Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Pure Imagination
Scene4 Magazine-inView

September 2011

For me it wasn't the entrance, it was the song that captured me.

In the summer of 1971 I was a kid in a very small, sleepy Iowa town who'd just finished the second grade.  I had nothing in my future except absolutely everything.  I knew that I disliked being my brother's second-banana. When we played Batman, I inevitably was Robin.  When we played Star Trek, my brother traded off Kirk and Spock with a friend – I was always Scotty.

Bill Riley had a morning show local to the Des Moines market in which he played cartoons.   He'd shown a short teaser about a new movie coming soon about a candy maker named Willy Wonka.  They showed the chocolate room with the chocolate river as a teaser.  Even on our old black and white television, it created intrigue.  A whole room of made of candy, that might be something worth seeing.

So on a July day our Mom packed my brother and me into the blue Ford station wagon and drove us into downtown Des Moines to a movie palace where we could see a matinee showing.

Within my family is the story that I stood up and cried at the plot point [spoilers] where it's announced that the fifth Golden Ticket has been found by someone who's not our hero, Charlie.  It makes a good story, but that wasn't the important bit.  The important bit came about a half-hour later.

Gene Wilder, in one of those happy meldings of actor and script, gives a knockout performance.  Wilder reports he only took the role on condition that he was allowed to enter his film with the walking stick, the cobblestones and the somersault.  Brilliant acting.

About 7-8 minutes of screen time later, Wilder, as Wonka, starts a song that captured everything that can be captured in a small boy – my heart, my mind, and most importantly, my imagination.

"Come with me,/And you'll be,/In a world of your imagination . . ."

My imagination could create a world like that?  Sign me up.  I'm there. How can I get my imagination to work like that?  Where can I get one?

Leaving the theatre, some siblings (who shall remain nameless) were very intent on embarrassing me in front of my mother and, later, in front of my father with the story of how I cried in public about a stupid movie. Even getting in the car, in those ancient days even before the VCR, I was trying to commit what I could remember of that song to memory because I knew I probably wouldn't see that movie ever again.   

In many ways that song remains in my heart to this very day.

People can talk the game about creativity all day long.  But being actually inventive, to actually think something new is hugely difficult.  I had a teacher many years ago who confessed that he never had a new idea in his life. All he thought about, he confessed, was a re-ordering of ideas he'd gotten from other people.  I've found, to great sadness, that many people live like this.  These people don't have new thoughts enter their heads. They receive ideas from their folks and families, schools, and/or religions.  Then they go about the business of re-arranging the ideas as they need to do so.  And it does not appear to fuss these folks.

When that teacher said that, I became very fearful that I would be one of the many without a single new idea.

I like to believe that as a young person I had many new thoughts and created some new perspectives.  But as I get older, I wonder if my capacity to come up with new ideas begins to diminish.

Like many of you, I guess, I work with fine people who sometimes have a particular gift for lacking imagination.  "I can just deal with reality," said the administrator. "That's all I can do."  

"If I worked that way," I replied, "we'd never have a show.  The circumstances suggest to a rational person to do nothing and walk away."  But that's not what happened.  We defy reality and make things from nothing.

Being a relatively normal person, regular mind-numbing encounters with the wonderful people who count beans or who are afraid or who can't be bothered to think about the box, let alone think outside it – it knocks down my enthusiasm.  I think to myself that the game's up.  Just put your head down.  Stop working to make something new and wonderful with not very much.  Why fight?

Then I have a meeting with a young playwright.  It's not her first play.  But this would be the first play to be fully produced by a theatre.  A big possibility. She's also going through treatment for cancer – a cancer that neither retreats nor advances.  We'd hoped to produce the play this fall, but it's not ready. The playwright has some conflicting feelings about where the play is going.  The characters haven't taken over yet.  The playwright remains unsure of the story she really wants to tell.

I have such respect and admiration for this young woman.  She's facing something which few people face. And she's worried about a play.

When I was in grad school I had an acting class with a mid-level Method teacher who shall remain nameless to protect I don't know what.  Protect the past, I guess.  I can't guess why, but every single class session included circle games.  Some class sessions were nothing but circle games.  Some of the boys got to calling it the 'circle jerk.'  Toward the end of a full academic year (not just one semester) of circle games , we were sitting in a variety of locations around our classroom.  He came and took each of us by the hand and led us into a circle and said something to the effect that we were the thing that he was proud of.  That circle of people.

When I started my current job I came to our first rehearsal not knowing what I wanted to do.  I hadn't a clue.  So I got them into a circle.  And so it started anew.

It wasn't a new idea.  I'd stolen it.  And stolen it from someone I didn't much respect as a teacher.

As I get older, the new ideas may be slowing down.  Rather than try to come up with something, I steal from seeing Les Ephemeres an idea about rotating platforms and apply it to TheGood Woman of Setzuan.  Am I just a thief?  Maybe.

But as I get older I hold out my hope that out of all the people I see in that circle in years past and years ahead – I can prod someone to have a new thought, a genuinely new idea.  Maybe that new thought helps another, and we all move forward a little as a species.

A young woman fighting cancer wants to make something where once there was nothing using only her imagination.  How else should we honor that fight except by joining her in a world of imagination.

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©2011 Nathan Thomas
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

September 2011

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