By Brian Powell
Paul Michael Thomson remembers as a 12-year-old acting in “Lost in Yonkers” on stage at the Arizona Jewish Theatre. He auditioned, was paid, and afterward read positive reviews about his performance.
At that moment, acting became more than just a childhood hobby.
Thomson, a Class of 2011 Flinn Scholar, continued performing in Phoenix-area youth theaters, attended Mesa High School, and graduated in 2015 from the Bachelor of Fine Arts acting program through the Arizona Repertory Theatre conservatory at the University of Arizona.
And from July 26-August 12, the Chicago-based actor, playwright, and founding member of the Story Theatre will have his first full-length play, “Leave Me Alone!” produced on stage at the Heartland Studio in Chicago.
Thomson describes “Leave Me Alone!” as a contemporary, queer adaption of “Ivanov” by 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. He describes it as a sad story about terrible things, but a play with a lot of dark humor. His changes to the original include gender parity and adding sexual identity to the struggles of the main character, who is having an affair while his wife is dying.
Thomson says he writes using hyper-realistic dialogue meant to reflect the poetry that exists in everyday speech.
“My plays often deal with scenes of identity, religion, intimacy, vulnerability and are meant to be representative of all of the emotions and ups and downs that life throws at you,” Thomson says.
Thomson was first introduced to acting at age 7 during a Mesa Public Schools summer camp, where he performed stage plays, memorized lines and wore costumes. Following his performance at Arizona Jewish Theatre, Thomson acted in productions at Valley Youth Theatre, Desert Stages and Greasepaint. In addition, he performed in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at the Desert Botanical Garden and “Romeo and Juliet” for the Arizona Theatre Company, and in many productions at the Arizona Repertory Theatre, UA’s professional training company in Tucson.
“Phoenix has a vibrant theater company for adolescents that not a lot of cities have, and I’m grateful for the experiences I had before coming to college,” Thomson says.
Since moving to Chicago immediately following college graduation, Thomson has performed in a number of Chicago theaters, and will be in an upcoming “Beauty and the Beast” production. He also appeared in the NBC television shows “Chicago Justice” and “Chicago Med”—his most lucrative work since arriving in Chicago, he said.
He is a founding member of Story Theatre, which has required being involved with administrative duties, marketing and fundraising in addition to his acting and writing.
“It’s really tough, but at the same time it has taught me a lot about the theater I want to create, and what I think is good theater versus what’s not,” Thomson says. “I’m hoping to grow the company and get my writing produced further.”
Thomson says the life he is now living is possible because he was one of 20 Arizona high-school seniors selected for the Flinn Scholarship by the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation.
“Because of Flinn, I was able to graduate debt-free and not have any student loans, and as an artist pursuing an artistic career this is invaluable,” Thomson says.
The Flinn Scholarship
Thomson graduated from the University of Arizona with a dual degree in acting performance and Africana Studies with minors in Spanish and art history.
Thomson is the first and only Flinn Scholar from Mesa High School since the program began in 1986. He remembers feeling too academic in the artistic community and too artistic in the academic community, but found his niche with the Flinn Scholar community.
“I felt I was always my best self when I was with the Flinns,” Thomson says. “They challenged me in a way that made me want to be very well read and articulate, and that was good for me.
“The Flinns do see the value in educating yourself beyond your own experience.”
The Flinn Scholarship provides at least two opportunities for international travel—a group seminar to China after freshman year and another study abroad experience—in addition to covering the cost of tuition, fees, housing and meals. The comprehensive package for a Scholar to attend Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona is valued at more than $120,000.
Thomson was unable to study abroad beyond the group seminar because of the way his major was structured, so instead he chose to participate in a summer program with the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, where he studied playwriting, acting, and directing with theater professionals, famous playwrights and professors. It was during this program that Thomson started playwriting, which has led him to where he is today with his first full-length production hitting the stage.