THE IMPERFECT SHOW NOTES
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Benja Kay Thomas 00:00
I was a person who needed approval from people. And that kind of dictated my life in a way. And I’m not that way anymore. I don’t need people’s approval anymore. I am not afraid to say no anymore. I’m not afraid to say yes to things. So, the self doubt, that’s what I want less of in my life and I’m working towards that.
Achim Nowak 00:30
Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected for that, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you’re listening on. Let’s get started. I am just delighted to welcome Benja kay Thomas to the My fourth act podcast. Benja is an OBIE and AUDELCO award-winning actress, writer and producer. Benja and I briefly worked together in the 1980s when I was a theater director, I think of Benja as that remarkable performer whose career has picked up steam over time, she has acted in films, television, regional theater, and very notably on the New York stage in choice venues like the Public Theater, playwrights horizons and the Atlantic Theatre Company, right before COVID. Shut down New York, New York theatre benja was part of the ensemble of the award winning play halfway bitches goes straight to heaven. The writer and me just loves the title of that play. So welcome, Benja.
Benja Kay Thomas 01:53
Thank you for having me. I feel honored to be here with you.
Achim Nowak 01:56
Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many reasons for wanting to speak with you. One of the things I love about artists, let me just set the stage before we started is that artists keep working at their craft. And the craft keeps growing and maturing over time. And because you’ve had a sustained career, like how we continue to develop that and grow really interests me, before we start, I take every guest back to their childhood. And I’m curious about benja when you were a young girl or teenager, the cliche is that you wanted to be an actress from the day you were born. Did you want to be an actress? or What did you think you wanted to be when you’re young?
Benja Kay Thomas 02:41
Well, I remember being four or five years old, having the big humongous television in the apartment, it was black and white, I believe, not even color. And I just wanted to jump into the screen and be a part of what they were doing. I look back at that. And I say Wouldn’t it be something if this little young black girl jumped into one of those black and white movies? coming in here, you know, but I’ve always I think I’ve always wanted to be a performer, always. And I grew up as an only child even though I am not an only child. So I had to be creative. And I played a lot with my imagination. So I was always performing actually.
Achim Nowak 03:25
You know some people who have those dreams then go to a performing arts high school and they study theater in college. How early Did you really grab on to performing and said, Gosh, this is going to be a career for me?
Benja Kay Thomas 03:40
Well, I can honestly my path has been a little different woman who raised me my adoptive mother never saw that as a career. So I never saw it as a career. I didn’t know that you could make money as an artist. I didn’t know that you can make money as a performer. So it was a hobby for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to college, I took courses but I never really dedicated myself to a particular curriculum. So I went into advertising and merchandising because I said, Well, maybe I’ll be a buyer. And then I went into science and then I mean, I just did so many things when I left college, so I never really went to school, but then you know, the acting bug kept bothering me. So I took some community workshops. And that’s where I really developed my passion. I said I need to go for this because this is something that I love to do.
Achim Nowak 04:42
How old were you when you set yourself I want to go for this. Just want to get a sense of that.
Benja Kay Thomas 04:49
I was a couple of ages.
Achim Nowak 04:51
You were What?
Benja Kay Thomas 04:53
I was a couple of ages so I’ll explain that answer to you. So
Achim Nowak 04:57
that’s an actress answer my friend.
Benja Kay Thomas 05:04
When I was around 18, or 19, I wanted to be an actress. But then I started modeling. I was doing a lot of runway shows, then I did a little something I didn’t know acting here and there, but you know, it wasn’t anything was this community stuff, I moved out to California get married to a man, who was hireable, I joined a theater course there. When I came back from California, that’s when I really started to pursue it. But that was later on. So I think I might have been maybe 25, maybe 2530. And then I left again. And we’ll get into that, then I really came back to it in 2015. And that’s when I really became serious.
