Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography

Producer Tony James Created Legend Concert Series

Vancouver Island native has had a lifelong love of the theatre arts

  • Jan. 2, 2019 3:30 p.m.

Story by Angela Cowan Photographs by Lia Crowe

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Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

Performing artist, executive producer, publicist, director, fundraiser, writer. Tony James has worn a lot of hats in his nearly lifelong career in the arts, having jumped into performing as a child, and he’s never looked back.

“When I was very little, I was an attention seeker. I was the class clown,” he says with a wry smile. “I remember a teacher telling me, ‘you need to tap into your talents.’”

And so he dabbled with choir, took part in the small shows available through his school, and quickly decided he much preferred the applause to the odd laugh in the classroom followed by the inevitable detention.

It’s a little hard to imagine the serious, focussed man sitting before me as a rambunctious youngster, but the stage presence that simmers below the surface is impossible to deny.

Those first forays into performing led Tony to being involved in more than 50 projects before he moved into television and film as a teenager. And it was in his teens that he says he began taking the arts seriously in a way he hadn’t previously.

In high school, he was encouraged by a friend to audition for the lead role of Danny Zuko in a production of Grease, and to his surprise, he got it.

“I never took it seriously until then,” he says.

That experience started a chain reaction. At 15, he began working as a director and producer, and by 19 had received an award of distinction for services in contribution to the arts.

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

It was also at 19 that fate brought another life-altering event: the birth of his daughter.

Already quietly passionate about his love of the arts, Tony’s demeanour takes on an intensity as he talks about her arrival in his life.

“It grounded me. She became the centre of my universe,” he says. “Everything I’ve done is for her.”

And suddenly, his intensity and drive make perfect sense.

Parenthood brought life and all its priorities into sharp perspective. Already passionate and hard-working, Tony became driven. That same year, he opened a privately held production company named in honour of his daughter, Ocean. (That production company is still running, merged into a partnership in 2017 and renamed Renée James Productions.)

He then spent the next 20-some years travelling North America, producing shows, writing and generally working at a breakneck pace. Every so often he’d come back home to Victoria — he was born and raised in Esquimalt — to centre himself and take advantage of the idyllic West Coast.

“It’s important to me to present here and premiere work,” he says. “I like the audiences here. I’m grateful for the people who support me.”

“There’s nothing like the West Coast,” he adds with a smile. “And it’s a good place to write.”

Victoria was where he premiered his critically acclaimed and award-nominated “Legends Concert Series” in the 2000s, celebrating the music of some of the most iconic performers of the 20th century, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Etta James and many more. And in fact, it’s the Legends Series that’s brought him back home for awhile.

Tony is the creative director behind Christmas with Sinatra, that played at the Alix Goolden Hall in mid-December.

“It’s great jazz. Holiday favourites in the style of Sinatra,” says Tony. “It’s not a tribute in the standard sense. [Singer] Dane Warren brings his own style to the music, and he’s great. It’s a celebration of Frank’s music. I wanted something that stepped out of that traditional carol thing.”

It’s sure to be a success, as all the other Legends shows have been, but being the organizing force behind a packed schedule of such shows took a toll on Tony.

About six years ago, he almost left the business. Exhausted, spread thin, bouncing from city to city, he’d lost sight of what made it all worth it. A friend encouraged him to remember why he’d been drawn to the world of the arts in the first place. And so he stepped completely back, took a year off, and experienced the arts purely as a spectator.

In those darkened theatres, watching story and characters unfold in front of him, he rediscovered his love of theatre, of the way a brilliantly put together show can both bring an audience together in a shared experience, and resonate with each individual at the same time.

“It’s much like reading a book,” he says. “You think, I’m going to dive into a different story, a different world. When you’re watching something powerful or funny, it triggers something inside, in your core. Art gives you an outlet.”

Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography photography

The respite allowed his passion for his work to once again flourish, and he’s been writing, producing and directing with fervour since.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says seriously. “I have to keep going. It’s what I’m passionate about.”

The rejuvenation also brought into focus how he can help the next generation of actors and performers as well.

“When you give children or teenagers confidence in the arts, it translates into the rest of their lives,” he says. Working with kids in his studio, encouraging them, directing them, listening to their ideas, “was the first time I realized I’d had an impact. That was very humbling.”

Above all, it made him all the more determined to do everything he could to support them in their own fledgling careers.

“It can take a long time, but sometimes all it takes is that one person to say yes, to show that belief in you,” he says. “No matter what, I want to help people.”

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