Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas |

Nathan Thomas

Trench Warfare

What if your wish came true – and the fulfillment of your wish was not always pleasant?

It’s not an unreasonable object for contemplation. As we look toward the end of the year with its mix of holiday wishes and New Year resolutions, it may be worthwhile to think about the ‘what-if?’ of wish fulfillment.

My journey to one of my wishes started in a movie theatre watching Gene Wilder sing “Imagination” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  I watched this amazing man show children like me an amazing place all the while singing with great sincerity that the way to this amazing place was the world of imagination. 

I was hooked.

I never wanted to be anywhere else.  I couldn’t imagine not wanting to be in this world of imagination all the time. Who wouldn’t want to spend their entire life in  such a wonderful place?

I had always performed in some way. Particularly in elementary classes, I was chosen regularly for the narrator parts in in-class little plays. The narrator in those plays tends to have the most lines.  I read well and spoke well, so the teachers knew that I could produce satisfactory results in keeping the little play moving along. 


In the 4th grade, I was in a new school.  Who knows why, but someone had decided to do a six-page Christmas Carol adaptation.  And a couple of teachers went to each home room to audition children for two full casts – one cast for an evening performance for parents, and one cast for a late afternoon assembly show for our fellow students.  It could have gone either way, but soon it appeared that the prestige show was the evening performance for the parents.  I was cast as the evening Scrooge. 

And it was about that time that I decided in my child brain that I wanted – oddly – not to be a professional actor, but to be a teacher of actors in college.

And that is what I’ve set my life to do.

There is the odd notion that “those who can’t do, teach” as if teaching is a magical process, or somehow students learn to do things undoable by their teachers.

In the course of my life, I’ve known good teachers and bad teachers.  I’ve known good actors who’ve made great teachers, and good actors who made rotten teachers. 

In my experience, there’s no necessary correlation between the two.  And, further, teaching is an art separate from the content being taught.

Over the years, I’ve made my living as an actor, earning my sole income through treading the boards.  I’ve also made my living as a director, and doing many other things.

But I always wanted to teach.

My reasoning has changed over the years.  I can’t recall why I thought teaching would be a good notion in my pre-teen self.  But I’ve often thought since that teachers might have some small chance to move the needle the smallest bit on how people think, feel, and treat each other. Make the world better, teach the teachers.

And so I’ve bounced back and forth between the worlds of higher education and theatre. 

There remains an odd gulf between the two as if we occupy differing spaces – as if there wasn’t on world in which we’re all working to find a place to live a life and practice our art with some grace and some competence. 

And so my wish came true.  I got to be a teacher. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s always great.  To teach in the arts in the United States at any level usually means mounting some defense of the arts and arts education. There is deep-grained doubt about the utilitarian value of the arts in this nation. There is a deep-grained skepticism about making a life in the arts as if somehow all avenues of life don’t have elements of risk – as if people don’t risk failure in the restaurant business, or risk failure in the shoe business, or risk failure in the automotive business.  Real money making in our culture means selling something – and not everyone is made out to be a great salesperson.  And even though it’s a riskier proposition to try to make a life as a professional athlete, sports in education rarely needs continual justification.

So I spend a fair amount of time justifying my job and the jobs of colleagues in a way that a basketball coach or a marketing teacher does not.


And it’s unclear to students what the value of education in theatre and dramatic literature might be.  We live in a culture where young people have been brought up to “learn” to a high-stakes multiple choice test that can be graded through a Scantron machine.  This perspective looks at education in a purely utilitarian way as well.  “Give me what’s going to be on the test, give me the rubric, and let’s get on with it,” some students seem to say.  It’s as if they’ve played a very boring game for too many innings, know the drill, and can’t we just get it over with?  “Read the passage, and answer the questions at the end of the passage,” the instructions read.  Why read the passage?  Immediately jump to the questions so you can get the game done, and you can hang out with your friends.

And then, we have a culture in which young folks experience a world mainly through some mediated process – usually a small screen, or sometimes a big screen – but often through a screen.  Some young folks can be seriously unpracticed at engaging other humans in a non-mediated way.

It can be a challenge, then, to get young folks to stop. To engage with a play.  To engage with a scene partner.  To engage with the human beings who’ve worked at this art form in the past. Simply to engage.

Engagement with other humans is never easy.  Some of our Republican friends want us all to behave like good Baptists.  I’m afraid we’ll disappoint them.   We’re just human.  And our mass of imperfections show up a little more clearly when we’re separated from the air-brushed, Photo-shopped, Auto-tuned mediated world of the screen.

Finding the way from the self of home and high school to the self of what do I do with myself after a few short years of college is the path of transition.  Transition means being betwixt and between.  False starts.  Stepping into the unknown. 

When we’re successful, learning happens. Sometimes we’re not successful. Everyday we get back into the room to try again.

When your wish comes true – whether this holiday season or in the new year or in the years to come – may it include a sliver of challenge.

The messiness of human feeling and human engagement may not always be pleasant, but it may bring happiness.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2015 Nathan Thomas
©2015 Publication Scene4 Magazine




December 2015

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