I will admit to losing my cool a little bit when I saw Owen Fawcett’s Outstanding Solo Performance-nominated show Thom Pain (based on nothing). It was the indie-est of indie productions- an insanely short run in a grungy room down a side street somewhere- but it was Brilliant (capitalization intentional). It’s been years since I wrote a rave quite like the rave I wrote for Thom Pain. In this interview, Owen says his company Theatre by Committee will remount the show if people will come see it. We’re starting a campaign now, people, #ThomPain2020!
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
My mother would probably tell you all about the little shows that my sisters and I used to put on in our living room, or how at a young age I’d dance on the coffee table to Shania Twain for her and her friends. My “real” first experience with theatre was at a Drama Camp the summer before high school. We finished the term with a one-time performance of Goldilocks on Trial. I played Goldilocks’ Defence Attorney.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
The minute the curtain went up and I got to use every ounce of my imagination to fully embody the character of Wombat, Goldilocks’ Defence Attorney. It suddenly hit me how exciting it was to be telling a story for a large group of people who actually wanted to be watching. Structured make-believe.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
Oh, that’s a tough questions. I really enjoy roles that present a challenge, roles that require a lot of mining to bring to life. While every role is an opportunity to learn something about something, there are those meatier ones that really don’t compare. In my final year of theatre school I was given the role of Macbeth to tackle. The final product was ambitious, if not enthusiastic, and there are so many choices I would make differently, but it was a process that really reaffirmed for me why I was choosing to pursue this craft. I also don’t think you should ever look back on a performance and think “oh, that was perfect. Job done.” Every time you walk out in front of an audience is an opportunity to improve, to learn, and to perfect.
Do you have a dream role you’d still like to play one day?
Thom Pain was a dream role so I guess I’ve accomplished everything now. Time to throw in the towel. Seriously, though. Another crack at Macbeth would be a wonderful opportunity. Javert is also a pretty dope villain who is conveniently a Baritone…
Tell us about your company Theatre by Committee and its founding principles.
Initially, we started TBC because we were tired of waiting around for opportunities to fall in our laps. We were all friends from theatre school and we realised two years out that we separately weren’t really making the art we wanted to be making. So we revisited a Christopher Durang script from our time in school and took it to the Atlantic Fringe (because why not?). When you go through four years together in an intimate theatre program you can’t help but quickly develop a shorthand in the rehearsal room. We found that the process was so much more exciting and organic because we knew how to push each other. We already knew what each person was capable of and how to foster the most interesting choices as performers. The final product is something I think we are all still very proud of and is what led us to starting Theatre by Committee. We started leaning in to a more collaborative process. The director became more of the “guiding eye” and all members of the creative team were free to challenge, counsel, and offer input. While this kind of process is certainly more challenging, I think we reach a more interesting and thought-out product than what we would otherwise create.
What attracted you to Thom Pain as a project?
A friend of mine pointed it out at the old Theatre Books (RIP) one day in first year and told me she thought I would really enjoy it. She was very right. I was immediately drawn to the cynical optimism of it all. It’s this long monologue about pain, longing, broken dreams, and yet there is this sense of hope, of perseverance which keeps Thom going. The character is also playfully dark throughout the whole piece. I love the sense of humour, and equally the sense of despair. Will Eno writes these incredibly complex passages of prose that express these beautifully vague, yet specific anxieties about living life every day. I read the script and knew immediately it was a story I wanted to share.
For those who haven’t seen it (and for some who have), who is Thom Pain and what is he talking about? Or are those things even knowable?
Thom Pain is your classic unreliable narrator. He’s a person who is deeply sad, who has reached the lowest depths of self-loathing, who has loved, lost, and at the end of the day is standing there to tell you it’s okay. But also that it maybe doesn’t matter? It’s definitely one of those meditations on life which isn’t supposed to give you a clear answer. I mean, the full title is Thom Pain (based on nothing). From the title credits alone you’re given this mystery. You’re already being told that none of this matters. And yet, as Thom rants and raves you can’t help but feel like it all matters.
On a purely technical level, how does one navigate getting that much dense and erratic text into their head then out to an audience in the right order every night?
It starts with hours of memorization, and relies entirely upon having a great director. I would come in with a section of text memorized, specifically focusing on learning the words as neutral text, and then Hannah and I would find the logic and the intentions on our feet. She really focused on helping me develop each thought from the one before it so that learning the text became organically one with learning the character.
