Tony James outside the Royal Theatre. Lia Crowe photography

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

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

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.”

Arts and EntertainmentBoulevard MagazineEsquimaltTheater

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Residents and supporters of Tofino’s Crab Apple Campground gathered at the Village Green on April 13 to draw attention to their concerns over losing their homes. The campground’s temporary use permit, which allows it to offer sites to Tofino residents, expires in October. The town’s council rejected an application that same day that would have permitted the campground to operate as a tourist commercial accommodation. (Andrew Bailey photo)
Crab Apple residents fear losing their homes as campground’s permit running out in Tofino

Council rejects application to allow campground to operate as tourist accommodation.

The entrance to the Lodge Property on Reef Point Road in Ucluelet. (Nora O’Malley photo)
The entrance to the Lodge Property on Reef Point Road in Ucluelet. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet council approves the Lodge Property application

The decision changes the land use designation from Residential to Tourist Commercial

Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo) plays the drum while singing the Nuu-chah-nulth song on the court steps in Vancouver In a picture from April 2018. Photo credit, Melody Charlie.
Five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations celebrate legal victory in fishing dispute

Ha’oom Fisheries Society and T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries announce “major legal victory”

Polystyrene has been outlawed as a take-out option for restaurants in Tofino and Ucluelet. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tofino and Ucluelet ban polystyrene take-out containers

Surfrider Pacific Rim chapter manager Lilly Woodbury touted the new ban as “definitely terrific news”

A lone traveler enters the Calgary Airport in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
VIDEO: Trudeau defends Canada’s travel restrictions as effective but open to doing more

Trudeau said quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson leaves the assembly with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Paid sick leave for ‘hard-hit’ workers left out of provincial budget: BCGEU

‘For recovery to be equitable it requires supports for workers, not just business,’ says union president Laird Cronk

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

A total of 10 flight exposures have affected the Victoria International Airport in April so far, making it the highest monthly total since the start of the pandemic. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria hits record-breaking number of monthly COVID-19 flight exposures

As of April 21, 10 flight exposures reported for the month

Former University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Rowing Canada sanctions former head coach of B.C. varsity women’s team

Suspension of Barney Williams would be reversed if he complies with certain terms

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Most Read