Jim and Kay Thigpen and the Trustus Legacy

By August Krickel

Jim and Kay Thigpen didn’t set out to be Columbia icons, or even pioneers in the local arts community. They just wanted to see and be involved in some good shows

It’s hard to imagine the local cultural landscape without their creation, Trustus Theatre, Columbia’s professional theatre company that specializes, and excels, in alternative and non-traditional plays. It’s harder still to accept that Jim and Kay are retiring a year from now, after the end of their 27th season, and perhaps hardest to realize that they are, in fact, old enough to retire. Kay happily admits to turning 70 this year, with Jim turning 69 a few months later. They seem at least a decade younger.

Sitting in the darkened Trustus house while a hot summer afternoon blazes outside, the couple is a study in contrasts. Ask them about their early careers, and Jim (ever the showman) takes the lead, launching into an eloquent and often passionate recollection of an earlier era, or a moment in time, which leads to an example, then a funny vignette, then an observation relevant to today, followed by a wisecrack and a lesson learned. Kay then adds a few succinct details to the original question. They’re not unlike the silver-tongued dreamer and his more practical love interest from shows such as The Woolgatherer and Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, roles they have portrayed together on stage. They are not so much a mom and pop ( as they are often described), nor grandparents (a role they have relished in recent years), but perhaps a beloved and slightly wacky, bohemian aunt and uncle.

Their story has become almost legendary:  two high school drama teachers took out a second mortgage on their home to start up an alternative theatre on a shoestring budget. Jim laughs as he recalls the niche they quickly established: “We’re the theatre that curses and does nude shows.” (He quickly adds that it’s never anything gratuitous.) Kay had begun her career in teaching after moving to Columbia in the ‘50s, when her father, Lou Kaplan, opened the House of Fabrics. Jim came for graduate school in the ‘70s, and stayed to teach, first at A.C. Flora, then later at Spring Valley. Kay’s parents were active at Town Theatre and Workshop Theatre, and she met Jim when they were cast in a production of Desire Under the Elms at Workshop. Kay’s mother, Hazel, didn’t care for Jim at first, he recalls: “She said he’s a sick man; he’s a drunk. … Oh, and he’s probably gay.” His eyes twinkle, and he adds, “So, she got two out of three right; that’s not bad,” pointing out that the third was actually a compliment, because she first saw him believably portraying a gay character on stage.

The Thigpens married in 1979. By the mid-‘80,s Kay was working with her father, and Jim received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study contemporary theatre in New York City, where he saw dozens of new, cutting-edge shows. Kay drove up to bring him back, and together they attended performances of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and A…My Name Is Alice, both introduced to Columbia in the first season of Trustus. It was during “that long 14-hour drive home” that they began discussing how new works like this were never seen locally, but how the Midlands certainly had the talent and resources to do small-cast, one-set shows.

Back in the 1970s, during his tenure as president of Workshop Theatre, Jim had been convinced by then-City Councilman Kirkman Finlay Jr. of the importance of the arts to the downtown area. They found an upstairs space on Assembly Street, surrounded then as now by pawn shops. Patrons of the previous tenant, a dance club called The Beat, had trashed the place on its last night of business, so their very first production, Luv, was staged in 1985 at Spring Valley High School while repairs and cleanup commenced downtown. There was no shortage of community theatres in the area, each with a specific mission and core audience, but lesser-known plays, newer plays, and especially plays with mature language or themes rarely were produced. Jim notes that “actors will go anywhere for a role,” and word quickly spread.

Actress Libby Campbell recalls that the late actor/director Jim E. Quick made her go to auditions for the second show, Extremities, which were held at House of Fabrics. “I was amazed that I was cast as Marjorie! Putting that first show up was just an incredible experience. We alternated rehearsing and painting and hammering and sanding. … We all felt that we were involved in something that was really and truly going to have a lasting impact.” Actor Bill Arvay, who has worked as business manager for Town Theatre and later did marketing for USC’s theatre program, was house manager for opening night. “About 30 minutes before the house opened, a street person appeared at the first floor doorway and had a brief conversation with me as I stood at the top of the stairs. He then relieved himself just inside the doorway and proceeded on down Assembly Street. Jim Thigpen, totally in control, brought down the mop, bucket, and disinfectant and restored the entrance to pristine opening night condition. So much for the glamour of show business!”

Extremities was controversial enough on its own, with themes of violence and vengeance, but the drama wasn’t limited to the stage. As Campbell recalls, “We were well into the show, Charlie (Peterson) was tied up and in the fireplace, and I was downstage right doing a monologue. I was vaguely aware of a squawking sound somewhere in the background. Jim walked up to the stage, patted his hand on the proscenium, and said ‘Hey guys, excuse me, …’ My immediate reaction was ‘Oh God, am I so awful that he has to stop the show?’ Then he made the announcement that the building had to be evacuated; someone had called in a bomb threat. I realized only then that the squawking sound I’d heard was the chatter on the police officers’ radios. We filed out, with the audience going out front onto Assembly Street. The cast went down the back stairs into the tiny fenced lot directly behind the theatre. We’d been there for quite some time when someone finally realized that Charlie was still tied up in the fireplace! When the building was finally cleared, every audience member came back in, we picked up where we left off, and Trustus has been rolling ever since.”

From the outset, the Thigpens wanted to be accessible and audience-friendly.”We asked, what do you hate most about going to the theatre?” Jim remembers. “You have to put on your Sunday suit, there are those uncomfortable seats, and you can’t drink a beer. We wanted to take away those excuses. Plus, in those days you could smoke in our theatre, just like in a bar.” Instead of traditional seats, Trustus featured 50 large, stuffed, floral-print chairs, with tables for drinks and popcorn. There was room for 20 to 25 more audience members on bleachers, with those spaces going for a mere five dollars. There was a bar in the back, and Kay beams when reminded that they may have been the first to introduce Columbians to Rolling Rock Beer.

In the beginning, Jim and Kay comprised the theatre’s full-time staff of two, paying themselves a whopping $250 a week. Jim was the artistic director, and Kay was the managing director, handling the box office. The name, “Trustus,” originally seemed far more exotic than its very practical roots. Knowing that theatre-goers wanted a good experience but might hesitate to purchase tickets for something they’d never heard of, Kay wanted the message to be clear: just trust us – you’ll enjoy the show.

The Congaree Vista as it’s seen today barely existed in 1988, when Trustus moved to its current location at 520 Lady Street, a former electrical motor warehouse that literally had been moved all the way from Pickens County decades before. The earliest galleries and showrooms, Carol Saunders and Charlton Hall, had opened on Gervais Street closer to the Capitol, and a few artists and craftsmen, like Lewis & Clark and Michael Craig, had established workshops nearby. But by and large, the area was uncharted territory for the arts. In the ensuing 20-plus years, the Vista has grown down Lady and Gervais streets to meet Trustus, and the city always has touted the location of a professional theatre in the heart of downtown as a major selling point for tourism and economic development.

As a result of a capital funds drive, Trustus now occupies its entire building and, over the years, has transformed it into a true entertainment complex, with office space, room for set construction and storage, a separate rehearsal space, a library, and an intimate 50-seat black box theatre. The old stuffed chairs eventually were replaced, and the new seats increased capacity from 96 to 134.

Along the way, Jim and Kay have never hesitated to experiment, and with good results. Their acclaimed Playwrights’ Festival, started in 1989, creates exposure for new authors with a full professional production of their work. The Apprentice Company is an ensemble of teen actors who work on shows, take classes, and perform. A need to find actors to fill African-American roles led to the creation of the African-American Acting Workshop, which grew into a Multi-Ethnic Acting Workshop, and created the spin-off group, the NiA Company.

This sort of outreach and inclusion has always been important. Jim recalls, for example, that “the gay community historically has been a big part of Trustus,” going back to 1987′s production of Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, which attracted an audience from Traxx, a nearby gay bar, who then became regular attendees. “Especially then,” Jim remembers, “it was hard to find a place to go with your partner, where you could hold hands in public and be comfortable.” Similarly, IPWIC – I Pay What I Can – Sunday matinees stemmed from Jim and Kay hating the thought that someone might want to see a show but not be able to afford a ticket.

Not surprisingly, the couple’s fondest memories are of sharing special experiences with their audiences, including a production of Sideman from the 2000-2001 season, when the house was filled with professional musicians. They listened intently to “five minutes of nothing but a song being played, and it was a magical moment,” Jim recalls. Doug William’s dramatization of the Doolittle Raiders, Into the Yonder Zone, from 1992, was also gratifying. A number of the actual Raiders were in attendance, and they loved the show. When asked about favorite roles, Kay immediately thinks of Frankie and Johnny, the mismatched lovers whom Jim and Kay portrayed twice. “I got to slap the shit out of him every night on stage,” she says with a grin. Jim is also particularly proud of his performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, because “I really understood that man and where he was coming from.” He fears, however, that his work as an actor might have been handicapped by his role as theatre proprietor. “I kept breaking my concentration, thinking that the AC or the lights weren’t working properly.”

Twenty-seven seasons seem like both a lifetime and an instant, but for Jim and Kay Thigpen, the time has come to pass the reins to that next generation, whom they have been cultivating all along. “As much as I love it, I’m tired,” Kay explains. She had always thought that she would emulate her father, who was active in local theatre into his late 80s and passed away just last year at 95. “You’d think it would get easier, doing it all these years, but it didn’t,” she says. “The last few years … have been hard!”

As if on cue, box office manager Joe Morales appears, whispering to Kay that a caller is on the phone, letting them know that the rights are now available to a big-name musical they had planned to do this past season. When a touring company of the show scheduled a swing through the Southeast, rights had been yanked, leaving Jim and Kay to scramble to find a replacement. Are they interested? A glance of perhaps half a second is exchanged to make certain they are on the same page, and then both declare that Trustus is no longer interested. The new season is already set, and the replacement show, Smoky Joe’s Cafe, worked out just fine. Jim adds a defiant gesture in the general direction of the telephone, and there’s no question that the two are the same energetic, mirthful, creative couple they’ve always been.

Both Jim and Kay stress that audiences will see no difference when they leave the helm. Leadership will remain in the hands of the current staff, with assistant artistic director Dewey Scott-Wiley dropping the word “assistant.” She and marketing/public relations director Chad Henderson will continue to direct and act in shows, as they have for many years now; Morales and technical director Brandon McIver will also remain. “So it’s still Trustus,” Jim says, with the same core family running things as always. His last official directorial effort will be this fall, with the Trustus premiere of the Tony/Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County. Jim’s brother, Ron Hale, now retired from a successful career in soap operas, will make a return appearance. Libby Campbell is in the cast as well and says, “I was in the first Trustus production Jim directed, and I’m in the last Trustus production he’s directing. Full circle.”

Campbell says that, “Trustus raised the bar for all of the theatres in town. It proved that Columbia audiences weren’t as unsophisticated as had been believed … It has been an honor and a privilege to have been involved with this theatre from the beginning.” Actor Elena Martinez-Vidal agrees. “Jim Thigpen is a truly gifted director, and when he is at the top of his game, he is amazing. Jim and Kay have created a legacy.”

Kay doesn’t rule out a return to the stage some day, especially if it’s a smaller role. She can even see herself helping out for a few hours each week in the box office. Most of all, she looks forward to having more time to spend as a doting grandparent. Jim also expects to act again at some point, as well as to direct. “Or I could just sit in front of the TV and get fat,” he laughingly offers as an alternative scenario. “No, you wouldn’t do that honey,” Kay says softly, patting his hand. “I wouldn’t let you.” And there, however fleetingly, one sees the genuine affection that these two so clearly have for each other. Frankie and Johnny, their alter-egos on stage, did live happily ever after, after all, creating a thriving professional theatre that enriched Columbia’s cultural life immeasurably. And for that, a grateful audience applauds them.

- August Krickel

 

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