I was in a fugue state when I received the call from my editors to chat with Thom Allison. If my loyal followers haven’t noticed, I haven’t been very good about keeping up with my articles these past few months. First, I want to change that. I want to write more, and I want to disappoint you less. Second, you can thank Thom Allison for my re-igniting that flame. Thom is one of those people you make time for because no matter how bad your day is going, he will bring a smile to your face. My face hurt after this interview. Half an hour of non-stop smiling.
Thom has a storied career as an entertainer. Stage, screen, singing, etc. Now he graces our screens as Pree in Killjoys, the warlord-turned-bartender that acts as the wise adviser for our protagonists. As you can tell, I got the chance to talk to him. Again, I was suffering from writer’s block and all motivation to write had drained from my system. I’d signed up for college courses for a degree I didn’t really want to do. When I was asked to speak with Thom, something sparked in me, and my passion returned. I changed my degree to what I was meant to do – journalism – and I’ve been taking classes since (all of a week, I know, but it’s the thought that counts).
I guess what I’m trying to say here is thank you, Thom, for that. And thank you to everyone here at TNWU and, more than anything else, thank you to my readers who take the time out of their day to read the opinion of someone who might not see eye-to-eye with you. Thank you for reigniting my passion, crew. Let’s get me silent and let’s get on to the good stuff, shall we?
Thom, I’ll start this by injecting some nostalgia into our conversation here. Your entire career is absolutely one amazing performance after another. Priscilla, ragtime, your stage plays, your cabarets, and now you’re gracing our screens as Pree.
“Wild, eh? It’s crazy to me too.”
You’re even directing and coaching from what I understand.
“Yeah, I’ve been coaching for a few years now, doing some teaching, and now—people don’t really know that I’ve directed before. Not in big productions, but I’ve sort of done things since I was in theater school. I directed a show because it was always kind of a tandem interest of mine. And then I was really lucky when my career took off after I left. And I worked. That was it; I was working as an actor.
So I haven’t had the chance to get back to it. I started coaching. I coached friends for years. I love working as an actor. I always have. I love how they think. I love the experience of working through text. I love text work and making it all make sense. You have ideas, and they have ideas, and you get up on your feet and magic happens. I love that experience. I’ve just been having an itch to open other doors. People would always say, ‘What if you weren’t working as an actor?’ Well, I don’t know how to do anything else. It was kind of a joke, but I realized, ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.’
I suddenly started thinking in the last couple of years ‘What else can I do?’ It’s such a big world of things to experience, and I’ve had a great career. But I’m not tired of it—that sounds far too grand—but I know what this world is now. I get the world of acting. I love it. But it takes on, dare I say, an ordinary quality after a while. You want something challenging. I thought ‘I want something else to make my mind think differently.’
I talked to Allen MacInnis, who’s the artistic director of Young People’s Theater in Toronto. He’s an old friend and a director I’ve worked with for many years from Winnipeg. And I said ‘I’d love to assist you with something sometime.’ He was doing a show in London, Ontario, at the Grand Theater. It’s a review he created of Joni Mitchell’s music, and I actually starred in it in Winnipeg when he debuted it in 2001. He said, ‘I’m about to do the show again. Why don’t you come and watch it from the other side and be a part of that and be the assistant director.’ So I said yes.
Then a few weeks later he needed a director for Seussical, the Christmas show and of course I said yes. So far, I’ve loved every second of assisting him and having that artistic control. You’re in charge of your own vision.
Seussical. You touched on it, so I’m going to skip straight down to it. Sadly, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t had the privilege, I haven’t had the chance, but YouTube is a beautiful thing. Now you get this chance. How do you decide which—again, you’ve got such a variety of performance options under your belt here—how do you decide which ones you want to follow at any given moment?
“Funny you ask that. I had something really solidify for me at the end of 2013. I had an experience—I think everyone has them, but not everyone knows how to listen to it, and I’m very much about listening to the messages from the universe. Not in an Oogie-boogie kind of way. (laughs). We have instincts. When something’s not a good idea it gets a little tight—and I didn’t always listen to it—and when it goes right a light opens inside and everything feels loose and open and free like it’s a big internal ‘Yes!’ And I haven’t always listened to it, and whenever I haven’t I have not had a good time.
From then on, even if it sounds like a crazy project, if I get that little ‘yes, open, light, yes,’ then I say yes. Period. Now, if there’s a tightening I just go ‘No,’ no matter how good it sounds. The show has to interest me, period, but it’s also about who is involved. But I never worry about ‘Will I have money?’ because if you do that it makes your world small.
You want to feel fulfilled at the end of a job.
“Exactly! It’s just too painful. What we do for a living, as an artist, it’s just too bare and too vulnerable to work with people who are mean or small or ungenerous. Or something just not right inside. You don’t feel like you’re honored or respected for your work. What are you doing here? It’s just too hard and not joyful. It’s the lava pit.”
