What an extremely humble, grateful, and appreciative man is artist Alexander Thomas.
Just before lockdown, I had the chance to see his Dora Award winning performance in Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre’s outstanding and terrific production of Stephen Guirguis’ ‘Between Riverside and Crazy.’
Absolutely magnificent production all round. I was hooked right from the beginning of the production and didn’t want to make any notes in my book as I did not want to miss a thing.
Alex and I held an engaging online conversation, and I learned a great deal about him through his honesty and candour about where his career has taken him. He began his career later in life, but he has performed in world renowned cities such as Berlin, London, and New York Off Broadway. I was fascinated by some of the stories he was telling me where his life has taken him.
Through it all, Alex remains grounded and rooted in his belief that one can do anything if you set your mind and heart to it with hard work and dedication. And he won a Dora Theatre award as well for his work which is one of the highest honours in the Toronto professional live theatre scene. I hope and want to see more of his work onstage as Alex’s story and voice deserve to be heard.
His personal website, which I’ve included at the end of this profile, indicates he has performed in some good theatre both when he lived here in Toronto, in New York where he lives, and across the Atlantic Ocean to some noteworthy productions overseas. Thomas received his training at the Stella Adler Studio in New York City and the Meisner Technique with Richard Pinter (former head of the Neighbourhood Playhouse) He studied Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.
We conducted our conversation both through Zoom and email. Thank you so much for adding your voice to the conversation, Alex:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
That’s an interesting question for me on a personal level.
It kind of highlights, as a black man, what at times feels like living in a parallel universe in relation to the white friends (and family) in my life.
I’ll try to explain that feeling: My father (who died when I was eight) carried deep trauma and bitterness for events that happened to him in the 1920s growing up in Alabama. I won’t go into that although some of it is documented in my solo play ‘Throw Pitchfork’. Giving my age away, in 1960 at six years old, my mother took us kids on a Grey Hound Bus trip from Albany, New York (where I was born) to down south (where she was born). At a stop in Georgia, I had to go pee and slipped by my mother, as kids can do. I went straight into the Whites only restroom.
My mother probably had explained to us not to do that but, you know, I was six years old.
My mother was petrified.
Even at that age the tension was visceral and then my mother’s fear which came out in anger scolding me, which she had to display to the satisfaction of the white folks watching that she was taking care of her bad little boy and none of them had to. When I think of the mind set of my mom, it was only five years earlier that Emmet Till had been murdered for innocently up setting white folks in the south. Then I was taken around back and shown the “Colored only” doors I was supposed to use while down there. Other restroom doors on the trip were more explicit “N word only.”
All that is to say this was a pretty “harsh reality” for a six-year-old. Lesson learned, lesson internalized, so (on a personal level) the idea that the rose-colored glass of life has suddenly been replaced by this “harsh reality” because of Covid doesn’t register with me.
The pandemic is not some new high level of harshness or trauma to adjust to in my psyche. To be honest, I’ve pretty much flowed with it a day at a time. Like an “I’m just watching the world go by” kind of thing. The same can be said of all the perceived eye-opening events that happened in America during the early part of lock down around race. Those back-to-back incidents credited with opening everybody’s eyes. But, for many of us, that is the reality we knew already. The one you push aside (deep inside) in order to co-exist in the parallel universe without being labelled hyper-sensitive or as over-reacting, or simply not believed.
More people believe you now and I can see how, for them, that’s a new reality.
Don’t get me wrong, the pandemic and quarantine have been bizarre and surreal and a bit of an existential swamp to live through. At one point my city ran out of morgue space it was doing so poorly. There is a whole physical life to adjust too; Having to wait in a line to buy food, not being able to go out to a restaurant or to a movie theatre, not hugging family and friends but that’s almost kind of a privileged harshness to deal with, if that makes sense.
With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?
I’ve enjoyed the Zoom projects, podcasts, online readings/workshops I’ve gotten to do this year and found them artistically satisfying for the most part. (I think workshop readings of plays online may stay forever – you can work with actors all over the world).
Theatre is live, in person, but the bottom line is the need to tell stories or create an experience to express an idea. You can’t work with something if you don’t respect it. The pandemic forced us to build our respect for these other mediums.
Obviously, there were artists who already had that respect, but at the beginning a lot of creators were almost righteously against it, some still are: “this is not theater” “I am never going online.” We like the idea of seeing ourselves as being pure somehow and in order to be pure something else has to not be.
But, as the reality sunk in, people became, shall we say, sweetly reasonable. Like, hey, you’re not going to create or present anything this season at all if you don’t embrace this. It was like a bittersweet surrender and acceptance, and the need to create and tell stories was allowed to run wild again without judgement of the format, whether it was using the technology or forced to come up with ways of being in person like Talk Is Free Theater performances in bubbles.
Is the definition of theater changing? I don’t know. I don’t really think so, but what theaters program might. People like to point out that watching a stream of a play performance in real time (not a recording) is not the same as being there.
No, it’s definitely not, but it’s still pretty cool. And it’s kind of less elite when you look at how many people can see it.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
Feeling the focus and energy from the room whether an audience or your fellow artist when rehearsing or performing. The spontaneous responses: laughter, silences, gasp of identification, even the yawns, the intuitive ebb and flow of attention. It’s an instinctual Geiger counter for how things are going. That can’t really be recreated.
I also miss the Meet and Greets, table reads, first full awkward run throughs, long tech days. Having lunch break with your cast mates or getting completely away from you cast mates on break. (Alex says with a good laugh).
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
I think a lot of people probably answer that question with, that they won’t take for granted they will always work again.
My path has been very slow and sporadic with many stops and starts, including a number of inactive years where I thought maybe this was all a dream deferred. It probably would have made sense for me to just completely give up if I’d had any sense (with another laugh).
So, I’m used to huge gaps of time in between, never take it for granted I’m going to work again and am always grateful for any opportunity to work.
I know that might sound like some kind of false humility, but it’s true. I see a lot of plays each year and had to cancel a number of tickets and plans I had lined up. I will relish seeing plays again and won’t take it for granted.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
I am very excited and encouraged by the number of artistic director and curator appointments I’ve seen for women and POC over this past year in America and Canada and hope this continues.
This will be the first season for many and I’m rooting for every one of them.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
What I must accomplish?
I don’t know if I must do anything.
I’m not sure I’ve approached life that way. Damn, I guess that sounds like I’ve got no drive or ambition, is that bad?
I want to keep growing as a person and continue to practice how to allow that to inform my art. I want to work more consistently. And build more and stronger artistic relationships.
It’s tricky for me because we move around a lot.
One of the things I learned and loved about the Toronto theatre community (I lived there for five years) was the power of supporting each other. They’re really good at that. I mean, hell, I was a stranger, essentially an interloping outsider welcomed and supported and ended up winning a Dora Award.
Amazing and unpredictable.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.
Know how I feel about that?
A big event happened, it shook up the world, and people are gonna talk about that. They’ll talk about till they don’t have too.
It won’t be the first subject that has been written to death. Some people will get sick of them, some won’t. In the end they’ll be judged the same way everything is, by its own creativity.
Reviewers, if they are fair and don’t have their heads up their butt, will say “this Covid play stands out in the glut of Covid plays because of” whatever: “because it’s really about relationships” “it really explores the human spirit” or something, whatever.
Others will be awful, then that trend will die out.
You ain’t gonna stop it.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
I hope I can be a part of fostering more understanding and closing the gap between the parallel universes we sometimes live in.
To learn more about Alexander, visit his personal website: www.alexthomasactor.com.