Achim Nowak 05:51
Yeah, those are such juicy touch points for me. I had a conversation, just last week with a woman who has she’s a senior HR director, no Corporation. And she is 50 years old. And she was sent to me because a person who was centered and he said, you know, her secret dream is to be a professional actress. She’s not happy where she is. But you know, can you talk to her? And I asked the question, and I was the classic thing. Well, she’s had this dream since she was a teenager. But she didn’t think it could ever happen for her. So your story without all the details is really inspirational already. cannot bring you to those two touch points. One is, when you left for a while, what did you do? And what prompted you to come back and you said 2015?
Benja Kay Thomas 06:47
Well, I’m going to be totally transparent, and you could cut out what you need to alright. I met a guy, I was in a play, I met a guy. I fell in love. I was also a teaching artists with a company called the leadership program. So I was doing some teaching artists work. And I was doing some acting. Come to find out I married this man. But he had four children from four different baby mamas. Okay. And you know, my friends would say, I don’t know why you want to get involved with this guy. But you know, you can’t help who you love, you really can’t. We got married, and two of his children came to live with us. They were young girls. And I said to myself, I can’t pursue my art, and raise these girls, even though they weren’t my biological children. No, I was adopted. I had a beautiful adoptive mother. And I wanted to be the same for these girls, even though I had no children of my own. So I left. Oh, and also, you know, doing a teaching artists thing. So I left to raise these girls. And I just stuck with teaching artists raising these girls, until I couldn’t be a teaching artist anymore. And the girls were getting older. So I said to my husband, I can’t do the teaching artist thing anymore. I cannot. And he said, Well, I have your back, do whatever you want to do. And so that was around 2015. And that’s when I got into it really seriously.
Achim Nowak 08:21
By the time 2015 came around, you were a mature grown woman. And oh, I wasn’t going to go there. Ben Jenny. Oh, what intrigues me because, you know, we all hear all sorts of stories about you know, you’re too old to do this. Now. This isn’t the right time to do this. Who do you think you are? You really think you’re going to have a big professional career now? Did you have those voices? Did you reconcile those voices? How did you transition into being like a serious professional actress?
Benja Kay Thomas 08:54
I did not have those voices. I really didn’t. Once my husband said I got you. I said, you know, let me do what I think that I need to do in order to you know, get back into theater. I called a friend of mine who is a excellent director, writer, Robert O’Hara. He’s very well known. But I met him when he was at Columbia studying and I called him he was casting something at playwrights horizons. And I said, Robert, I know you asked me to do this play before and I wasn’t really you know, ready, Can I at least audition for you can at least do that? And he was like, sure come with this infamy. Benji, you know, you can always audition for me. And so it was just really kind of easy. Getting back to it. I had this. You know, this was a regional theater gig. So it was in Philadelphia. When I got to Philadelphia. The insecurity started to kick in, and I almost got fired from that job because I was like, I hadn’t been on stage and like eight years, I didn’t know what to do. I was off book When I, when I got there, I couldn’t remember them online, I couldn’t remember anything my confidence was, I didn’t have it. So finally I got it together, he didn’t fire me. And the rest is history. But it was because of my good friend Robert O’Hara that he also gave me that push to let me know that I could do it. Nice.
Achim Nowak 10:22
My sense of you is just from following you on social media. And we know a lot of some of the same people from back in the days is that what I heard in the story is not everybody has a Robert or her either they can call you had community, you had friendships, you had people who loved you and believed in you. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that, and how that has influenced and shaped you in your life.
Benja Kay Thomas 10:49
I’m hesitating, because sometimes you don’t know that you have that. You know you have a dream, and you have friends, but you don’t know how much they support you until you reach out to them or that they don’t support you, when you reach out to them. I really didn’t know that I have it. All I know is that I’m a good person. If somebody needs anything, and I can do it, I will or I will give advice or I will give my heart or I will listen. I guess it’s reciprocal from the universe. So it just came back to me. But I never really thought about, okay, I have this community of friends, I can call any time any place. The only person that I really feel that way about is my husband. him I can rely on everybody else, you know, I feel special when it happens. I don’t know if that’s answering your question.