There are quite a few moments in the piece when you would single out an audience member and directly address them. Did these interactions alter the tone of the piece at all from performance to performance depending on whom you spoke to and what they gave you back?
The whole piece is direct address and our house was quite intimate, so I was able to take in each audience member and choose the people who I thought would play the best (and actually want to). There was this beautiful moment every night where the first person I put on the spot has this flash of regret, anxiety, excitement which immediately would turn into a delightful laugh of discomfort as they realised I didn’t actually expect them to do anything other than sit there and experience exactly what they just did. I noticed that would mostly set the tone and allow people off the hook, so to speak. So while the tone generally remained the same show to show, because Thom is a character who is trying very hard to maintain control, I had a lot of fun being open to the uniqueness of each person’s subtle reactions and altering mine in response. When your scene partner is the audience, you kind of have to.
The sudden shifts in topic and tone can be jarring. How did you approach those transitions without leaving audience members behind?
It’s all in the details of the process. Hannah made a point of looking at each moment, each transition, and putting herself in the shoes of an audience watching for the first time. If she felt herself dropping out of it, losing focus, then we would look at the moment and try something new. The words are already brilliantly written, and there is a logic to the text that hides behind it’s erratic nature, so we mostly just mined that for all it’s worth. We ended up making the jarring nature of the piece a trait of Thom’s psyche and I think that helped to keep the story clear. Or, as clear as this kind of play could be…
Tell us about working with Hannah Jack as a director and creating the movement and visual interest of the piece.
Working with Hannah was truly delightful. It wasn’t that the process was easy, we just seemed to be on the same page from day one. We had so much fun rehearsing because we always made a point to keep it fresh, and to surprise each other. Sometimes we’d run a section of text and Hannah would tell me to try it wrong. To suspend our need for a perfect interpretation and try something wild and new. We’ve known each other for almost ten years, and Hannah was a founding member of TBC before moving on, so having both a personal and professional relationship meant that we were able to dive in to the process with a previously developed shorthand. Some of the most delightful moments came out of temporarily throwing our expectations out the window. She approached the piece with a background in comedy which worked perfectly as we sort of started from this idea that maybe Thom was a stand up comic going off the rails on his unsuspecting audience. The script also gives you plenty of darkness for free so we wanted to focus on balancing that with humour. We brought in Brandon Gillespie as an assistant director once we had the show blocked out because he also has an eye for comedy and specificity. It only really came alive once there was an audience to play off of, but the final product was a piece that very much reflects all three of our voices. It stands, for me, as a testament to the strength of collaborative approaches to bringing scripted works to life.
Okay, explain the Paula Abdul t-shirt and what it said about the character.
I wore it to rehearsal one day and Hannah immediately said “that’s your costume”. Thom can be a little intense, a little stand-offish, a little aggressive, and we discovered that the Paula Abdul shirt was delightfully disarming. It sort of rounds out the sadness, the anger, the darkness of Thom and represents the quirky playfulness that we both wanted to bring to the role. I think it helped solidify Thom as an enigma who defies expectation. Because Thom is sort of always trying to defy your expectation of him. I love that that detail stuck with you. It was one of my favourite design choices we made.
The run was only four shows. How do we convince you to do it again?
I mean, if people will come, we’ll produce it again. It was such a short run and I think I only really settled in to the character by the last performance. I’d love the opportunity to revisit Thom Pain. It’s such a beautiful piece of literature even on it’s own. I recommend anyone reading this finds the copy of Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Reference Library and gives it a good read. Or you can borrow mine. Ignore the scribbles and notes…
What are you working on now/next?
We just finished our workshop of PRACTICE DRILL, an immersive, escape room experience that asked the audience to survive a nuclear apocalypse together in a government-funded bunker. I’m now working with Ben Hayward, another member of TBC, on his adaptation of a David Foster Wallace short story. It’s shaping up to be another solo-performance so I’m excited to apply what I learned from Thom to this next adventure.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Yes! Thank you so much for this nomination. An actor is just a person talking to themselves without an audience so to know the stories we tell are resonating with the people who watch them is the reason us actors continue to persevere. I’m honoured to be nominated alongside some other talented folks and I can’t wait for April 15th! See you there, friends.