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Talking Back #2: Michael Patrick Thornton

Since the incredible kick-off, The Chicago Inclusion Project has continued to explore how we will sustain our efforts and where we can make the largest impact. Fully aware that we don’t have all the answers, we seek out others who may be passionate about our cause, and reach out to those who have experienced our intentions first hand. As a result, we’ve interviewed the actors who were involved in our first reading of The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, performed on June 1, 2015 at Victory Gardens Theatre. MPT had plenty to share! Check it out:

Michael Patrick Thornton (Blick)

This specific casting of “The Time of Your Life”...Did it tell the story, in your opinion?

I was on the inside and, of course, just worrying about MY part. Seriously, though, it sounded fresh and re-freshed.

How did it feel to read the role(s) you were given? Would you have asked to be seen for it?

I don't think I would normally or ever be cast as 'the heavy.' No.

Listening to it or watching it, did anything take you out of the story?

No. I mean sitting next to Barbara Robertson can be wonderfully distracting, but no.

Was working on “The Time of Your Life” different from working on other plays for you? If so, how?

It was a super fast process, faster than I've done in a while. It was also the only time I was the only white male in a cast (besides solo pieces, obviously) so that was wild and great.

In your opinion, what is the state of representation on Chicago stages right now?

Dismal but brightening.

What are triumphs we’ve seen? Who has been doing it right?

I think what Emjoy [TCIP Founder] is doing is a triumph. I think Chay [Artistic Director at Victory Gardens] has been bold programmatically as has The Goodman.

What are challenges we still face as a community?

We seem to only be a community at our strongest and best when one of us dies.

What would you like to see done about it?

Full, open world casting. "Open world"? Is that a thing? How 'bout just 'casting.' A training program for under-represented artists so that when they get a chance to audition/perform, they're not, as a result of a continual lack of opportunity, rusty.

As an Artistic Director of an ensemble theatre, I would love to listen to a conversation about how I can be more inclusive without engaging in insulting tokenism. Finding the sweet spot in that Venn diagram keeps me up at night in a non-idiomatic but very real sitting on the porch worrying about this kind of way. While The Gift has diversity in our ensemble via disability, gender, sexuality, age, education, socioeconomic background, one which has obviously yet to be expressed is racial diversity. I'm committed to changing that, and I'd love to keep hearing from my colleagues how to do this in an organic and responsible way. We've recently announced our 15th Anniversary season, and there was more thought and energy than ever before towards making sure we are creating opportunities for more racial, gender-identity, and physical diversity at The Gift. It's an exciting time, and I thank my friends and Emjoy for illuminating just what a gift The Gift can truly be when we get this right.

If we had more time, what questions do you wish were asked at the panel discussion? or what concerns do you wish were addressed?

I've sat on a number of panels and they have an unfortunate talent for quickly turning into self-congratulatory speech presented as 'dialogue' where the audience backslaps each other for being inclusive and not like 'Them' (who are always conspicuously never in the room). I would have liked someone to ask how any multi-million dollar institution could in good conscience work out of a wheelchair inaccessible rehearsal space. I think we need to clearly understand the various real world budget-line mechanisms inside established institutional theatre which lead to such lacks of access and inclusion. Do the Boards vote it down? Can one space be so financially appealing that venturing into a new space simply to serve a fraction of the community (actors and patrons) is a bad investment from a Board/managerial point of view? I could understand that. Now, questions like these certainly tend to take the air out of the room momentarily and lead to a shocked squishy discomfort, but real dialogue which leads to actual change and a new comfort kinda has to do that, and in my experience so many panels seem intent to stay polite at the cost of true and lasting impact.

For future panels, Evan Hatfield from Steppenwolf could be a great source to hear how Steppenwolf pivoted toward a more inclusive experience for its audience.

Each artist said “yes” to this project for different reasons. What were yours?

I believe in Emjoy. I love her work and she should be working even more than she does and her mix of heart, mind, and talent can actually change the world.

...Anything else?

I really, really, really appreciated being asked. I also really hope the previous big paragraph can be heard with a gentle voice, because that's where those words are coming from. Quiet hope after years of tiny hurtful defeats, that's all. I remain optimistic. I remain hopeful for a new theatre peeking over the horizon.

Michael Patrick Thornton is directing the world premiere of David Rabe’s Good For Otto at The Gift and will play the title role in The Gift’s production of Richard III at Steppenwolf.

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