The Magic of Andrea Thome
She exudes warmth and fierceness, generosity and strength. Andrea Thome, playwright and Program Director of The Lark’s México/United States Playwright Exchange program, stopped by the office to chat with me about her career as an actor turned playwright, her journey of discovering her identity as a theatermaker, and her thoughts on the marriage between art and activism.
On a Friday morning over coffee, we make our way to the Writers’ Room at The Lark, a space that feels like the apartment I wish I had, a lush and tranquil retreat that seems fitting to interview a writer, activist, and theatermaker like Andrea. Thome introduced herself to me during my first nervous weeks of my apprenticeship at The Lark. She asked me about my identity as a theater artist, “Are you an actor? Playwright?” I paused like I always do when I’m asked this question. “Well, I got my BFA in acting but I like to also write and produce.” Thome lit up as she responded, “Oh, I totally get it!” A sigh of relief. I felt myself connecting to Thome, who deliberately chooses to be a multidisciplinary artist. Her kindness was palpable and I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to learn more about her.
Thome’s theater origin began in Madison, Wisconsin, (the same hometown as Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner) where she worked with a children’s theater company that spurred the well-known “theater bug,” leading to her pursuing theater and dance throughout high school. Thome went on to attend Harvard for undergrad where she took a year off during her sophomore year.
“You couldn’t major in theater at Harvard which was a blessing and a curse. Any theater that happened was student produced. You could perform in dining halls, in theaters. You kind of learn everything, not one aesthetic.” But after feeling alienated and out of place, Thome spent time in Seattle, Washington where she met Robin Lynn Smith, Artistic Director of Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio and an important figure in her life who amplified her interest in engaging in myriad theatrical art forms.
“I took classes at her studio and she revolutionized my ideas about theater. At that time, I identified as an actor. I did not think of myself as a writer.” After Smith encouraged Thome, “Why don’t you go back to Harvard? Do whatever you want! Use their resources!” she returned to create her own major.
Post-graduation, Thome moved to San Francisco and immersed herself in a vibrant Latinx theater scene. She started the Red Rocket Theater with her friends where they “took turns writing shows to put up in order to pay rent, and my friends said it was my turn to write cause we had to pay rent.”
When asked about her shift to playwriting, she responds “the fear of not doing it, was bigger than the fear of doing it.” After spending a few years writing in San Francisco, graduate school became an option. “I never had any interest in going to grad school. It was hard enough for me to stay in school the first time. I missed the acting and directing application deadline, there were two playwriting deadlines I hadn’t missed -- NYU and Yale -- I guess I’ll apply! So I applied to both and I got waitlisted at Yale and given full ride at NYU.”
In addition to her work as an artist, Thome’s work is deeply rooted in cultural awareness. Her experience growing up as Chilean and Costa Rican in the U.S., and her family's immersion in those cultures and her many visits to Latin America influenced her sensibility as an artist.
“It's formed the ways I've seen of making theater -- there is so much collective creation there, a long and rigorous tradition of it, where roles are much less compartmentalized and the process of theatermaking is much more integrated.”
While spending time all over Latin America, Thome was witness to various encuentros and festivals, further enriching her love for the culture (the language, the music) and informing her work as Program Director of the México/U.S. Playwright Exchange, established in 2006, a residency that brings Mexican writers to the U.S. and American writers to Mexico to work on translations of their work. The residency allows for people to see the “incredibly rich and diverse work happening in Mexico” says Thome. The week long programming not only fosters dialogue and understanding but it also gives opportunities for Latinx actors to play a range of roles. “They would tell me they have never played roles like this! They would typically get pigeonholed into playing stereotypical roles.”
Thome has such a humble disposition and she won’t be the first to express just how influential she really is.
When I asked John about his experience working with Thome, he responded, “She sees what people are trying do with their art often before anyone else does. People feel seen by her.”
Thome’s work with this program has impacted many, as beautifully described by Daniel Jáquez, director, translator, theatermaker and a participant in the Exchange: "Because of her way of gathering people, many artists have continued working. She created a home that felt welcoming, human, flexible, outside of the dulling bureaucracy and formality a lot of us experience in programs similar to this."
With her array of talents including acting, writing, and arts administration, how does an artist begin to navigate a multidisciplinary theatrical career?
“I’m still trying to figure that out!” Thome replies. “If you feel there’s a crucial part of yourself as an artist, don’t lose it. If you’re running into walls, create opportunities for yourself. Do whatever you can to help define your space as an artist. You’re not going to always get recognition in all those things, but if it’s important to you and your soul, you have to keep doing it.”
Despite knowing for myself that pursuing a career as a theatermaker with multiple interests is no simple path, Thome’s words of encouragement strike a chord. As artists we understand stability is not guaranteed, but how do we reinforce that our self worth is not contingent upon booking a role, or having your work produced? But instead, having the knowledge that we create to feed souls and not systems. We do it because we must.
When my interview ended, I walked away with the validation I needed: Thome has a holistic artistry that is seldom taught in schools, especially conservatory programs designed to produce artists to thrive in industries. What I saw reflected back at me was Thome’s strong sense of self. A nurturing wisdom I had been craving for so long.