“Imagine Spalding Gray meets Bill Cosby. Sort of. The host of a show once described me as an amalgam of Woody Allen, Cathy the cartoon lady, and Aunt Jemima. Really weird, but also accurate. I am full of neuroses. And syrup. Like my work these descriptions are ambitious, sometimes incongruous, and intentionally racialized—‘othered’. They are neither here nor there. I’m interested in these in-between places.” –rericthomas.com
As a playwright, storyteller, and stand-up dramedian hailing from Philadelphia, R. Eric Thomas brings a ton of humor and complexity to the human experience that otherwise goes unnoticed. Upon reading his short play, When You Put It Like That It Just Sounds Ridiculous, I felt as though I learned something deep and personal about someone I didn’t know, while laughing like crazy at the same time. With a lingering interest, I decided to approach Eric, and ask him a little bit about his play, how his craft as a storyteller and writer inform one another, and his voice as a writer:
You have such a strong voice in your writing, and it’s definitely sets up a nice foundation for all of your written work. How did you develop your “voice” as a writer, and how did it inform the ways you approach different artistic projects?
Would you believe me if I told you it came from Facebook? One of the challenges I’ve encountered in my writing has been giving myself permission to write the things I want, the way I want. For years I’ve been a little ham-strung by the notion that certain things can’t happen in plays or you can’t write a certain way in plays. I don’t know where I got this from. Probably from the streets. In any case, over the last few years I’ve really taken advantage of the captive audience that is Facebook. In statuses I can be as funny or grandiose or thoughtful as I want to be (sometimes all at once) and I’ve found that people respond. Posting daily or every other day has helped me refine my voice and given me confidence in the way that I express my ideas. It’s a little like refining a stand-up comedy act by taking it on the road, except I don’t really like to stand that much. I get tired. You understand.
You have a huge background in storytelling, from Kevin Allison’s RISK!, to speaking at TEDxPhilly in 2011, to performing solo shows at First Person Arts. How has your craft as a solo performer and storyteller influenced your playwriting? Do they benefit one another, or are they exclusive writing processes?
My work as a storyteller and stand-up dramedian has taught me a lot about how to build and manipulate a narrative framework, even when trying to tell a larger, messier story. My early plays were about everything. Literally. Every single thing. As, I guess, a lot of people’s are. When I took a break from playwriting and focused on telling true stories first in five-minute chunks and then in longer, evening length pieces, I learned how to focus and edit. When I teach storytelling and branding, I encourage people to trust that the most powerful metaphors and resonant details can do the heavy lifting of the story. Exposition has its place, but the magic of storytelling comes from finding an image, an idea, a really powerful sentence that blooms in the mind of the listener. I call it Iceberg Storytelling, working off the idea that only 10% of an iceberg is visible about the surface of the water (I don’t know if that’s true; I read it on Facebook). In my storytelling and now in my playwriting, I try to create icebergs–of language, of imagery, iceberg moments–that can expand exponentially once released.
Your play, When You Put it Like That it Just Sounds Ridiculous, was selected as a City Theatre National Award for Short Playwriting Finalist. It seems to take very “real” subject matter, and finds the humor within it. What inspired you to write this play, and how do you find the comedy in these situations?
I’m a huge, huge romcom fan and I’m always trying to create Meg Ryan-esque hijinks in my every day life. I dither, I spill coffee on every cute guy I see, I am CONSTANTLY waiting at airport gates for somebody to come running up and beg me not to board that plane. “We can make it work,” he’ll say. “Don’t take that high-paying producer job in Ottawa! Stay here!” And the music will swell and I’ll drop my bags and run toward him. And we’ll both get tackled by security because you can’t run in airports nowadays and how did he get past TSA in the first place and this whole scenario is problematic. Anyway. As a black, gay man I don’t always see myself in romcoms as much as I imagine myself in them and so I try to create plays where people who don’t necessarily look like Sandra Bullock or Diane Keaton can pratfall and montage and fall in love. When You Put It Like That… started as an anxiety-driven monologue inspired by failed second date I had, the central idea being “Uh, why don’t you love me yet? I’m amazing.” It’s so much easier to attack those kind of weird personal feelings with humor. When my younger brother got married, I funneled every emotion I had into a solo show called Always the Bridesmaid. Personal sadness makes everyone uncomfortable and that’s hilarious. Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy. Anyway, after running through a first draft of When You Put It Like That… I started thinking about taking it even farther, making it a romcom for a group of people who wouldn’t show up in a romcom. I have a lot of trans friends and I think a lot about how the experience of dating–having to market yourself and conquer your own feelings of worthiness–has an added level of complication. In the character of Liz, I tried to create highly specific “non-traditional” person (as if anyone is really traditional) and allow her to have all the traditional reactions of a romantic comedienne.
As a first time attendee at CityWrights, what are you looking forward to the most, and what do you expect to learn from the experience?
I am SO EXCITED about CityWrights! I love a conference! I love EVERYTHING about conferences so it’s hard to pick just one thing. But I am really looking forward to meeting and talking with writers from around the country. Philly–where I live–is such a vibrant theatre town and I’m really curious what the experience of others writers from other places is like. I’m also looking forward to learning better ways of getting my work out there, so the business workshops are going to be very helpful, I think. I appreciate every single thing Gary Garrison says or writes, also, so I think it’ll be great to see him on Sunday.
What is your next writing endeavor?
I’m finishing an evening length solo show called VOCAB, which uses the history of hip-hop culture as a framework for talking about black masculinity. It’ll be produced in Philadelphia in November or January, depending on how the development process goes. And I’m working on expanding When You Put It Like… into a full-length play called Remainders.
R. Eric Thomas is a Philadelphia-based playwright and stand-up dramedian. He has been called “one of the most talented storytellers in Philly” by the Philadelphia Weekly. Produced plays include The Affair (LateNite Theatre, New York City), Will You Accept This Friend Request? (First Person Festival, Philadelphia), Always the Bridesmaid (Quince Productions, Philadelphia). With Daniel Student and Jennifer Macmillan, Thomas also co-created the three-person narrative storytelling shows Overexposed: A Slightly Awkward Peep Show (2012) and (in)voluntary commitment (2013). Thomas has been heard or seen on RISK! with Kevin Allison and Janeane Garafalo, NPR, the First Person Arts podcast, Soundtrack Series and others. In 2011, he gave a presentation at the TEDx conference in Philadelphia. His non-fiction writing has appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, Columbia University’s The Collection, thinkingdance.net and The Q Review.
His short play, When You Put It Like That…, was selected as a City Theatre National Award for Short Playwriting Finalist, and will be read during our CityWrights conference. For more information about Eric, find him on Twitter @oureric, on his Facebook page, or on his website!
Written by Audrey Polinski