Backstage Q&A with Thomas Azar

July 27, 2018

Thomas Azar, photographed by Will Crooks
Photo by Will Crooks for The Greenville Journal

The following is the extended edit of the interview that appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of the Greenville Journal.

A little about me

I am an individual artist working as an actor in Greenville and regionally around the South. After graduating from the University of Alabama, I moved to the Bay Area of California, where I earned my Equity card working with (among others) the California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley and TheatreWorks in Mountain View. In 2010, my wife Maegan and I moved to Greenville. Shortly thereafter, we adopted our dog Benjamin, and at the end of 2016 our son Tristan was born. In 2015, I earned my MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University in DC.

Locally, I have appeared in two shows at Centre Stage (Identity Crisis and The Fox on the Fairway), and in several at The Warehouse Theatre (Angels in America, In the Next Room, Romeo and Juliet, Urinetown, Stones in His Pockets, Much Ado About Nothing). Next season I will appear opposite Mimi Wyche in Warehouse’s production of The Glass Menagerie, directed by Kerrie Seymour (The Cake, In the Next Room, Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, directed by Jay Briggs (Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, Clybourne Park).

When did you first become involved in acting, and when did you know this is something you wanted to do long-term?

In ninth grade, I signed up for a theatre class in high school because I thought it was an easy A. I would wager a guess that nearly every in that class thought the same thing. The unintended consequence of that, is that I found out I really enjoy working on scenes – we were doing scenes and monologues – and the one that really stands out to me was Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”. It was my end of the semester project, kind of breaking down that speech and paraphrasing it, trying to understand what’s happening as best I could. And my theatre teacher, Lonny Harrison – who will always be Mr. Harrison to me – asked me to perform it at our school’s Renaissance fair that spring. That was my first public performance. And then, the next year, I signed up for Theatre II because I had such a great time in Theatre I. Mr. Harrison tried to talk me into auditioning for the play that fall, The Foreigner, and I chickened out of it. So then in the spring he made it a test grade to audition for the spring musical, Grease. So I did, because I didn’t want to fail. I was cast in Grease as Sonny, and that was my first role in a show. My mom came to see every performance. But, I think before I was in Theatre I, I had the thought that I might want to do this some day as a job in 7th grade sitting in English class. I remember being in this classroom and thinking, “It might be really interesting to be an actor. I wonder what it takes to get into a position where you could do that for a job.” And then two years later I signed up for my first theatre class. So I didn’t act on that (ha) for almost two years.

What has been your most challenging role and why?

Prior Walter in Angels in America. I think that’s likely to be the answer to that question for the rest of my life. I don’t remember when I first read Angels, I guess it was probably my freshman year of college. Because I was vain and egotistical, every play I read I thought about myself playing the lead role. And in that case it was Prior, he struck me as the lead of the play. You could make the argument that it’s really an ensemble play with no lead, it’s no one character’s story. But I guess reading it – maybe I attached to Prior more than any other character, I don’t know? Which is not unlikely – he is, in his own way, an everyman. One could see a lot in Prior reflective of one’s self. So anyway, I read that play, I thought about playing Prior, but then I thought, “Well, that’s a role I’ll never play.” It didn’t seem like one that would ever come across my plate. When Jayce Tromsness, who directed the play at The Warehouse Theatre, approached my wife Maegan and me about doing it – he asked us if we’d be interested, as if he had to ask! Of course we’d be interested in Angels in America! A year later as I was working on Romeo and Juliet at The Warehouse, when Jayce asked would I consider playing Prior. I was terrified. And I don’t think that terror ever left me. And I still don’t think it has. As I became more acquainted with the play, I knew the burden of playing that role would be a lot for someone to shoulder, both from an acting perspective but also from a psychological, real-world – this is a man representative of lots and lots and lots of people, men and women. He is especially important within the LGBT community. His life and his struggle through two parts of this epic play touch so many people who see it. And I’ve never actually had to confront something like that in my work before. I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task. It was a solemn responsibility. It really hit me one day during rehearsal, when I stole off by myself to work on some lines. We’re working on Part II: Perestroika. I’m trying to figure what’s going through Prior’s head, and the conversation he has with the Angel of America, and his decision to return to earth sick instead of remaining in heaven or returning cured. His decision to return sick, to sacrifice himself, so that the world continues to spin forward and not stop like the angel wants it to. And I just broke down crying, by myself in the lobby of The Warehouse Theatre. And there was a gurney with a body (a prop) in there with me. Maybe the symbolism of that spurred it on, too, but that’s when the full weight of this role really hit me. I feel like I could talk about this for ages, which is funny because before I began answering this question, I thought, “What could I possibly have to say?”

What has been your most enjoyable role and why?

