His theater date may have disappointed him, but John Douglas Thompson was blown away by the show.
“I was supposed to meet this young lady at a show at Yale Rep, but she never showed up,” remembered Thompson, an OBIE Award-winning performer who is starring in “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at Shakespeare & Company opening Friday and running through Sept. 16.
“So I went in by myself and saw August Wilson’s ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ and I had never seen anything like it. It was a profound experience. It made me want to be an actor.”
Amazingly, Thompson was already well into his 20s by then and despite taking an acting class at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, he had never given the theater a second thought.
“I was into business and marketing at LeMoyne, and while I did take an acting class as an elective to just help me get my degree, I wasn’t particularly impressed,” he said. “I thought it was a bit interesting but nothing more. I couldn’t see myself doing it.”
‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’
WHERE: Tina Packer Playhouse, Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Road, Lenox, Mass.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. preview tonight; opens 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through Sept. 16. Check Web site for performance times.
HOW MUCH: $95-$15
MORE INFO: 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org
Watching Wilson’s 1988 play about former enslaved African-Americans during the early 20th century changed Thompson’s life. Having recently lost his job as a computer salesman in Wallington, Conn., he decided to become an actor and enrolled at Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, R.I. Two years later, in 1994, he started showing up at Shakespeare & Company workshops in Lenox, Mass., and has never really left, even though Broadway and Hollywood have called him away from time to time.
“It hasn’t been too bad,” he said, joking about his working relationship with Shakespeare & Company. “I did the two-year program at Trinity and then I came right here and started doing the workshops. Working with these guys has been great. I love what they do and what they represent. I love the company ethos.”
His education at Shakespeare & Company helped him land major roles throughout New England, and by 2005 he was playing Flavius on Broadway opposite Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar.” In 2007 he shared the stage with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and in 2009 he won the OBIE Award playing the title role of “Othello.” New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote of Thompson, “There may be no better classical actor working in the New York theatre right now.”
In “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Thompson plays legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The play, a new work by Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout and directed by Gordon Edelstein, is set at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in April of 1971 as Armstrong is preparing for his final performance. It is a one-man show, with Thompson also playing Armstrong’s mob-connected manager Joe Glaser.
“I don’t think I could impersonate him, so I’m staying away from that,” Thompson said of his portrayal of Armstrong. “I think capturing the essence is a much better way to put it. The way Terry has written the play I think we are capturing the essence of the man, and remember, this is not your typical view of Armstrong. It’s not the public persona. Terry has written about the man behind the smile. We’re taking the veil off and taking a deeper look at the man.”
After its three-week run at Shakespeare & Company, Teachout’s play will enjoy its official world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn, where Edelstein is the artistic director.
Fiction based on fact
“ ‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’ is a work of fiction, but it is based on and informed by the facts of the lives of Armstrong and Glaser, and though I made up most of the dialogue, it closely resembles the way they talked in private,” said Teachout.
“Having my play produced by Shakespeare & Company, and seeing it done by such great artists like John and Gordon is a dream come true. I would never have dared to dream of such good fortune.”
Between 1947 and his death in 1971, Armstrong taped hundreds of conversations with his wife, friends and colleagues that Teachout used to build his script. It was only around a year ago when Thompson was first approached about doing the show, and he was immediately intrigued by Teachout’s effort.
“I was really quite uneducated about Armstrong,” said Thompson. “When I read this play, I saw this incredible human being and I wanted to know even more about him. He was really quite fascinating, and bigger than life. This isn’t Shakespeare, but Armstrong was like a Shakespearean character. He was that big.”
The more Thompson looked into Armstrong’s life, the more he liked him.
“I grew to love him, and it’s not hard to see why,” said Thompson. “He was a great entertainer and a musical icon, but he was also so well-loved. Even when I do a fictional character, I try to find ways to fall in love with him. With Armstrong, it was easy.”
Thompson was born in 1964 in Bath, England, moved to Montreal as a young boy and now lives in Brooklyn.
“I’m American, born in England, raised in Canada and my parents are from Jamaica,” he said. “I put all of those things into it when I tell my story.”
While Thompson has appeared on television in the “Law & Order” series and “Conviction,” and was in the 2007 film “Michael Clayton” with George Clooney, the theater will always remain his first love.
“In a perfect world I would do all of it, but I would never give up the theater,” he said. “The experience is too important, too essential to my being. You want to take in as much as you can, you want to perform in all forms, and television and movies are definitely financially rewarding. But as an actor, there’s nothing quite like live theater.”