Achim Nowak 11:39
No, it is I’m thinking a the coach in me. For a long time, I didn’t have the courage to ask for help. And for me, when I ask for help. I’ve learned spiritually speaking, that the universe wants to help me and people want to help me but it’s my friggin job to ask, you know,
Benja Kay Thomas 11:56
amen. Amen. Hallelujah.
Achim Nowak 11:58
Yeah, yeah. You’re a working actress. You’ve been you’ve been in some film, you’ve been on TV, you done some really cool plays. If you had to just since 2015. What are some highs that stand out for you like, gosh, this is what I love about having decided to be a serious working actress. And conversely, also, if there were any moments where you go, I don’t know I can do this. This is too friggin hard. You know, take us to both extremes, and maybe two moments that stand out in your mind.
Benja Kay Thomas 12:32
I know exact moments for both of those. Okay, when I came back to New York, I did the same play. I didn’t Philadelphia was called booty candy. And it was at playwrights horizons. I had some time Come see the show. I had I mean, there were, you know, Billie Jean King. I mean, it was celebrities coming to see me perform on stage and asking to speak to me afterwards, you know. So that was amazing. Because I was just getting back into my career. I didn’t have an agent at the time. I found and I remember looking for agents asking friends about agents. Agents came to me and I had a choice of Eeny meeny miney Moe. So I was able to get with an agency that I love that I’m still with. And it just felt really, really good to be appreciated for the work that I put in highs and lows. You mentioned halfway bitches. Right? I love that play. I love Steven gorjuss Pulitzer Prize winning author. I’ve known him from back in the day when we did a teaching artist. Yeah, that shit was hard. I don’t know if I can curse on your podcast.
Achim Nowak 13:47
You can say I’ve been a teaching artists. I wasn’t teaching us with theatre for new audience. That’s friggin hard to slip into the neighborhoods. And do you think I’m with you on that one?
Benja Kay Thomas 13:56
Okay, well, I’m not talking about the teaching artist thing. I’m just talking about the process of doing that play because it wasn’t written. And we were in rehearsal. But the play wasn’t written. And the playwright wasn’t coming into the rehearsal. So he had no idea what we were doing. And we were rehearsing every day for hours and hours and hours and hours with no script. That was hard. But we’re rehearsing six days a week, also previewing rehearsals during the day previewing, I’m getting older. I can’t do this. Or you know what I’m saying? It’s hard work. Our first preview was four hours. We had been in rehearsal for seven hours already. Our first preview was why was long because you know, the playwright was in slicing and it was just very hard. It was very rewarding. I love the playwright. I love my cast, but it was just very hard. And I said to myself, don’t know if I can do theater anymore. Yeah. I don’t know because it’s I would get up literally crying. And my husband was like, I’ll take you to rehearsal. Don’t worry about it. I’ll drive you there. I was like, I can’t make it I can’t do it. It’s hard hitter is hard. I love it. But it’s hard. It’s hard work.
Achim Nowak 15:09
Word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast www.my. Fourth, act calm, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. For our listeners who are not act towards maybe glamorize theatre, because we just see the end product on stage, you know, after all the work that’s put in, What’s the hardest part about the work? Is it the constant repetition, the fine tuning in the new play the cutting and tweaking and constant revisions? What’s the hardest part for you as a performer?
Benja Kay Thomas 16:09
for that particular play, it was hard not having it. And repeating the same lines over and over again, because we didn’t have new pages. So we just went over the same dialog all over again. That was kind of hard, because we did it already. We got it. Why are we doing it again? Just send us home. Why am I here? You know, I know this. But that’s just the one thing because actually, I love rehearsal. I love the process. I love learning. I love exploring. I love delving into new characters and finding why this character text, you know, I study everything about the character, from the time that this person works wakes up, what kind of coffee they drink, if they drink it or not, you know, I mean, I put a lot of work into what I do. But I love that
Achim Nowak 17:01
want to probe a little deeper on the perhaps slightly messy process with halfway bitches. But if I were to generalize it, and again, I’m addressing an audience of non theatre, people who are listening to us is, isn’t every time we step into a role or play or performance, a little bit into stepping number one into the unknown and potential chaos and then trying to make sense of it.
Benja Kay Thomas 17:28
Yeah, but that’s what I love about it. Okay, I think I like chaos. Oh, life has been chaos, let me tell you, but I, you know, is finding that way to hold this person is it’s just like finding out who you are, you know, that it takes it’s a process. And some days you know exactly who you are in some days you are. I don’t know if I can do that. Or I don’t I don’t know if I’m sure if I could pick that stuff I don’t. So that’s what the rehearsal process is also, even after show closes for non theater people. I know a lot of actors, they still visit the character, the show was close, it’s gone. And you’re still thinking about what you could have done and ways that you could have, you know, made the next decision.
Achim Nowak 18:16
Yeah, I understand. I want to go back to when you spoke about getting an agent or a writer and have an agent and so I value the relationship to my agent and also value just the fact that somebody there believes in you and represents you and can you just talk about it’s a very special relationship that people who have a nine to five job somewhere don’t know in the arts you know, if you’re a certain level you do get an agent who believes in you What’s that relationship like and and what’s it like to be represented by somebody.
Benja Kay Thomas 18:55
It feels amazing to know that somebody believes in your talent and not to want to represent you. When I first got my agent. I had three people courting me. It was kind of weird. The first agency I met with, this is so crazy. Again, the first agent I met with I like the woman, her partner came to see me I met both with this woman I first met her and then her partner came and her partner came to see the show, went up to another actress was talking to this actress the whole time. And when I saw her, I said, Hey, she just walked by me and didn’t even say anything. She booked the other actress with me. I can’t go with that agency. No, you didn’t even know who I sat there in this room for an hour speaking to this woman, and she had no clue who I was. Okay, so she’s gone. The second person I wanted to get with the agency. I won’t. I won’t mention her name because it’s a fairly big agency. The agent was drunk. You know, I could smell the alcohol and not saying that, you know, that’s a bad thing. I just didn’t feel that was a proper meeting. Yeah, so the third person came to see me love me. He says I’m gonna send my, the head of the agency to see you. Heavy the agency came. They courted me. And it was just amazing. They made me feel that I was special that I could work that they could send me out that I would book. And it’s an amazing feeling. I guess it’s like getting a job that you really want. Yeah, I’ve arrived and you say I’ve arrived. So that’s what I felt like I felt like I arrived.
Achim Nowak 20:28
And you have and I love that phrase. They courted me. It’s wonderful to be courted and wonderful to be desired professionally. Absolutely. Awesome. So take us you had just had this very intense experience with halfway bitches. And it was getting a lot of recognition. It was awards time. And then the theaters in New York shut down. And I’ve had other actresses on the show, but you’re the first one that can really talk to who was in a what I call a hit play. Right before COVID. shut everything down. What was it like for you to go from this high, intense high to shoot? No more theater for a while?
Benja Kay Thomas 21:09
Well, actually, it was crazy. Hopefully, bitches had been extended several times. Yeah, it closed. And I think February, I got an offer to do a show in Brooklyn at this place called the Billie Holiday theatre. And I wasn’t going to do it because I was just tired. But then I looked at the schedule, and I looked at how long it will run. And I said, Okay, I’ll do it. March 12. So COVID was just starting to be televised. And I was very leery because I’m a conspiracy theorist. And I was telling my husband, you know, I this saying that nothing’s wrong, but something’s wrong. When they keep coming on TV every day and saying, there’s nothing wrong. There’s something wrong, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be around people. Because I think this COVID is real. March 12. I remember I was in rehearsal, and they said, No more rehearsals Broadway closed, you could see people with hazmat suits and medicines were guarding telling the people to leave. It was just crazy. And you know, it just shut down. And I was scared. Yeah, that’s what it felt like I felt fear. But I felt safety being in my apartment not being exposed. So although I wanted to go to work, and I still want to go to work, I still have that fear is this, you know, because I see how divided the world is over COVID. Yeah, how divided my friends are over COVID. So it was a very harrowing experience. And it still continues to be today for me. Yeah. Matter of fact, I turned down an audition in Florida, because of the COVID situation out there. So I’m not going out there. I’m not doing that. So I just turned down the audition. I said, I can’t.
Achim Nowak 22:56
Yeah, you know, you’re talking to somebody who lives in Hollywood, Florida, right? Are you aware of that?
Benja Kay Thomas 23:00
Achim Nowak 23:02
it’s so I just had to joke with you. Because the statistics on Floridaare really bad. But in my everyday life, in Hollywood, just north of Miami, I feel very safe. Because of the choices I make about my life. And the way I conduct myself. And I really understand people. The moment I leave Florida, people tend to freak out when I say that I live in Florida. If you look at where you are today, and we’re facing a really uncertain future, but you think about so what are your dreams and aspirations for yourself going forward as an actress and as a human being as a wife as a mother? What comes to mind when asked that question?
Benja Kay Thomas 23:49
Well, career wise, one thing that COVID has done for me is forced me to look at my career trajectories. So if an agent doesn’t call me with an audition, does that mean that I’m still not an actor? I have other gifts. So I started writing. So I’m working on screenplays, and I’m working on a book. And that’s what COVID has allowed me because everything slowed down. So now I have time to concentrate on these things. I had an online show I created with another friend of mine, and we did readings online on zoom. But you know, they were very successful. We had a very large audience. So there’s always uncertainty, but it’s what you do in those moments and making lemonade and it’s sweet.
Achim Nowak 24:45
Well just follow up this kind of way. I asked this question of myself and others it’s not easy. If you think about things that you’ve been just want to do more of in your life, and maybe things you want to do less of more of what comes to mind and less Oh, word comes to mind.
Benja Kay Thomas 25:02
Moreover, I want to write, I, when I was in college, my professors used to tell me, you should be a writer. I didn’t listen to that I was in college, I didn’t listen to that. But I’m starting to find my voice. And I’m starting to like what I write even if nobody else likes. So I want to do more of that. And I’m doing more of that it’s not even I want to do I’m doing more of that I’m doing more writing less, is doubting myself. I was a person who needed a pool from people. And that kind of dictated my life in a way. And I’m not that way anymore. I don’t need people’s approval anymore. I am not afraid to say no anymore. I’m not afraid to say yes to things. So the self doubt, that’s what I want less of in my life. And I’m working towards that.
Achim Nowak 25:57
I mean, one of the challenging parts for being an actor or actress Is that you, you know, you get rejected a lot. And you’ve also gotten a lot of yeses,
Benja Kay Thomas 26:07
And noes too.
Achim Nowak 26:09
I’m sure you have in light of what you just said, Benja. How do you handle? Or have you handle the rejection? That’s part of your profession that you love?
Benja Kay Thomas 26:21
Well, in the early days, because I was a person who was finding my voice and sometimes didn’t feel worthy. Yeah, the rejection felt comfortable. Oh, well, I wouldn’t have done a good job anyway. Or that wasn’t for me anyway. Now it’s their loss. Or it’s not for me, you know, this job is not for me, if it was I would have it. I’m competing against 1000s of people in this business. So when I book, I’m very appreciative, because it you know, it’s not an easy journey. Like I said, there’s so many people competing for just one child. That’s right. Even if it’s like four lines. They’re probably seen 200 people before alive. So I feel appreciating, if I don’t get it, I’ve learned to move on. It doesn’t bother me. You know, I just go on to the next and I have my writing. So I go back to that.
Achim Nowak 27:20
As a fellow writer, what is your deepest satisfaction around writing? Because writing can be challenging as well. But I haven’t heard that from you. You sound like it’s just a joy ride for you. I don’t want to trivialize it. But can you talk about the satisfaction you get out of writing?
Benja Kay Thomas 27:39
The satisfaction I get is to finish
Achim Nowak 27:42
Benja Kay Thomas 27:45
Because you know, it is difficult. I been working on a couple of things. I was working a memoir, that became hard, because now I have to self examine, and I have to go back in time. And I have to bring up things that I thought were handled, or I thought, you know, I had an answer to, I had to leave that alone. So now I’m working on a book about actors. And that’s fine. The exploration of that. I’m sorry, what was the question? Achim, I just kind of just kind of rambling.
Achim Nowak 28:22
I’ve been hearing that there’s a joy and satisfaction on writing that’s perhaps different from the satisfaction of being a performer. And you answered it, you totally answered it. If there are people listening to our conversation going, I’m just so impressed like benja as a mature woman, chose to fully step into her theatre career. And now, because of COVID, she is more fully stepping into being a writer and embracing that. I wish I could do that too. But I’m a little afraid. I don’t know if I can do what Benji is doing. Like what kind of words of wisdom would you have for somebody who might have those thoughts?
Benja Kay Thomas 29:04
I would say that you are above the ground. Don’t let your ideas go to the grave with you. I think about that every day. I don’t want to be one of those people that oh, I I want to do this. So I wish I could do this. But then I’m wrong. And nothing got accomplished. Don’t be afraid to take a first step. Even if it’s a baby step. Do it because there’s nobody like you and you are unique. Do what it is that you have a passion or you think that you might like to do if it doesn’t work, then you can move on. It’s just like when I was taking my stepdaughter to ice skating group and they would say to them, Listen, if you fall, you can always get up. You can always get up and do something else as long as you don’t really, you know, faulty again, but you know you can you can get up and go somewhere else and believe in you Yeah, you know, don’t listen to those apps in your head, those automatic negative thoughts that come along with, you know, your other positive thoughts because we all have them. I think these automatic negative thoughts, get rid of those.
Achim Nowak 30:18
I want to just end with one last question. And we touched on it before, but again, looking at where you are today, what you’ve been COVID, the things you’ve generated, I have, a lot of them were generated because you did some stuff with friends and people you love to work with and trust, you just picked up the damn phone and said, Hey, I want to do this thing. Because writing can be very solitary, but I just have it Since you’re so steeped in community talk and theater at its best as community. You know, there’s a family of actors doing a play together, when it works, when it doesn’t work. It’s a dysfunctional family, right? When it works, it’s a nice family. But can you talk about how you experienced community and what community means. And having that in your life?
Benja Kay Thomas 31:05
community, me, for me, means trust. But I trust the people that I’m around, and that they trust me that they trust that I say that I’m going to do what I say that I’m going to do and I trust that they are going to do what they were hired to do or said or what they said they’re going to do. community for me also means a kind of relaxation and a familiarity that when I’m around you, I could just be me. Yeah, I don’t have to be anybody else we’ll put on another face. I can relax and be me. So you know, I curse like a sailor. I hope that doesn’t offend you. Can I do that around you, okay. And if it does offend you, then I will, you know, make note of it. And I’ll try to be and I will be respectful of that. Respect, also community’s respect. And those are the things that I value in my life. Truth, honesty, respect. And I guess own loyalty in a way.
Achim Nowak 32:01
Yeah. loyalty. Those are all beautiful words. If our listeners want to learn more about you and the work you’ve done, where should they look you up social media Facebook website, what’s the best way to learn more, or see some of the stuff that you’ve done binge check a Thomas.
Benja Kay Thomas 32:22
I’ve been lazy with my website, but you can always catch me on Facebook, my Benja k performer. On Facebook, I also have a personal page that you can look at and see some fun things that I’m doing. I’m also on Instagram, and you can find me under sweetbenja on Instagram.
Achim Nowak 32:38
Wonderful. It was such a pleasure for me to reconnect with you and for me to celebrate who you are at the stage in your life. I mean, just it’s an honor to have this conversation with you.
Benja Kay Thomas 32:53
Thank you and I told him to not tell people how old I am. But you know, it’s I will say that I will give you the success. I will say that. Cool. I’ll tell nobody.
Achim Nowak 33:04
I’m not going to tell them.
Benja Kay Thomas 33:10
Bye for now. So much. Bye for now. Have a good one. Thank you for hosting
Achim Nowak 33:15
us. Like what you heard, please go to my fourth act calm and subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao