, having first climbed into the cockpit at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Ontario. The Globe Theatre presentation is a singular experience nonetheless, for several reasons.

First, there is the obvious fact that we’re talking stage, not screen. No matter where a show is done, or how many times, no two performances are identical. Second, this production is in the hands of Max Reimer, whom James describes unabashedly as “the best director I have ever worked with.” Third, this is theatre-in-the-round, which means “you also have to be able to act with your back.”

For the actor who can handle it, theatre-in-the-round offers the reward of intimacy. “Intimacy and eye contact,” James says. I’m still getting used to that, to be honest with you. But I love it!”

As for collaborating with Reimer, what seems to have impressed him most is the “sensible” approach Reimer has taken to this John Gray-Eric Peterson musical. “We have pulled things out of the play,” James says, “but we haven’t put anything in.”

James is quick to point out that, having performed the role once, he has a better understanding of it. He has been an admirer of this play since he saw it staged at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, shortly before he performed it in Gananoque.

He was moved by the story and the history, both, and considers it an honour to have been offered the role not once but twice. It fascinates him still, this notion of “how a punk from Owen Sound becomes a fighter pilot and a war hero.”

James admits to also having “panicked a little bit” when he first read the script. Understandably so. Two hundred pages. Twenty characters. Females as well as males. Accents. Poetry and prose. Song and dance. A running time of approximately two hours. “It feels like a big play,” he says, and as understatements go, that comment ranks right up there with Noah’s “It looks like rain.”

Big play, indeed. Fortunately, James’s resume includes not only four seasons at the Thousand Islands Playhouse but also seven at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

In this, his second recreation of Billy Bishop, now with Zachary Flis as the Piano Player, James continues to marvel at “just how much England needed Canada” in the First World War, and he is all the more determined that Canadians not undervalue our heroes, despite a “national personality” that makes this concept difficult to accept.

Most of all, perhaps, what endears him to the play is that “it brings history to life in a human and vulnerable way. Empathy,” he says, “is the reason I do theatre in the first place.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Globe Theatre website at

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at

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