Kristen Thomson (BA 1990 UC) was a 22-year-old drama student at U of T when she appeared in her first play: a 1988 student production called Monsieur X or the Bicyclist’s Widow. As acting debuts go, this one was particularly inauspicious – it took place inside a wooden box. Thomson remained hidden onstage for a good chunk of the play, waiting for her cue to emerge. No one at University of Toronto’s U.C. Playhouse (now the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse) could have guessed that a brilliant career would be launched when Thomson crawled out of that box and into the spotlight.
Seated at the kitchen table in her downtown Toronto home, Thomson laughs heartily at that first acting gig. She shared the box with “a guy named Adam Nashman,” and the two used to munch cookies and doughnuts while peering at the play and waiting to emerge. “It was crazy, but I absolutely loved it,” she says.
Thomson, now 37, has been called one of the finest new actors to hit the Canadian stage in a decade. In the past two years, she has won three Dora Mavor Moore Awards: two for I, Claudia, a solo drama she wrote and performed, about a lonely 12-year-old girl upset by her parents’ divorce.
Theatre was far from Thomson’s mind when she entered U of T in 1985, intending to earn a degree in English and politics. Then, in her second year, a tragic event shattered her world. “My best friend was killed in a car accident,” Thomson explains flatly. She wandered through the school year in a grief-stricken state. “Life is…” she begins, but the words trail off. Setting down her coffee mug, she rubs fingertips against thumbs as if trying to seize every bit of sensation from each nerve ending. “You can feel how important it is,” she finishes.
Dissatisfied, Thomson changed her major to drama and literary studies. The decision wasn’t entirely whimsical, she says, since she’d long felt drawn to acting. She recalls lying on the theatre floor during a warm-up not long afterward: “I did have a very strong feeling, almost like a presence descending – OK, this is where I belong.”
That the theatre is Thomson’s natural home is not disputed by anyone who has enjoyed her performances. Since graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal in 1993, she has played a variety of roles, including a pot-smoking flirt in Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water and a seductive beauty in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Live theatre remains Thomson’s passion, but lately she has taken on some film work. In September, she joined Canadian director John Greyson in South Africa to film Proteus, a fictionalization of an interracial, homosexual love affair between two prisoners in the early 1700s. Thomson plays the governor’s wife in the movie, due to be released this year.
Looking ahead, Thomson would like to write another play, keep working on new Canadian plays and maybe someday take on the role of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She may have started off inside a box, but the future holds no such boundaries for this alumna.
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre