Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser
By Perry Tannenbaum
When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.
Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.
It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.
The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.
Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.
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Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?
Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.
Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?
Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.
But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.
Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?
Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.
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QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?
Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.
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QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?
Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.
Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?
Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).
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QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?
Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.
In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?
Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.
How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?
Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.
Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.
Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte