DAVID NEW: Michael, when did you first become aware of the play The Elephant Man?
MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON: My first encounter with the play was two years ago. I read it along with probably a hundred other plays we producing at the Gift Theatre, where I am the Artistic Director. The theater is located in Jefferson Park, and the company consists of an ensemble of fifteen actors, writers, and directors who love working with each other.
DN: How did the Gift Theatre begin?
MPT: The company was founded by myself and Will Nedved. We first started talking about it back in college, but were officially incorporated in 2001, and we’re currently working on our twenty-second production. Our original intent was to bring theatre to a working class neighborhood. I’m from Jefferson Park, which is kind of a Mecca for cops and firemen. It’s culturally rich but artistically sparse. Will, who is from a very small town in Iowa, and I wanted to do what we were passionate about in a neighborhood that didn’t have a lot of access to theater art. Interestingly, our first nine productions were in direct opposition to that mission statement, as we performed in venues like Victory Gardens Theater in Lincoln Park. So we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing? We need to disband, change our mission statement, or look for a permanent space.’ We found a fantastic space, this intimate thirty to forty-five seat theatre (depending on how risky we want to be) in Jefferson Park with huge ceilings. Since then, we have been producing great shows and selling out. We’re even selling out Chekhov, which is insane.
DN: That’s fantastic!
MPT: I didn’t revisit The Elephant Man again until Erica Daniels, the casting director at Steppenwolf, asked me to do a reading of the play at Steppenwolf. I read the script, and I was really quite worried. It was terrifying because I couldn’t find a way in to the play. There’s something about the text and the way it is written that felt kind of foreign to me. I met with my acting teacher, Mary Ann Thebus, and we talked about it. I went home and did the type of work an actor does on a script – I broke it down into sections and studied each one. Once I got in the room with the other actors for the reading, everything became crystal clear and it just took off. The key difference was being able to work with the other actors and look into their eyes.
Of course, I was the only disabled person in the room and I was reading the role of a disabled character. All these fun and tricky parallels were happening. The experience of doing that reading held everything I needed, really, to launch into the role of John Merrick.
DN: So, how do you relate to John Merrick? As you work on the character, when will you draw on your own experiences and feelings, and when will you have to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes?
MPT: Well it’s not as if Merrick has the same disabilities that I have. He was a horribly deformed human being. It was a much different disability than mine. What’s intriguing about his situation is that he has normalcy dangled in front of him. He’s never known normalcy, so to be tempted with it is, I think, almost fatal. It is going to be a bit of a stretch to imagine that. However, I do identify with his intelligence, his sense of humor – he has a dry sense of humor like me. He’s also aware of the people around him and how they perceive him, as am I. He’s not fooling himself, which I really love. Furthermore, he’s a man of faith whose faith is tested and I can certainly identify with that. My faith was in a sort of crisis after I got sick.
DN: Michael, when you got sick four years ago, what happened?
MPT: No one knows what happened to me – I am literally a medical mystery. On St. Patrick’s Day of 2003 I was leaving my friend’s house and right before I left I experienced this horrible pain in my neck. The way I describe it is that it felt as if a football team wearing high-heels was standing on the left side of my neck. My friend took me to the hospital and I was having difficulty breathing and I was losing power in my arms. I remember fumbling to get the door to the emergency room open. Within ten minutes I was on life support and, subsequently, in a coma for three days. When I woke up, I was completely paralyzed from the head down. I was on a ventilator and had already been administered my last rites.
And then I started healing – inexplicably. When I regained my voice, the first question they asked me was ’Do you know who the President of the United States is?’ and I said, ‘Yes – and he’s a monster.’ I started being able to move a little bit. My arms started waking up, my legs started waking up. I was transferred from Resurrection Hospital to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. I was assured by everyone that whatever had happened to me was completely freakish and that it had left my system by the time all the tests came back.
DN: Was everyone dumbfounded?
MPT: Yes. I underwent every test imaginable and they couldn’t figure it out. They still have no idea what happened.
DN: And I suppose that kind of mystery around why something is happening causes the crisis. I mean you had to have been asking yourself ‘why me?’
DN: That mystery is something Merrick experiences as well. We understand now what his medical situation was, but during his life it was inexplicable to John.
I want to ask you – it’s interesting that you say that ‘John never knew normalcy; I did.’ I think the play interrogates our idea of normalcy and illustrates that everyone feels they are not ‘normal’ in some way.
MPT: Absolutely. You know, I was a complete dork in high school. I was the editor of the literary magazine and the newspaper. I was on the varsity golf team, and wrote plays and novels in my basement and went to one football game. I did not feel at all normal and …well, who the hell knows what ‘normal’ even means?
DN: I think that that’s one of the central questions of the play, right?
DN: You are a handsome, gregarious, charismatic actor who happens to be in a wheelchair.
MPT: Merrick has a great line when he first meets Mrs. Kendall. He says, ‘Well, I do not know why I look like this.’ People with disabilities need to get certain questions out of the way. When you’re in a wheelchair, you’re either invisible or you’re the center of attention. And people have a lot of questions.
DN: Questions that people aren’t always comfortable asking, right?
MPT: Yeah. ‘What happened? Can you have sex? How do you go to the bathroom? How far can you walk? What do the doctors say? Are you always going to be like this?’ Stuff that they’re just really curious about. And the answers to most of those are ‘yes’ and ‘I don’t know.’ (laughs) But sometimes it’s ridiculous – people come up to you at a bar and they’re like, ‘Hey, good to see you out, man.’ I mean, where are you supposed to be? The closet somewhere? With your pet mouse or something? People try to be good people – to say or do the ‘right thing.’ And that’s another question the play asks – are you saying this because you’re genuinely happy that I’m at your bar with my friends or are you saying this because it is going to make you feel good about yourself? At the end of the day, who the hell knows? For me, the point of the play is that it’s enough to be aware of the difference. If we can keep ourselves in check, then maybe we can do more good than harm.