Pat Thom

Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.

Pat Thom

The stage has always been special for longtime director Pat Thom, who is celebrating her 52nd year in local theater.

A Janesville native, Thom got involved in theater as Parker High School student. Her passion for the stage followed her for two years as a student at UW-Rock County and as she went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in speech/communication arts at UW-Whitewater. Thom’s allegiance temporarily switched to radio as a staff member at UW-W’s WSUW-FM, where she hosted several shows and eventually became the station’s first female program director.

After graduating from UW-W, Thom attended the University of Massachussetts, where she obtained a master’s degree in communication arts. She took a break from the stage and went “theater-free” until returning to Janesville in 1976, where she went on to become a teacher at both UW-Rock County and Blackhawk Technical College, earning several teacher of the year awards. In 2015, Thom was inducted into the United Arts Alliance Hall of Fame.

When not behind the curtain, Thom gets her hands dirty tending to her garden “pets” that include a hosta named Henry; her favorite clematis, Winny, and a “troublesome climbing rose” she calls Rascal.

For more about Stage One Inc., visit StageOneWI.org.

1. What initiated your love for theater? There was no initial love for theater; I was encouraged to participate because I was shy when I was young. My brother had been in theater in school, and my mother thought it would help me to engage with others more easily. At first, I was scared to death, but I learned I could use a theater character to pretend to be someone different than the real me. It became an opportunity to try out new personalities, and that was not only fun, it was liberating. I was hooked.

2. Have you always been more interested in directing or was there a time you enjoyed acting? While acting was fun to “play at,” memorizing lines and opening up to an audience of strangers was hard for me. But you can’t just BE a director. You need theater experience, so I’ve done my share of acting along with lots of backstage work. However, I’ve always known my talent is in understanding a script, being able to visualize the big picture and teaching others how to make their best impression while performing my vision of the play.

3. Who have been your role models? First and foremost is my mother, Doris Thom. She was a very strong woman who didn’t let others tell her “no.” She was a local feminist who was the first woman to work on the line at the GM plant in Janesville. She inspired many people, and I admired, learned from and emulated her “can do” attitude throughout my life. Then, Gary Lenox expanded my theater world. He was the founder of Stage One and produced all shows and projects for the first 10 years. He taught me the business of theater and all that it takes to put on a show. Finally, Kirk Denmark was my directing mentor. When I met him, he was retired from Beloit College. He had directed professional theater all over the U.S., and he took a liking to Stage One. He taught me what directors do. I served as assistant director to him on several shows, including his final play when he died two days after opening weekend. He literally gave his life to theater, and I honor his memory with every show I direct.

4. What is it about theater that keeps you involved after all these years? I’ve worked in theater for 52 years, and it is the storytelling that keeps me involved. Stories give us the opportunity to vicariously experience different emotions without the messy consequences. Of course, you can get these stories from books, film and TV, but nothing is as immediate and real as feeling these emotions in a darkened theater with live actors telling the story and real people sitting next to you experiencing similar emotions.

5. As a former senior lecturer in the communication and theater arts program at UW-Rock County, what are some of the things you’ve learned from students? I’ve taught thousands of students, and they have confirmed a number of important truths. My public speaking students proved through perseverance and positive thinking, anyone can overcome long-held fears. My film students taught me anyone can think critically when they need to. And all of my students taught me that the next generation brings energy, intelligence and optimism to our world. They are our hope for the future, and our future will be bright if we let them try.

6. You are a founding member of Stage One in Janesville. How did that come about? Stage One began in 1982. Several of us from Janesville Little Theatre broke away to attempt more meaty, cutting-edge plays than what they were producing at the time. Our goal was to produce plays that not only entertain but also make people think and perhaps push them to experience life in new ways. We tackled a mix of award-winning, experimental and unconventional plays. We were a resident company at UW-Rock County and were very successful for about 15 years. But it was a lot of work, and eventually many of us burned out. We stopped producing shows around 1997. Then in 2011, several of us reinvented the company. Our goals are the same as they were originally, but we now have a new generation of actors and artists who are again inspired by this approach.

7. What is your opinion of the trend of turning successful stage plays into big screen productions? I have no objection to this as long as the audience doesn’t expect them to be the same. Just like reading a book is never the same as seeing the film, the same goes for a play. A play is a much more “in-your-face” experience, while watching a movie you are physically removed and far less emotionally involved. They are two different interpretations of the same material, but they are not alike.

8. Name a skill you wish you had. I’d love to have the ultimate power of persuasion so I could convince everyone to agree with me about everything. OK, just joking. But my real answer is, “None.” If I want a skill badly enough, I’ll learn it. If not, then I guess I don’t really need it after all, do I?

9. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. In 1970, at the Sound Storm rock festival in Poynette, I partied backstage with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. I was quite a hippie in my younger days.

10. What person in history would you most like to meet? I love a good story, so the best American storyteller I can think of is Mark Twain. I admire his sarcastic wit, his compassion, his common sense and his ability to effortlessly engage his audience and speak to them in an informal, colloquial manner. He was the ol’ man next door just shootin’ the breeze about a funny character or situation. But, by the end of his entertaining tale, he had made a salient, memorable and hilarious point. I’d love to hear him cut loose about today’s politicians, technology or what we are doing to our world.

11. Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? I’m an introvert because I prefer to deal with people in small groups or one-on-one. I guess I try to adapt to individual situations and people, and I can’t do that as well in large groups. However, I’ve surely grown from my early days of shyness, and I am no longer intimidated by anyone or any situation.

12. Who is your favorite Muppet? Jim Henson. I don’t mean to be cheeky, but I am drawn to the creative genius behind the characters rather than the characters themselves. Isn’t that what you’d expect a director to say?

13. Have you ever met anyone famous? About 20 years ago, I ran into film critic Roger Ebert at the British Museum in London. Since I had taught film for many years, he was a hero to me, and I was very excited. We were the only people in the room. I recognized him immediately and took a step toward him. Then I observed his facial and body expressions. I could see he dreaded another “fan” encounter but was graciously preparing himself to deal with it. I stopped, smiled, nodded and shrugged. He looked so relieved, sighed, gave me a thumbs up and a wink. Not a word was spoken, and the whole encounter probably lasted 15 seconds total. But I felt like I had made a real connection with him. We understood and respected one another, and isn’t that what we all strive for in conversation?

14. What is the single most difficult aspect to directing a theater production? To me, casting is the hardest step. Some people are just right for a role, while others are not. This can be based on appearance, voice, attitude or experience. That varies, but I usually know it when I see it. However, there are times when the right person doesn’t audition. Then you take a leap of faith and hope that through direction and rehearsal you can mold the actor to fit the part. Of course, I am always eager to work with whomever I choose for a part, but if the cast is right, the rest of the production flows so much more smoothly.

15. In one word, describe the theater scene in Janesville: Complimentary

16. Certain plays seem to be produced on a regular basis. What little-known play would you like to direct if given the chance? Last fall, I saw the world premier of “Witch” by Jen Silverman, a fabulous new play at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. It is a smart, modern fable inspired by a 1621 play about the witch craze of the time. The play keeps its period setting but employs modern language and attitudes. The devil is portrayed as a salesman peddling wish fulfillment in exchange for souls. But the men of the village fear the devil less than they do the local outcast, a falsely accused witch who is blamed for all the town’s troubles. While the men are easy prey for the devil’s sales pitch, the woman stands her ground and this, in turn, only further intrigues the devil. I loved this play because it was contemporary yet timeless, sharp and witty yet relevant, and smart yet entertaining. I would love to direct this show.

17. Explain what “blocking” is? One of the most important tasks of directing, blocking involves directing the actors on how to move. You tell them where to enter, where to exit, when they should move from one place/character to another, when to sit or stand, and what physical movements they should use during the play. The script explains some of this, but not much. Some directors believe in “organic blocking,” meaning the actor does whatever feels natural or right as he or she plays the scene. That is not my style. I choreograph all movements of the actors in the play because movement can convey as much meaning as dialogue. I see the stage as a chessboard, and I want to checkmate my audience. Everything needs to be precisely planned out.

18. Why is community theater important to a city’s social and cultural fabric? For two reasons. First, it serves as a creative outlet for community members. Community theater is a great social scene where people can meet and interact with all types of people in the city. Whether you are an actor or work backstage, you not only meet new people but you get to work together on a project. It promotes wonderful team-building skills. But there is also a secondary benefit. Attending live theater makes for more empathetic citizens. It gives people a chance to live through a variety of experiences they would probably not otherwise encounter and to do it in a live setting.

19. Aside from yelling “cut,” what is the job of the director on a local theater production? Sorry, but it’s only a film director that gets to say, “Cut.” But, overall, our jobs are the same. A director takes a script and creates the artistic vision of the final product. When I read a script, I literally see it playing out in my mind’s eye. The director’s job is to see that all the details mesh together to turn that artistic vision into reality. Directing a good production gives me a high like no other.

20. When it comes to theater, what is more important: talent or passion? I believe, in any endeavor, passion is more important than talent. Talent can often be learned, while passion can’t. Of course, when they are equally combined, genius ensues.