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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007 06:00 pm

Playmates

Eric and Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson drive UIS Theatre into

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PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY
Untitled Document
PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY

At first glance, Eric and Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson don’t betray their years lived on the stage and in the director’s chair. They don’t pepper conversations with Shakespearean monologues or obscure theater lingo. No spotlight shines on the couple.
Small details betray the seasoned theater veterans’ identities: Eric and Missy refer to most jobs as “gigs,” they harbor a fondness for stage combat, and their penchant for funny quips and astute detail confirms that they are natural performers. Eric, 45, and Missy, 41, have crisscrossed the country — acting, directing, and teaching in Lincoln, Neb., New York City, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta — before landing in Springfield, where the married professors run the five-year-old theater department at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The program, a ground-up operation, offers three classes and a practicum each semester, along with two to three full-scale productions a year. With continued growth in enrollment, money in the university’s budget, and Eric and Missy’s enthusiasm for the stage, UIS will be ready to offer a theater minor before much longer.
PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY

Eric remembers vividly his first trip to the capital city. After flying in from Atlanta, he hopped a small plane from a Chicago airport. As the plane descended toward the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, Eric recalls, he looked out the window, thinking, “Why are we going down? There’s nothing out there — we need to go up. “[The plane] kept going down, down, down, and then, at the last second, ‘Ah, OK, there’s a little bit of pavement,’ ” Eric says. “I got out of the plane, and then I saw there is indeed a very nice city here.”
Springfield — or, more specifically, the capital city’s theater crowd — returns the sentiment. Though the two are quick to note that they don’t want the theater program to turn into the “Eric and Missy Show,” they are hyped during introductions by Margot Duley, dean of UIS’ College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as Springfield’s answer to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “I knew they both had a lot of credits professionally,” says Gus Gordon, co-founder of Gordon Productions and chief meteorologist at WICS (Channel 20). “We’ve got these two great new performers and also just great people.”
The creative control enjoyed by the professors — because of support from a progressive administration, Eric says — allows them to fill a niche in the Springfield theater community. Over the Moon Productions, Gordon Productions, the Springfield Theatre Centre, and TriCara Productions, plus a variety of summer musical-theater troupes and other groups, consistently stage plays, but in a town so rich with musical theater Eric and Missy’s dramatic productions, such as Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment and Lee Blessing’s poignant Two Rooms, are a nice addition.
“[UIS Theatre] adds some new amazing shows that wouldn’t get produced otherwise,” says Gordon, an 18-year local-theater enthusiast. “There’s a place for many different types of theater. I think they have created a little niche for themselves, and that is wonderful.”
In addition to their preferences (Eric is a confessed “Shakespearean nut,” Missy an August Wilson fan), the professors offer a training stage on which students and community members alike can strengthen their acting chops.
UIS Theatre’s next production, Period of Adjustment, hits the boards in April.
PHOTO BY MARISSA MONSON

When the theater program was revving up, students weren’t knocking down the doors of the Studio Theatre for auditions, and community members were key players then, and still are today, Eric says. “The theater community is pretty friendly, as far as I’m concerned,” Eric says. “It’s not a cutthroat thing; it’s the opposite.”
Last fall Leigh Steiner, a community-theater veteran and co-founder of Over the Moon Productions, sat in the director’s chair for the faculty-and-student showcase Two Rooms, the story of a husband and wife who have been separated, starring Eric and Missy. “[In the play] the couple never talk to each other together, so you really want people who have nonverbal communication with each other,” Steiner says. Although the characters Eric and Missy portrayed in Two Rooms were separated under grave circumstances — Eric’s role, Michael Wells, is an American being held hostage in Beirut — the Thibodeaux-Thompsons are no strangers to living apart themselves. “We’d spent so much of our lives together apart,” Missy says.

“We really want to work towards offering a theater minor,” Missy says.
PHOTO BY MARISSA MONSON

Eric and Missy were set up, or at least it seemed that way when the then-Eric Thompson, from Minneapolis, and Missy Thibodeaux, of St. Charles, La., sat down next to each other at a multiplex. They were expecting a group outing on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, where both were candidates for master’s degrees in fine arts, specifically acting, but their hands were the only ones in the popcorn bucket. “Pretty much since then we’ve been inseparable,” Missy says. “That’s true. You can pretty much trace it back to that, and she still hasn’t shook me loose,” Eric says. Fifteen years later, Eric and Missy can still rattle off the date: Jan. 18, 1992. Eric finished his degree that year, but instead of blowing town for brighter spotlights and bigger stages, he stuck around for two years while Missy finished her MFA, taking temp jobs, scoring the occasional acting gig, and generally being a “Gary Great Guy” as Missy nicknamed him. “With one hand she was planning her own wedding and with the other she was putting the final ink on her thesis,” Eric says. “I had it easy. I was just riding around on my motorcycle, ready to go.”
The summer after graduation, the newly hitched pair got paying gigs at the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival — Eric onstage, Missy in the box office — but after their time up north the pair had a shared destination in mind: New York City. “We were pretty determined to go back to Lincoln, box everything up, and move to New York City, because that was on both of our life checklists,” Eric says. “We shared that. We both wanted to put [in] a stint of time in the Big Apple.”
The Thibodeaux-Thompsons settled into an apartment on the edge of Alphabet City, an artists’ enclave made famous in the musical Rent. Eric’s and Missy’s things were still in boxes when the phone rang. On the other end was a friend they’d known in Lincoln, offering Eric his first New York gig. “I didn’t even audition for it, and I’m getting a role offered to me.” Eric says. “I remember hanging up and turning to Missy, saying, ‘Wow, this is a great omen.’ ”

Missy was Jacquenetta in Love’s Labour’s Lost at 1999’s Virginia Shakespeare Festival.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MISSY THIBODEAUX-THOMPSON

The couple knew better than to relax, though; booking jobs in the fickle world of the performing arts wouldn’t always be so easy. They didn’t hit Broadway running, but Eric and Missy did get work. “We loved New York,” Eric says. “To be real, we didn’t set the world on fire, but we did get hired as actors and directors, and I think we got hired more than we thought we would.”
Eric and Missy fell in with the Theatre-Studio Inc., then stationed in Hell’s Kitchen. Among other gigs, Missy directed a couple of Samuel Beckett short plays and Eric served as director for a one-woman show in which Missy acted. As exhilarating as the New York acting scene was, Eric and Missy knew that they wanted to get their feet in the door to the academic world. They decided that they would go wherever the first break came, regardless of which of them got it. Missy auditioned for a resident-professional position at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and a month later received what she calls “the nicest rejection letter” of her life. About a week before the semester started, Missy got a call: There was an opening for her after all.
“I tell students, ‘I don’t care if I’m 12th; I got the gig,’ ” Missy says. Missy moved to Ithaca; Eric stayed in their Manhattan digs. It was the first of many times that acting work took them in different directions. With no e-mail or cell phones and a five hours’ worth of highway between them, the bus was the only way for Eric to travel — and, he says with a laugh, sometimes even the bus didn’t make it. “It was one of those things. Is that what we really wanted? No, but that’s where the work was. It was a gig,” Missy says. The importance of “getting the gig” was something they both understood. After the job at Cornell ended, Missy still had the teaching bug, and Eric wanted a piece of academia too. Missy got the first appointment: a teaching job at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Eric hopped from Winthrop University in Virginia to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to Georgia Perimeter College, a four-hour drive from Charlotte, before finally landing at Spelman College, in Atlanta. “We’ve done it a gazillion times now. Even when we were dating, the first summer Eric was in Omaha and I was on the other end of the state,” Missy says. “All of them, we set a limit. I think three weeks was the max we would go without seeing each other. We would figure it out somehow.”
But before Eric was hired at Spelman, Missy learned that she was pregnant. They weren’t living in the same city at the time, but the news had Missy packing her things and moving south.
Eric goes for the jugular. It’s called acting.
PHOTO BY JOE COPLEY

