Michael Patrick Thornton

"A very weird thing happened to me when I was dying."          

by Mark Larson                                   Interview: 12.8.15
But I mean, you’re talking about an ensemble that has an incomplete quadriplegic as its artistic director, a legally blind ensemble member, an ensemble that’s about 44% women, an ensemble whose age ranges from early thirties to, I won’t say how old Mary Ann Thebus is. Socio-economically, you have people who grew up in trailer parks and people who grew up on horse farms. You have people who barely graduated high school and people who have their Ph.D.’s. So in terms of diversity, those things I’m very proud of.
What I’m not proud of is that it’s all white people.
It is that way because of a run of terrible, terrible luck where artists of color that we were absolutely infatuated with their spirit and with their talent relocated, stopped acting, stopped doing some of the arts, got absorbed into other ensembles. But also it’s our own moving forward with blinders on and not examining our privilege, I guess you would say, until later in the game. So I was in this little privileged bubble, you know?

But we’re going to do it right. We’re going to do it in a “Gift” way. And we’re going to rectify that imbalance in a way that isn’t just ceremonial. The Gift is such a collection of underdogs, you know? I know acutely the pain of not being seen for things by virtue of how you look. It enrages me and breaks my heart and inspires me to fucking fix this. It just needs to be done in the same spirit of allowing organic connections to form. And if it takes a year, it takes a year, and if it takes five years, it takes five years.

ML: In those early days, how would you have defined success for The Gift?

As you were framing that question, I was thinking that it would probably be irresponsible not to own that a good portion of the aesthetic shift can be attributed to me almost dying twice. In terms of shifting from these ideas of ego and prominence and notoriety to, “Holy fuck, life is really short, and we should probably do stuff that we really, really want to do, and that we think can change people’s lives and that rattles us.” As opposed to what I think a lot of young companies will do, which is, “Oh, we’ll do Buried Child because so-and-so would be such a great Shelley.” It’s this successive iteration of the Steppenwolf model. And that model is dead, you know? As it should be.

A very weird thing happened to me when I was dying. I knew in every cell of my body that this was the moment, the moment of death. I tell my students about this because they’re paying to have access to what the aesthetic compass is about. But I’ll share it with you because I think the myriad of decisions that are made on a daily basis here do distill down from this. And I know it could make one risk sounding like a crazy person, but oh well.

There was this moment of, “Here I go; I’m done.” [I experienced] the worst pain imaginable and then total peace. I couldn’t breathe. I was on a ventilator. I had this — The Buddhists call it a moment of satori, right? Like the real world kind of peels away and you get a glimpse of how the whole thing actually works. Then it just closes again. This crazy experience happened where it felt like a pint glass of cool air was being poured down my throat, and I had that kind of satori moment of, “Oh, this is how it works!”
The only thing I could move was my eyeballs, so I couldn’t say this, but I mouthed it. I mouthed three words. It wasn’t like, Oh, I’ve got a really good turn of a phrase here. It was more like this weird feeling of it being puppeteered moment. And the three words were: “There’s. Only. Love.” And then I drifted into a coma for about a week. I have no idea what that means. I have read I-don’t-know-how-many books trying to chase the meaning behind it.

But it feels right in a way that everyone who’s part of this company feels right. It feels right in the way that where we are feels right. It feels right in the way that we’ve put into our bylaws that The Gift always has to be in this neighborhood. It feels right in the way we’re thinking about the next five years and where we’re headed. So I think if there is integrity to the institution, it’s because a lot of decisions are made out of love and not fear or greed or profit.

You were driven, to a significant degree, by your medical situation and your brush with mortality. But it’s a unique and private experience. How does that translate to the people you work with?

I don’t know. I try to be sensitive to not tie everything we do to some kind of experience of mine. I think there was that barreling forward thing, and I think it’s directly tied to the fact that I was told by the smartest people in the world that I would never be able to talk or walk again after I got sick. And in my mind, I was like, “Fuck that. You’re wrong.” I worked my ass off, and I got to a place where I could re-enter society and the arts.

And so I emerged from that on the other side of the painted glass, I guess, [with the idea that] these rules don’t apply to us. I mean, we heard it all. “No one’s going to come here; no one who lives here gives a shit about theater, and people who do care about theater aren’t going to come here for it.” “The Equity thing is insane. It’s going to be too expensive, you’re going to go bankrupt.” We heard this over and over: You can’t, you can’t. But the companies that stick out, I think, are the ones that break those rules and create a new model whereby you can do it. And amazing things have happened.

Whether you’re moved by whatever perceived plight you think my story is about or whether it’s this real salt-of-the-Earth, we-got-your-back gritty dedication that the ensemble has to me, I think at the end of the day, it’s probably the most pragmatic answer to just say that everything that we said we’re going to do, we’ve done. People have their Equity card and their health insurance for the first time in their life because of The Gift. They’ve gotten exponentially better as artists by virtue of working with each other. And when we reach a ceiling, we’ve found a way to break through it: the board gets bigger, for example, or we create an individual production sponsor program, which is what we did for Otto. Otto has nine Equity contracts. That is financial suicide for a storefront theater. It’s insane.

ML: But you find a way.

You find a way.


ML: I know that Sheldon Patinkin was an important figure to you.  What did he teach you? What do you carry forward?

He taught us how to be an ensemble, you know? Sheldon was asked if an ensemble was only as good as its weakest link. And he said that it was only as good as how well it could compensate for its weakest link, and that its weakest link could change from night to night or moment to moment. He embodied service in a way that was just confounding. He could’ve done anything. He could’ve taught at University of Chicago or any Ivy League school; he could’ve stayed with film in Los Angeles or Broadway, done stuff in New York, but he decided to stay and make everyone else better.
There was no bullshit. It was not about him or his concept of a play. He was there to work on the thing. Hobbling down in his walker from his car to rock this crazy 20-person play we did. If you loved something, he could sense it and he’d do it. I remember asking him — I think we were at this steakhouse — to join the ensemble. I was terrified. Terrified. He was like a god, you know? He was going to joinour little ensemble, here? And he put his fork and knife down, little tears in his eyes, and he was like, “Of course. I’d be honored. I love you all.” I forget if he said it or if it was implied that no one had ever asked him before. Just like, Really? How is that possible? He was honored. He was genuinely honored. He saw something in us.

In the front window of The Gift Theatre, there is a large photo of Sheldon with this quote about The Gift Theatre Company: “The most talented ensemble I’ve ever worked with since Steppenwolf and Remains were young.”
We see him, now, when we come to work, him and his quote, to not let him down, to be, in a city where the word ensemble is used so much, to truly be one and to be the best one we possibly can be. On stage and off.


ML: I get the impression that there’s a kind of core integrity about you that’s unshakable.

You know, that word is something that Sheldon [Patinkin] would use a lot, [in terms of ethics]. We were very interested in those ideas. It might be the philosophy geek in me from Iowa still kicking around. But as an art form, theater is where people went to learn how we ought to engage with each other, how we ought to have a government. The plays [we choose at The Gift], out of the hundreds of plays we read, are the ones we love and are terrified by. They are, to me, always a vehicle by which to have a conversation about love and forgiveness and grace and ethics and morality.
ML: Where do you think that quality comes from in you, Mike? Unshakable integrity.

Oh, I don’t think I have unshakable integrity. One bad day is all it takes.

ML: OK, I’ll make that observation and leave it at that.

Well, thanks. We know how well the Irish are at taking compliments

Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave-Lux

We talked in the house of The Gift Theatre which Michael co-founded with William Nedved in 1997. “The idea for The Gift,” their website states, “was to grow and nurture an ensemble and lay roots in an artistically underserved Chicago neighborhood.”
The Gift building had once been a shoe store. A front door is recessed from the street with window displays on either side of the entrance area. An excerpt from Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards A Poor Theater” is painted on the wall in the small lobby:
“Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor. Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reactions. The actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice, self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all normally acceptable limits…The actor makes a total gift of himself.”
 The rectangular-shaped theater seats about 45, currently configured in two rows against opposite walls facing one another. The actors perform in the space in the middle and in the four corners on small platforms.
 I sat in the front row, and Michael, who had a spinal stroke in 2003, sat in his wheelchair, essentially situated on the set of   Good For Otto,  David Rabe’s most recent play which was having its world premiere at The Gift under Michael’s direction, at the time we talked.
I grew up in Jefferson Park, a neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. It’s largely a neighborhood of cops and firemen, city workers, because it’s about as far northwest as you can get in the city and still be in Chicago. If you’re a city worker, you [are required] to live in the city. The rent on the housing tends to be a little cheaper out here. My dad was a cop, so I grew up in Jeff Park. That’s the neighborhood we’re in right now. I have not strayed too far.
It wasn’t a neighborhood that had anything of artistic access when I was growing up. I just always felt like when you’re from a neighborhood where your only access to the arts necessitates your getting on a bus and going somewhere, there’s this weird sense of betrayal. I think I was aware, on some cellular level, of what the difference in socioeconomic classes means in terms of your imagination being fertilized on a day-to-day basis. There were no museums around here when I grew up, no theaters, no comedy places to go to. You went to the movies; you went to the mall, that was it.
[After high school], I attended University of Iowa for the writing program. I was going to write novels and teach at the high school I had gone to. I needed a bit more money to go there, so I auditioned for the theater scholarship. By virtue of getting it, I had to change my major, so I was an English and theater major. The interesting thing about that scholarship, however, was that it was the first time in the history of the university that they could not make up their minds between two candidates. So they found the extra money to give it to two students. The other person besides myself was Will Nedved with whom I would start The Gift.
Will was from Garner, Iowa, which has maybe 3,000 people in it, and I’m from the big city, but Jefferson Park feels like a small town in some ways. So even though I was from the big city and Will was from the small town, our experience growing up was very similar: alienation, bafflement of why we could not fit in, bafflement of why life always seemed to proceed behind a six-inch pane of glass through which we had no access. Our interests and thoughts did not match up with the interests and thoughts of nearly anyone around us.
[I took a] class called “Alternative Approaches To Acting” [where I encountered the work of Jerzy] Grotowski. It was the first time that the idea of being an actor was framed in something that approached a level of missionary work that approached a shamanistic, mystical kind of calling as opposed to a purely egoistic pursuit of approval and notoriety and, if you’re lucky, fame. And that idea shook me to my core. What if we took a bunch of people that we loved and [with whom] we trained together for un-American lengths of time? What would that yield? And what if we never gave up? That was enough to start the idea for The Gift.
You know, it’s very helpful doing this [interview] because it’s so easy to be revisionistic and go back and say, oh, we always knew we wanted this and we wanted that. But I think if there’s one common idea that would link through Iowa and Chicago, the north star for The Gift — I know it sounds borderline New Agey — but I think it’s always in some way been about the dissolving of the ego. And being able to do that through an ensemble approach to making art. The populist stuff came later, to be honest.
The brunt of [The Gift’s forming] happened the summer in 2001 [when I was a student] at the Steppenwolf school. That was kind of the beginning [group] or, as some of them called themselves, the “founding members,” which is really kind of a non-official term, but they like to use it.
ML: Well, if they’re the first ones, I guess they are.
I guess they are ….they are.
ML: Why are you hesitating? Is it because that suggests a hierarchy?
Yeah, the hierarchy. Someone that we just added three years ago is by no means less important to us than someone who just so happened to know me in high school. They don’t get moral credit because they were born on a certain date and lived in Chicago. The idea of The Gift is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than me; it’s bigger than any individual ensemble member.
We’re trying to get to a level of performance where there’s no more ego and it is a true gift of yourself. To do that requires a lot of emotional bravery, and it really involves a love, capital-L-Love, for the people coming to see the show. These are the people that we’re doing it for. Not ourselves. And it doesn’t matter what the fucking Jeff Committee says or what the reviewers say, and that’s why that quote’s in the lobby, to remind us. [Does it only matter] that it will sell tickets or not? It’s got to be bigger than that.
There’s no economic reason this theater should exist. You’re talking about a half-a-million dollar not-for-profit. It is an Equity theater with max 45 seats, right? I mean, in Chicago, there’s what? three of us, four of us who are Equity storefront ensembles, you know? To make those numbers work, it better be about something bigger.
Tell me about how you assemble and grow your ensemble.
We wanted to be judicious, so we put, I guess, “legal handcuffs” on Will and myself. We are the only people who can ask ensemble members to leave. And we do not even consider [actors for the ensemble] until they’ve done at least two shows with us. At least.
The thing I hate about my position is I hate watching auditions because I just want to cast everybody. It’s nothing against someone [if we don't choose them], it just kinda hits you like lightning when a person is on your path for a reason. And it is ever-shifting.
I think we pick people who we believe have the capacity to help save each other down the road. Not just on stage, but by virtue of their personality. We believe we’re going to learn something from this person that’s going to make us a better person, as opposed to, This person’s really great at Shakespeare and we’re a little low in the bench on Shakespeare actors. It really is personality-driven. You’re looking for a personality that is forgiving and gracious and loving, but once they get on stage, can be as fierce as anything.