Like you said, you get that tight feeling on the inside that just tells you “You know what? No, I don’t want to do it.”
“People know. They often don’t listen. And when you don’t listen you’re like ‘Oh, I’m so mad at myself,’ and you have no one to blame. I can’t be upset at anyone but me because I said yes and I knew. So I’m not willing to actually be mad at myself. And I’m known—as far as I know, I believe—for my reputation as being really great in the room and I have a really good time on the show. I don’t like creating a room that’s—I just want to bring an energy in that’s positive. Let’s all have a good time. We’re in this together. Let’s have fun. Even if it’s a dark show, let’s have a good time doing it.”
That’s what it’s about. You have to have the fun moments, the positive moments, to carry you on through life. It’s wonderful when you have that, and one negative moment—I have those moments from time to time—you have a negative moment, and you have to sit back, and you have to think “You know what? Why let one person ruin my day when there’re all these other wonderful memories you’re making, experiences you’re having.”
“You got it! I would say take that breath. Walk away, take a breath, and go ‘This is gonna pass, whatever this is.’ Or if I can fix it, fix it. There’s always a way. Life is too short.”
Absolutely. This is one of the reasons I have so much respect for you. Reading your blog, talking to you now. At the beginning of the year, like you were saying earlier, you said you wanted to see what else you had in you, you thought you hadn’t reached your potential, and being able to do things like this and taking that self-introspection there gives you opportunities to grow as an individual. What are some of the things that you feel have helped you grow as an entertainer or, better yet, as a person?
“Good question! I came up at a time in the business when there were some giants of Canadian theater that were working but also people around me gave great advice: Watch the people who have come before who are great at what they do. Really watch them. What are they doing? Why do they do what they do? What are the choices they’re making? How do they treat people around them? And I really watched that, and as time has gone on with the different generations what I’m noticing is there seems to be this forgotten art of learning how to learn. And that’s when I realized it’s all shifted. In the rehearsal hall people are on their phones or reading magazines, and they’re in something else as opposed to—this is your master class. Watching people.
You ask questions! So many actors would love to share that with the young actors. ‘Can I talk to you about your process?’ ‘Oh my God, of course! Sit down! Let’s have lunch or something!’ And I see a lack of that,’
Still, to this day when I’m in shows, I want to go to rehearsals when I’m not called for and watch the people who have more experience than me. I’m in awe. We’re never done. It’s not like ‘I’ve been to theater school. Now I know things.’ You’ve just begun. Now you know how to start looking at things. Watch and pay attention. Keep growing. If you don’t keep growing, you’re sort of dead.
I read this great book by a director Anne Bogart called A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. I think anyone with an artistic bone in their body should read this book. One of the things she talks about is ‘embarrassment.’ And I think it’s genius. She talks about our instinct as people is to run away from being embarrassed because it’s a negative connotation and feels like there’s shame attached to it. She’s saying that anyone creative, anyone—journalist, actor, pottery maker—we have to actually run towards embarrassment. We have to embrace embarrassment because that means that we have to want to be embarrassed. It means that we made a choice that might not work.
But if we don’t make the choices that don’t work we never find the option that does work. Isn’t that amazing? I have learned to embrace my embarrassment. To use it as a tool.
Alright, Thom, in closing, with my final question, I want to talk about “Shut Up, It’s Christmas” because it’s coming up soon and it’s following “Seussical” if I remember right, but you’re bringing it back, and it just brings an instant smile to my face. What else can you tell us about it?
That’s the idea! So it’s about Mrs. Claus. Lola—Lola Kringle—she came out of the idea that I had based on A Charlie Brown Christmas. You wouldn’t necessarily see it, but allow me to explain. I wanted to create something that was joyful, fun, but with a kind of melancholy quality to the whole thing. In the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown had some things to say about life which is a bit bittersweet but also had that hopeful message and still gives you that warm fuzzy feeling.
I’m not sure how it led to Lola—but it ended up being Lola, which was this idea that I sort of wanted to make a show that was about Christmas but also about life. So the challenge was I couldn’t use any Christmas songs, but Lola, Mrs. Claus, was going to be that Christmas link. She’s grown and gotten bigger, and I just love her. I love how audiences react to her.
It starts off as a campy thing, but it’s not a drag show. I’m playing a character. I’m playing a person. By the end, people are like, ‘I love her! I love you so much! I love you as Lola because I love her so much.’ They get to know her as a human being because she starts off pretty funny, but she gets complicated. She fights to get her husband; she had to actually leave a man for him.
It’s a real woman’s life, but it’s told through this comic crazy Christmas land all condensed into fifty minutes…and it’s Mrs. Claus.
The first time I did it people were like ‘I love the Lola section! You have to do Lola again.’ ‘Are you bringing back Lola next year?!’ It’s wild, and I’m excited to bring her back once again for people to enjoy!