“She had the more important job, frankly, than I had, but she was willing to give it up at that point in time because of Emma [the couple’s daughter] about to make her grand entrance, so she selflessly came down to Atlanta, where we bought a house,” Eric says. When Emma was 3 months old, Eric applied for a tenure-track position at Georgia Perimeter College. He didn’t get the job. “There were a few long afternoons when I was literally walking down the pavement thinking, ‘How am I going to earn a living? I’ve got a little one at home, got no job’ — it sounded like a song,” Eric recalls. The tune changed when Missy got a call from Spelman, asking her to step in as the emergency replacement for a member of the theater faculty. She had just given birth to Emma, now 6, but told the university that her husband was in the same line of work, with a similar résumé. They both came in for the interview, and Eric was hired for an academic year.
During that year Eric mailed résumés to institutions around the country, and he was asked to travel to Springfield for an interview. UIS was looking for a professor to spearhead the creation of a theater department.
Sangamon State University, the forerunner of UIS, introduced a theater program — headed by Guy Roman — in 1971, but after his 1981 departure the program sputtered out. It took 21 years for theater to be resurrected at UIS.
Scenes from the production of Two Rooms
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MISSY THIBODEAUX-THOMPSON
In 2001 and 2002, UIS introduced three academic initiatives: music, forensics, and theater. The school hired two professors to fill the first two programs in 2001, and in fall of 2002 Eric took on the task of launching UIS Theatre. “We had to hire someone who could start the program from scratch,” says Margot Duley, the dean of liberal arts, “everything from developing classes to recruiting students and members of the community to act in plays.”
But Eric’s work didn’t stop there. Cultivating a theater program also meant drawing preliminary set designs, coordinating box-office functions, handling publicity, and developing a Web site, Duley says. “He really was a one-man show,” she adds. The solo act became a duet when the university hosted a national search to add a second professor to the theater department and Missy surfaced as a finalist. “She emerged very much in her own right as the leading candidate,” Duley says. “I think she and I make a pretty good team,” Eric says. “Of course, there was some wondering of ‘I hope my wife doesn’t get sick of me.’ ”
After taking the gig, Missy chose her office. In University Hall, there were two desks available: One was approximately 20 feet away from Eric’s office, and the other shared a wall with it. Missy chose the workspace 20 feet away.
Since the department’s inaugural production — Terrence McNally’s comedy It’s Only a Play, in October 2002 — more people have attended shows every year, and the number of students auditioning has swelled, Eric says. “I really love puffing up my chest about this, and I can say, ‘Hey, there are slightly more people attending than last year,’ ” Eric says. “It ebbs and flows, but if we were a bar graph we are zigzagging upward.”
Missy directed Picnic, by William Inge, a month ago, and Eric’s production of Williams’ Period of Adjustment will not hit the boards until April, but the two are already talking about the next season. “It’s really important to me that we both don’t just do plays written by middle-aged white guys,” Eric says. “We need to do plays written by women, written by African-Americans, and plays written by people of different sexual orientations.”
Eric admits that Missy is probably quicker to consider the woman’s voice than he is, and the truth is, although Eric made the final decision, even before Missy became a professor she was throwing scripts Eric’s way as possibilities for the UIS Theatre season. “For our poor, glorious, fabulous daughter Emma, dinner talk is shop talk, man,” Missy says. The Thibodeaux-Thompsons’ schedules fit together like gears. Eric and Missy teach different classes, and when one is directing the other takes house duty. Bringing on a third member to the theater faculty is the department’s next goal. Currently the Sangamon Auditorium staff makes up the difference by creating sets and lending technical expertise, but acquiring a design and technical faculty member would open the door to a minor in theater. “We’re slowly adding more theater classes,” Missy says. “We’re building a nice core of students and new ones every year, so it’s really nice.”
UIS is in a growth stage since recently becoming a four-year university, and, depending partly on student interest and partly on university finances, Duley says that she can see a minor in theater in the not-so-distant future. “Now we have to get in line and be patient,” Missy says. “It’s happening. Slowly, baby steps. It’s something that we’re working toward.”

Tonight Eric directs Student-Directed Scenes, a collection of scenes from the American Realism genre directed by students in his “Directing for the Theatre” class, at the Studio Theatre, in the Public Affairs Center on the UIS campus. On Dec. 22 and 23, Eric and Missy reprise their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit in the Gordon Productions reading of A Christmas Carol: 1940s Radio Show.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.
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