Taelen Thomas brings artists of the past to life.
Thursday, January 27, 2005
From time to time Taelen Thomas does this thing, “the hoot.” It’s part-animal call, part-song, and all joy. When he did it in Chautauqua Hall during the Monterey Bay Poetry Festival last year, it lasted for nearly two minutes and bounced around the rafters of the high-ceilinged room as if it had wings. Wearing expressions of delight and near-childlike wonder, the crowd looked up into the air above their heads, watching the sound fly around up there like a barn owl.
The hoot embodies not just the prodigious performer himself, but also the obvious thrill he gets from performance and life. There’s a magic to it that infuses the mysteriously dashing Thomas himself.
Taelen Thomas doesn’t consider what he does “theater.” Involved in the Monterey Bay poetry scene for decades, Thomas is an esteemed master of the spoken word, but he’s made something of a reputation over the last 20 years doing what he refers to as “historical characterizations”—one-man embodiments of historical characters like John Steinbeck, whom he will portray at the Indoor Forest Theatre this weekend as part of the Staff Players’ American Author Series.
“Sometimes you just get amazed by somebody,” Thomas says. “But maybe you don’t know much about them. So you get acquainted. Sometimes you make friends with the personality, learn to appreciate their various attitudes. It’s a little like running around playing Daniel Boone in the woods.”
When Thomas decides to “get acquainted” with a historical personality, he begins with an intensive period of research that includes contacting and meeting people like Jack London’s biographer Russell Kingman. Then, once he feels he has an understanding of what made the man tick, he begins to assume his mannerisms, his attitudes, his point of view—some intangible things that make Thomas’ performances so enthralling and visceral.
“It starts with a way of standing,” Thomas says. “A boxer has a different way of standing than a sailor. Daniel Boone, for instance, wears moccasins—he feels the earth. It starts with the feet and balance. I don’t try to be precise. I want a suggestion of the personality and attitudes of the character.”
Originally from Lake Bellaire, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio, Thomas came out west in 1962 to study philosophy and boxing at Stanford. As a student of ancient Greek philosophy, Thomas put a lot of stake in public oration and before long he was performing his poetry in local cafes, bars and clubs.
In the early seventies, Thomas lived in Ben Lomond, then La Selva Beach, and taught part-time at Cabrillo College—“mostly ancient Greek philosophy, always part-time,” and grew increasingly active in the local poetry scene.
“It was quite a scene in Santa Cruz in the early ‘70s,” Thomas says. “There was a lot of talent. I would take Hawaiian and Pygmy chants, ancient Greek chants…the music of exotic languages and tried to get those effects incorporated into the American language.”
In the 1980s, after a period of travel, Thomas moved to Carmel and turned his attention to biographical sketches. His first “historical characterization” was Stanley Ketchel, middleweight champion of the world in the Ragtime era.
As a former boxer who’d done “a lot of sparring and had a few years of a career, but not professionally” Thomas reanimated this little-known pugilist at the Grovemont Theater in 1987. The performance was a hit and Thomas wound up performing Ketchel in New Zealand, Boston, and Amelia Island off Jacksonville, among other far-flung places.
The experience led Thomas down a long historical trail that found him embodying such luminaries as Robert Burns, Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt (“a whole different posture and attitude than anyone I’ve experienced”), Ogden Nash, Frank James (“Jesse’s big brother”), Black Bart (“the nonviolent stage coach robber—he left poetry in the empty strong boxes he’d robbed”), Leonardo Da Vinci (“it was commissioned before the novel came out”), the ancient Greek poet Archilochos (“a seventh-century B.C. mercenary soldier and lyric poet”) and in A Very Close Call: The Making of America’s Precarious Constitution, a delegate from Georgia present at the signing of the Constitution.
“They’re not really scripted,” Thomas says. “The whole play is in my head. Though it’s less a play and more just an embodiment. I develop each performance in six-minute chunks then I master them in chunks and then put them together.”
In addition to his one-man shows, Thomas has stretched out over the years with such projects as a recent CD of 27 Robinson Jeffers poems, and the libretto for an opera about Robert Louis Stevenson that was performed at Hidden Valley and featured original music by Stephen Tosh. Currently planning a one-hour radio show about the Constitution with local director and luminary Lamont Johnson, Thomas is also considering reviving Leonardo Da Vinci because of the popularity of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code.
Thomas says it’s too difficult to choose a favorite among his characters but when pressed admits he’s “really close friends with Mark Twain and Jack London.”
“It’s a strange kind of affection and appreciation for a person long gone,” Thomas says. “You got to listen to what they have to say.”
For Thomas, the voices of these historical personalities are there, flapping around in the air above his head, waiting to be heard…just like that hoot which just may still be roosting up there in the rafters of Chautauqua Hall.
Opens 8pm on Friday. Continues Sat 8pm; Sun 2:30pm. $16/general; $12/students, seniors and the military; $6/children 12 and under. The Indoor Forest Theatre. 624-1531.