At 48, Paige Johnston Thomas’ long-term future seemed well defined: She wasn’t going to have one.
She’d just found out she had a bile duct cancer with a distressingly low survival rate. But at 50, after smacking down her disease through chemotherapy and surgery, she’s free to think about the coming decades.
First chore: Directing “Oslo,” which opens May 23 at Spirit Square, for Three Bone Theatre.
Second chore: Smelling the fresh grapes, coffee, maybe the odd bunch of roses.
Third chore: Deciding how best to use a quarter-century of theatrical experience and business acumen.
“I ask myself, ‘Am I supposed to do something miraculous?’ Because I have a clean slate, and that feels kind of like a miracle,” says Thomas from the Plaza-Midwood home she shares with cinematographer husband Jay Thomas.
“I was supposed to start over two years ago, when I sold my half of Corrigan & Johnston Casting to Mitzi (Corrrigan). Then the cancer hit, and I dealt with that for 18 months. Now I’m weighing all my options.”
Three Bone Theatre gave Thomas her first post-recovery gig, and it’s a heavyweight: “Oslo” won Tony, Drama Desk and New York Critics Circle awards in 2017 for best play. J.T. Rogers, who graduated from UNC School of the Arts in 1990, created a partly fictional look at back-channel negotiations between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Those led to the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, and three participants won 1994 Nobel Peace Prizes: PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres and Israeli president Yitzhak Rabin. A right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin one year later.
Dreams of fame
Thomas seems a good fit for Three Bone, which takes its name from Reba McEntire’s maxim: “To succeed in life, you need three things — a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” Thomas’ backbone hasn’t been in doubt during the cancer crisis, she retains a sense of humor about her life, and she has been snapping that wishbone since graduating from Myers Park High School in 1986 and the College of Charleston in 1990.
“I wanted to move to New York at 18 to become an actress, but my family insisted a four-year college,” says Thomas. (She’d told her mother in seventh grade, “If you were more like Brooke Shields’ mom, I’d be famous now.”)
She came home after college, acted for a couple of years at Charlotte Repertory Theatre and other places, then got an MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill.
“I still had dreams of being famous, and I went to New York. But after three intense years of (study), the joy had been taken out of it. I did not want to stand in line with 200 people (at auditions). Some of the oomph had gone out of me.”
Friend and sometime actress Mitzi Corrigan had started a Charlotte casting agency to service the growing film, TV and commercial industries. They teamed up, and Johnston spent more than 20 years directing and acting on the side while dealing with fretful employers.
“Casting was a 24/7 business,” she says. “The day before a commercial shoot, a client would change a character from a short Caucasian woman to a large Hispanic man and expect us to find one on the spot. Someone at the back of a scene with no lines suddenly had to be a woman with spiky blonde hair.
“The producers’ angst and anger filtered down to me. The stress level on those shoots should have been a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Instead, it was an 11.”
She’d had enough by 2017, parted friends with Corrigan (who kept “Johnston” in the company name) and prepared for new adventures. She and Jay took a cruise to Cuba. Then she got a job directing “Three Days of Rain” for Charlotte’s Off-Broadway. Then she got a check-up.
Enjoying the ride
She had cholangiocarcinoma., a disease undetected until it’s advanced. It affects one to two people per 100,000 in the western world; genetics account for most of those cases.
“I was in the hospital during tech week (when lights, sound and movement are finalized),” she remembers. “I would watch videos of rehearsals and send them notes.”
She recalls doctors saying her cancer had spread through the duct and couldn’t be operated on until chemo blasted the cells — if then. In the middle of treatment, Three Bone called.
“I told them, ‘I want to accept this job, but I might not be around.’ They said OK. I asked myself, ‘What am I living for?’ This gave me something instead of my illness that could become a priority.”
Chemo worked, surgeons removed a mass after the number of cancer cells plummeted, and Thomas now directs her largest cast ever (15) in a complex drama about international relations. They all did homework, even inviting members of the local Israeli and Palestinian communities to discuss troubles that continue today.
She also found subtle humor in a play about a somber subject. At this point, she laughs even about her illness: “I’ve had a happy life. So the comedy of my cancer is, now I can be the tortured artist I always wanted to be.”
She looks toward a future that includes travel (perhaps Japan), books she always vowed to read and more time with her “great and supportive” husband.
“Do I want to run a theater?” she wonders. “That’s where my background and business skills make sense. Should I act more? Now I can imagine being onstage at 75. I’m on this bumpy roller-coaster ride, and I’m enjoying it, but I can’t see yet where it will take me.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 23-June 1.
Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
Tickets: $22 in advance, $28 at the door.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.