Oh. Wow. A lot. I enjoyed the hell out of playing Mercutio. Paul Savas really pushed me on figuring out this guy. He directed that production. I had a great time. I had a great Romeo and Benvolio to play off of in Chris Onken and Shawn Simmons. My first role at the Warehouse, Stones in His Pockets with Jason Shipman, that was a lot of fun. Anne Tromsness directed that. I got to play several characters. The process of the play was so much about Jason and me playing off of each other as actors, as storytellers, with Anne shaping this so it’s coherent for an audience. There was this wonderful sense of play, of childlike imaginative play involved in that production. Third role I enjoyed: Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. I got to play the guy that I went to school to study, and play him as an actual living human being and not the practical god that I sometimes think of him as. An artist, trying to create, not unlike myself, falling madly in love with someone that he works with. That role had all sorts of challenges. I got to do just about everything with it: fight, dance, sing, cross-dress in a quick change onstage behind a curtain in thirty seconds. It was my Atlanta debut, my Alliance Theatre debut. I got to work with a wonderfully talented company of creatives: actors, designers, technicians. I got to do it from – I was about to say the pilot’s seat, but not really, the director is the pilot. But really close behind! I got a good view! It was really cool.

What’s your favorite play?

I guess since this title came to mind upon hearing the question, it must be so: Shakespeare’s Richard III. I have loved that play for so long. It was the first play I worked on at the California Shakespeare Theater, with Reg Rogers as Richard. My first day of rehearsal as one of the murders, Reg turned to me as Richard, said his line to me, and I had this very short reply, probably four or five words. And I was just so bowled over by this man who had completely disappeared, and instead Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is standing in front of me. I lost my line, my tiny little line, so I had to quickly pull my script out of my back pocket and try to figure out where we are in the scene so I could respond to Richard and we could move forward with rehearsal. Richard is such an anti-hero. The more despicable he is, the more of an uphill climb it is to make the audience like him. But if an actor can do both, be absolutely despicable and be utterly charming, then I just think it makes for such a captivating performance and a really awesome evening of theatre. Hysterically funny and gut-wrenching tragic.

Which actors inspire you?

Oh. I’ve got to think about that. [Long silence.] My teachers. I mean, there are professional actors that I enjoy their work. From a very early age, Jim Carrey. I remember watching him on In Living Color. He’s been an actor I’ve long admired. But I think to be truthful to the question, “Who inspires me?”, it’s those artists who have taught me. Every now and then, I run through a list of names, and I try to recall all of my teachers, starting with Mr. Harrison. And all of the ones that have helped me get to where I am today and get to where I’m going tomorrow. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be half the artist that I am now without my teachers.

What do you most enjoy about Greenville’s theater scene?

The people. The Warehouse Theatre is the first place that I have called my artistic home. After moving to Greenville and getting to know the people that make art here, and seeing how passionate and determined they are to make that art excellent, I realized that I had found a home. The Warehouse really is, for me, that home. As my graduate school experience was coming to a close, and my teachers started asking me, “So what are you planning to do after finish? Are you going to stay in DC?” I’d say, “No, I’m going back to Greenville, South Carolina.” Because I believe communities like Greenville deserve excellent art that cities like DC and New York and Chicago take for granted. And in whatever way, however small or large, I want to contribute to making that happen. Greenville is the first place that I’ve felt that desire.

How has Greenville’s theater scene changed since you first became involved?

I think that the theatre scene as a whole is starting to take more risks than it did before. I don’t know what it was like before I was here, obviously. But it’s starting to take more risks than when I first moved here. Both in the scale of productions and the choice of material presented to Greenville audiences. We’re exposing audiences to a wider range, a greater diversity of life experience, worldviews, takes on things in the past that perhaps we hadn’t considered this perspective before as a community. I feel like theatres are willing to take risks, and perhaps more importantly, audiences are willing to show up for those risks. A theatre can pick some play that might be brilliant, but if no one comes to see it, it’s just rehearsal with costumes and lights.

What is your hope for the future of theater in Greenville?

I would love for Greenville to become known for excellent art. When we moved here, shortly thereafter I started seeing articles about the “Hidden Gem of the South”, and Greenville was showing up on lists of “The Best Southern Cities You’ve Never Heard Of”. I think it’s safe to say the secret is out, but I think the secret of how great theatre can be here is still in. I hope for Greenville’s artists to get the recognition they deserve for making excellent art for all these many years and continuing to do so. Artistic excellence means that the artists have to take their work as seriously as the goals of being a regional presence. My hope is that Greenville artists take their work seriously, with a seriousness of purpose, education, attention. That this seriousness, this excellence moves Greenville to be that regional presence, that city known for its theatrical arts.