Robert H. Thomson likens himself to a hitchhiker along the actors’ road.
He stands by its dusty side, arm outstretched, thumb pointed skyward, eyes squinting into the distance, searching for his next ride.
Seated in a corner booth of the Fernwood Inn his arm raised, thumb extended, he sees them as they pass by: “Movie, movie, movie, oh it’s gone,” his head twists, watching the imaginary vehicle. “TV, TV, TV, oh it’s gone. Theatre, theatre,” his eyes stop, his hand drops to slap the wooden tabletop. “Ok, I’ll go to the theatre.”
He’ll take whatever ride comes his way, happy to be at work, telling stories. Well-known for his role as Jasper Dale in CBC’s Road to Avonlea, he’s now onstage in the Belfry Theatre’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, in which he portrays Vanya, who, with his sister Sonia, spends his days reflecting on lost chances and bemoaning his wasted life. Not something Thomson himself makes time for.
His mother’s family is originally from Victoria and he connects himself to the Pemberton and Holmes names.
“I wanted to be a fireman when I was a kid. Then I wanted to be an usher at Stratford, then I wanted to be an actor, then I wanted to be a physicist. I have a confused life,” he bursts.
“You ascribe these motives early on … what’s working itself out is about engaging with people, about telling stories. You can tell stories through physics, through journalism, through the arts, through painting, through sculpture, through politics, it’s all about weaving the narratives by which you live.”
As Thomson talks he pauses only briefly to sip the carrot soup placed before him, preferring to espouse from his imaginary soapbox.
“I hate the industry,” he says. “I really dislike the industry.”
He calls it the corrosion of the narrative. “Narrative has been monetized by big interests. They’ve discovered that they can take a human essential called telling stories about ourselves and monetize it. The switch was in Hollywood, of course. … The corporates moved in and said ‘we like this industry’ not because they like telling stories, but because they like the cha-ching. that comes out at the end of it.”
That’s not to say he would eschew a big budget movie, but he tries to find projects that tell good stories. “Art house films. Films as opposed to toys.”
To Thomson, it’s all about storytelling. “There’s no difference whether you’re on a totally mediocre TV show, whether you’re on a great film, whether you’re at a wonderful theatre called Belfry, whether you’re doing a speech for a fundraiser … it’s all narrative, and the quality of the narrative, why you’re telling it, to whom you’re telling it, that’s the rails.”
The now bearded 68-year-old says he’s been lucky in his career. “I work the edges, that’s what I call it – my career is working the edges. The Quarrel, The Englishman’s Boy, The Saga of Hal C. Banks, they’re all fantastic films for me, Chloe. I did a Greek film no one’s ever seen, a really lovely Greek film, Athanasia.”
The Belfry show, he says is a nice diversion. “I love it. It’s a fun, wry, sad story with laughter,” he says. “It’s a pleasure for me to come and be in a nice theatre with a nice play because it’s like a holiday.”
It may feel like a holiday, but Thomson gives it his all, along with the rest of the cast which includes an entertaining, nuanced performance by Deborah Williams as Sonia, all the abs you can get in an energetic performance by Lee Majdoub as Spike, sweet naiveté from Yoshie Bancroft’s portrayal of Nina, full-blown psychic possession from Carmela Sison as housekeeper Cassandra, along with Brenda Robins tightly-wound, self-absorbed Masha.
“We hope it’s funny,” says Thomson. “All actors despair and think a comedy is not funny before they open. Then audiences laugh and ‘oh my god, it’s funny.’ Having people laugh in the audience is a wonderful, wonderful experience – as long as their not laughing at you.”
Thomson is currently working on a venture called The World Remembers, a centennial project that displays the names of the millions who died during the First World War.
Over the five year centenary (2014 to 2018), the project will display the names of the military war dead from both sides in nations around the world for the first time in history, it remembers and honours shared histories.
“If you’re going to commemorate war, what are you commemorating? The battle, the winning, beating the other people? This is saying no. What we believe it should be commemorating is every person that was killed. They all have stories, they all deserve to be honoured, one-by-one 100 years later. … And they have to be named. No one’s ever named them before.” theworldremembers.ca