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Meet Nathan Howe: Globe Theatre’s Toto

December 10, 2012

Nathan Howe - Headshot

I wish I’d been there to see it.

“Are you a pointing dog?” Joey Tremblay asked Nathan Howe.

“Yes, I am,” Howe replied.

It was one of those light bulb moments in rehearsal, and just like that, director and actor, thinking the same thing at the same time, created the bit of body language that captures Tremblay’s playful approach to Globe Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz and will be remembered warmly as Howe’s signature move in his performance as Toto.

The “point,” for lack of a better term, catches you by surprise the first time, delights you with its simplicity and effectiveness, and leaves you watching for it for the remainder of the show.

Indeed, when Howe is on the stage, clutching his hand-held puppet, manipulating it and providing the complementary moves, it is very difficult to take your eyes off him no matter what else is going on, and in this musical there is plenty going on, from start to finish.

Toto remains in the peripheral vision, at the very least, and to Howe’s credit, he strikes a balance between maintaining a constant presence and doing something excessive, impulsively, that might draw attention away from the focus and perhaps lead to fisticuffs in the Green Room, as upstaging has been known to do. “Why you mangy scene-stealing mutt, you!” Or something along those lines.

You would think Nathan Howe has been doing this sort of thing all his life. The fact is, he’s only 23 (in human years) and The Wizard of Oz is his debut at the Globe. For all intents and purposes, it is the launch of his professional career.

Howe is a recent graduate of the Globe Conservatory, the program that allows Saskatchewan performing artists to get top-notch training without leaving the province, at the hands of skilled instructors from across Canada.

Howe did a general audition for Tremblay, the usual song-and-monologue, and if he was startled later on to learn he had landed the role of the dog in The Wizard of Oz, well, he couldn’t afford to stay startled for long. There was work to be done.

Growing a beard was merely the first step.

Howe then prepared his animal characterization by studying dogs on YouTube. Apparently, there is no shortage of videos. He closely observed big dogs, little dogs, old dogs, young dogs. He paid more strict attention to the family pet in Saskatoon, and later the dog that rules the household of the billet where he is staying in Regina.

He also acquired a new awareness of (and appreciation for) his own skeletal system and the muscles in his body.

When the actual rehearsals began, Howe and choreographer Dayna Tekatch started from scratch, so to speak. Howe had never played the role of dog, and Tekatch had never done choreographed for one. It was strictly trial and error.

The process did not end when the rehearsals did. It carried on through the previews and well into the run. Toto continues to evolve, and Howe’s performance from one show to the next can change slightly depending on any number of factors, including how many children are seated in the front rows. You play to your audience.

The feedback has been good, not only in reviews, but also when received directly in exchanges with folks who know a canine when they see one. “I can tell after the show who the dog people are,” Howe says. (This production, incidentally, will please all people. Dog people, witch people, cowardly lion people, tin man people, scarecrow people, munchkin people…. Everyone goes to the theatre for a different reason, after all.)

The compliment most cherished is this one: “You remind me of my puppy.” Can praise possibly come any higher than that? No, of course not.

It might seem like it some days, but Nathan Howe hasn’t always been a dog. He was born and raised a human in Saskatoon in a family of teachers with an uncle who did dinner theatre in the town of Colonsay, maybe half an hour’s drive down the Yellowhead Highway.

As a teenager in high school, Howe played in a rock band, an opening act at local clubs, to get people up and dancing. More significantly, he came under the influence of one Tom Ratzlaff, a teacher with connections to the Saskatoon Fringe.

Later, at the University of Saskatchewan, Howe studied the sciences, with a concentration in biology. That was the plan initially, at any rate. Theatre was nothing more than one innocent little elective, at first. Then it was two electives, and three, and four, and … well, you get the picture. Howe changed his major and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

Today, Howe has his own company, Bzzt! Trap Door Theatre, and his heart is very much in the fringe genre. This summer he’ll be appearing in Ottawa, Edmonton, and Vancouver, possibly Winnipeg and Calgary, as well. You can catch him at the Globe again in March as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and in the meantime, if you’re interested in learning how to get a leg up in show business, you could do worse than study his five-biscuit performance as Toto in The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz runs from November 15 – December 30, 2012. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

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

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