Riley Thomas on Theatre, Diversity, and Buffy

As actors in New York City, we are often exposed to new artistic endeavors. Some are really good and some you wonder how they even got as far as a staged reading. I have to say Riley Thomas’s work falls into the first category. I am probably unhealthily obsessed with this man. I think he is my spirit animal. We bonded over our obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings. Not only is Riley one talented mother of a writer, he's also all about diversity and inclusion. Below he answers some of my questions regarding his work and what he’s doing to break stereotypes. #BuffyLives

Riley Thomas
Riley Thomas

After seeing your show Wearing Black I have totally become a huge fan of yours. Not only did your show break the barriers of color, but it is about a very difficult topic that we don't discuss too much in today's society, addiction. Why did you feel this story was necessary to tell? Is it based on any real life experience?  

I felt it was necessary to tell precisely because it’s a topic not often discussed in today’s society. Addiction is still stigmatized and misunderstood. What’s more, the ramifications go well beyond the addict, and that’s something that not many people realize. Wearing Black presents addiction amidst a framework of death to help audiences confront their worst fears in a safe environment, hopefully bringing them out on the other side with a little more empathy and self love. The show is based on real life experience, but what isn’t?

How are you able to break stereotypes? As a playwright do you feel it is important to specifically state in your works that certain characters have to be people of color? 

Diversity and representation are really important to me. Breaking stereotypes is as easy as avoiding the cliche - so it’s difficult and simple at the same time. Do less of what’s been done, and always challenge yourself to go deeper. If I’m stuck in a stereotype or cliche, I return to the reason why I felt it was necessary to use in the first place, and try to explore that reason from a different angle, or manifest it in a less obvious way.

When it comes to how I handle casting people of color, I’m of two minds. Which avenue I follow depends on the show. I think it’s critical to write shows where the character’s race is necessitated by the plot - representation in such an explicit manner is important, and forcing all subsequent productions of the play to have that character played by that specific person of color offers an ongoing diverse opportunity. However, I believe that one of the best ways to celebrate diversity (and challenge stereotypes) is when a person of color is not necessitated in the role, and it’s cast that way anyway. I’m interested in challenging the “default to white” mentality. For my shows that do not have race explicitly delineated in the breakdown, I always insist on a blend of people of color and demand that future productions do as well. I don’t care what roles they’re playing as long as we’re avoiding tokenism. It also doesn't matter to me if in one iteration the lead is African American and in the next he’s Asian and in the next he’s White - as long as there continues to be a blend of color throughout the cast. When the race of a character and the actor in the role no longer matters, then we will have truly achieved our goal of diversity and representation. I cast my shows as if we were already in that future.

What is your favorite show you've written and why? 

I would have to say Wearing Black

There’s something deeply personal and powerful about it, and the music feels charmed. A lot of what I wrote simply fell out of my fingers, as if I was transcribing it from wherever it already existed. It resonates with and scares me time and again. It’s an honor when people accept the challenge to see it.

You just had a feature film released, Stuck, starring Giancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, and Ashanti. How was the process of turning a musical into a movie? Do you think the adaptation did your work justice? And where can we see Stuck? 

I could write a book about the process of turning a musical into a movie. The creative process for adapting a stage musical to screen is difficult, specific, and massively rewarding. In a nutshell it’s rewrites, rewrites and rewrites. In development for Stuck in all it’s versions, I’ve written close to 100 songs. We spent countless hours debating substance and style, and how to present the music in a way that audiences would accept. Stage and film are vastly different mediums, so honoring what was powerful on stage in a way that’s equally powerful on film is like balancing a tabletop on the head of a pin. Ultimately I’m very proud of what the film has become. It captures the essence of what I was trying to say, and it’s beautifully crafted by the incredible film-making team. It hasn’t been released to theaters yet, but when it is I’ll certainly shout it from the rooftops.

You and I have talked a lot about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and what big fans we both are! Has Buffy and the worlds of Joss Whedon been an influence for you stylistically? Also, what are some of your favorite genres be it books or films?

I can say unequivocally that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon are the greatest influences on me as a writer. His world-building, style and character are blueprints of genius. His blend of humor, heart and darkness is something I strive to emulate. His use of metaphor makes his Sci-Fi/Fantasy shows unique, as he grounds the action metaphorically in order to give it relevance to reality so you’re watching more than special effects. One of my favorite quotes of his concerning writing is: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” For me, that style of creation is the best way to invoke a feeling in an audience, and that’s the entire purpose of writing.

I love almost all genres of film. If it’s made well, I’m going to appreciate it, and I seek them all out equally depending on my mood. As for books, I tend to pick up mystery or thriller if I’m looking for fiction, but I’m equally as interested in non-fiction. I have a scientific bone so I love reading about anything that ends in -ology, as well as philosophy and spirituality.

Any advice you have for the aspiring writer/composer? And how can other writers help with the diversity and inclusion problems we still have in the entertainment industry? 

The best advice I have for aspiring writers/composers is to FINISH. No matter what, finish your work and put it out there. That’s the only way you’ll learn. Accept that people will judge you. Learn not to care. Learn how to direct the criticism you want - don’t ask for blanket feedback. Learn how to trust yourself. You’re the boss.

What do you have coming up? Any projects you are currently working on?

In addition to the release of the Stuck film, the world premiere of my new play Convicted is in August with the inaugural season of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival. Convicted begins with a savage murder, and follows Amy, the key witness, as she helps the detective put together the reasons behind the heinous crime. It’s like my version of a Law & Order episode on stage. Check out my website for updates and more information on what I’m up to.

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