Unsung Hero: Actor Michael James embraces his leading role
The former Polkaroo’s favourite role to date? Helping underrepresented voices take the mic
BY SAMRA HABIB
Michael James remembers watching seniors weep with joy, after sending their first-ever email to their grandkids in Moscow. It was 2005, and he had volunteered to teach them how to use the Internet in the computer lab at the Bernard Betel Centre, a United Way–funded agency in North Toronto. Many had moved to Canada after the collapse of the Soviet Union and hadn’t seen their families in years. Seeing the thrill it gave them to connect electronically with younger relatives and browse the websites of Moscow museums made James realize it was time for radical change in his own professional life, which no longer inspired him.
James’s first career was as an actor. His most famous gig was as a host and the Polkaroo, on the Polka Dot Door, the much-loved TVOntario children’s TV show that ran from the early ’70s through to the ’90s. After starting a family, he went through multiple switches professionally, from working in the scrap metal business to doing property renovations to making a living in information technology (IT). But after five years in IT, he was craving change and a bigger sense of purpose.
While James had always enjoyed volunteering—he had coached little league sports and led theatre and carpentry workshops in the past—his experience with the seniors at the Bernard Betel Centre was what showed him his calling. Shortly after that, he began helping people he was meeting through volunteering to share their stories at various United Way events. Drawing on his previous career as an actor, he was able to help individuals who’d overcome extraordinary challenges to inspire others through public speaking.
After working with United Way clients on their public speaking skills, James worked with some of the strongest speakers to tell their stories at Songs of the City, a United Way event open to the organization’s donors and supporters. He and his creative partners match those speakers with a well-known singer-songwriter for the event. The speaker shares their story at the podium and then sits down on stage while watching the singer interpret their experiences through a song. One of James’s favourite pairings was the match between iskwē, an Indigenous artist who sings about oppression and colonialism, and a speaker who had fled Zimbabwe just two years prior and was longing to reunite with her children. “It was magical,” says James.
We sat down with the multi-hyphenated volunteer to discover what inspires him to use his talent for good.
Why do you volunteer?
Because I can. I’m retired. My rent is taken care of. I don’t need to define my self-worth by my bank account or my holidays or my car. I need to define the worth of my life by what I can give.
Can you tell us about your career in the arts and how that helped you land where you are today?
My first career was in the performing arts. I did Young People’s Theatre, Shaw Festival and regional theatres across Canada. People ask me, “Have you worked on anything we might have heard of?” and I say, “Yeah, the Polka Dot Door!” I was Polkaroo for a week. I did a lot of work for TVO as an actor. But I left the business in the ’80s because I was living out of a suitcase, and I had married, and the first of our three sons was on his way.
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Why did you decide to focus on public speaking training for United Way clients?
When the public speaking [opportunities] opened up for United Way and I was helping clients from the computer lab share their stories, I said to United Way, “Let’s build some workshops to train these people on public speaking.” Like: “You have a story to tell, we’re going to help you tell it safely with passion, integrity and honesty.”
I felt that more than anything, they needed a safe place to practice. It took a couple of days to create the workshop concept and content. And they became successful. It’s unbelievably rewarding. Donors can see exactly how they have helped make an impact.
How has the experience been for you?
It has been the most wonderful thing I’ve ever experienced. I get to mentor speakers, help create great speeches and give people safety—that’s huge. I get to sit down with them and get them to a place of safety and say, “You can do this, you have permission to do this, you’re a storyteller. And here’s the emotional place we can provide you to be able to tell that story.”
What is the process like, preparing people to tell their stories in public?
Although it can be therapeutic, it’s not therapy. The mentoring and coaching involves giving them a safe space and telling them, “You can do this—it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a mirror or in front of 3,000 people at the Sony Centre; you’re allowed and you have the strength to do it.” It’s profoundly emotional. And when the audience goes “ahhh!”—that’s heaven on a stick.
Why do you think performance is a good way to help bring underrepresented voices forward?
There’s a myriad of other ways to help marginalized people, but I’m not a professional at any of them. What I can offer is escorting them to a podium, metaphorically, and sometimes literally, where they can share their story. What I bring to them is my chops as a performer. I get it. I know what it’s like to be up there. I know what it’s like to stand up in front of a bunch of people and tell a story.
Why does storytelling matter? Every one of us has had a moment in our lives of profound need. And for the most part, we want to share that. To support people in standing in front of a large group, so they can say, “This is my truth and my story and I own it,” is huge to me. And I am the luckiest man in the world that this fell into my lap.
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