As G. Valmont Thomas, a charismatic actor with 14 seasons of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to his credit, struggles in the shadowlands of stage IV cancer — with no shortness of his signature passion — friends and fans have gathered about him in battle against the financial ravages of the disease.
His “tribe” has set up a crowd-funding drive at www.gofundme.com/gvalmontthomas, with a goal of raising $35,000 to help cover expenses for living and for the prostate cancer procedures that await him over the next year, says organizer Patty Bonnell of Seattle.
OSF anticipates Thomas returning for its reopening next spring, says the festival's Artistic Director Bill Rauch, noting that Thomas is covered by his Actors Equity insurance for the coming year, by having acted on the stage for enough weeks of this year. Until the new season begins, however, he does not have an income.
“One of the reasons I fell in love with this company is watching him,” says Rauch. “I just so admired the variety of things he has done, so much classical work, so many performances in contemporary works.”
Thomas this past summer crowned his career with the so-called “hat trick,” playing Falstaff in both "Henry IV, Part I" and "Henry IV, Part II," but was unable to continue beyond the first week of July. He handed off the role to understudy Tyrone Wilson and went straight into “painful” stages of treatment and recovery, he says, learning ways to deal with what he calls “bone pain.”
Following a diagnosis in 2013 — the prostate cancer probably started in 2011 — Thomas persisted in his work on the stage. He started the season in Ashland this year with OSF fully aware of his condition, he says.
“They knew the risks. With chemo, my hair would fall off during performances. I thought it was spiders in my ears, but I would just deal with it. It’s been tough, but acting is what I do here on Earth. I am not going to sit around and wait for death. I am having as much fun as possible.”
Thomas says he has gotten the pain under control and adds he hopes Rauch is right about him starting the 2018 OSF season.
“I certainly hope I will. I’m going to pull back on the amount of work I do and direct a little more.”
He is scheduled to play Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” and to do a lab at the Black Swan Theater.
“G. Val is the kind or person who inspires people who want to help,” says Rauch. “He’s given so much joy to audiences over the years and OSF is a company that helps take care of its own. It’s one of the reasons I am proud to be associated with it. We all know health insurance in this country is imperfect, but he should be insured all of 2018.”
Bonnell, an old friend from Western Washington University, where Thomas earned his undergraduate degree, is organizing the gofundme campaign. She says his financial straits come with the territory in acting.
“It’s the reality of being a working actor that, once your contract is up, you have to go look for work," she says. "His focus now is on care and treatment, so until spring, he’s waging a hard, difficult fight against an aggressive disease when no money is coming in.”
Reflecting on her lifelong friend, she says, “He’s a wonderful person, a tremendous actor. He’s always a teacher first. That’s why people respond to him so well. He has that desire to communicate, is an excellent listener on and off the stage, comfortable talking to people much younger and older — that, and an incredibly big heart and talent draw people to him. And on stage, he’s good at throwing attention to other actors."
Redirecting attention to others, she adds, is a challenge when Thomas is present.
"On stage, it’s hard to look at anyone else.”
In addition to his bachelor's degree in theatre arts, Thomas earned a master of fine arts degree from Penn State University. He has performed in Seattle and Portland and served on the faculty of The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He has twice received Seattle-based Gregory Awards for acting, which are recognized as the most significant theater awards in the Northwest.
Thomas' connection in the community and among his peers is reflected not only from the comments of those who know him, but in the response to his friends' request for help: The gofundme campaign in one month has reached almost $30,000 of its $35,000 goal, with more than 300 donors contributing. But more is needed.
The gofundme site begins with a riveting story: “On July 8, G. Valmont Thomas was dressed and ready to perform at (OSF) in (both Henry plays) making him the rare actor to perform Falstaff in all 3 Shakespeares, as well as one of very few Black actors to do so. He did it. Despite cancer, despite pain, despite the toll the disease was taking on him. He continued to fight and to perform. But cancer is patient. And insidious. And it would not allow him to perform the next night. Or the night after that. Or any night since.”
Now his friends are doing everything they can to give him that chance to get back into stage form — and back on the stage.
“He’s got a job waiting for him for his 15th year," says Rauch. "You bet.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.