An audible buzz hummed around the conference room when the students learned that their presenter has acted in The Americans and Friday Night Lights.
Guest artist Dwayne Alistair Thomas ’01 recently came to campus to share his experiences—from Shakespeare to musical theater to the first Sex and the City movie. He talked with students in visiting professor Ben Munisteri’s Self-Production course.
Thomas’ portrayal of a violent South African freedom fighter on The Americans did air on FX but his depiction of a convict whose son played on the football team on NBC’s Friday Night Lights was never broadcast. Thomas’ part was cut during the final edit.
“I started with a focus on acting but it kind of breaks your heart after awhile, like dating,” said Thomas. He tried out for the role of Calvin “Cheese” Wagstaff on The Wire but the role went to Method Man. Competition indeed!
Rather than wait for great things to happen, Thomas, an economics and business graduate, has taken charge by forming MSW Productions branching into writing, directing, filmmaking, drawing, and composing/performing music. His work is unflinching in its exploration of what it means to be human. He is most proud of the feature film The Real, which he wrote, produced, directed, acted in, and submitted to the Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s up to us to develop who we want to be, to develop as a person through a journey of self discovery,” said Thomas, who lives in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. He’s actually been in training his whole life—from ballet lessons at 6 (his mom’s idea) to penning his first play in high school.
Thomas values his theatrical training at Lafayette, calling Suzanne Westfall, professor of English and director of the arts, and Michael O’Neill associate professor and director of theater, “fellow artists, like-minded people.”
“They taught me techniques and practices I still use. Suzanne would say, ‘write your lines,’ ” said Thomas, pulling a sheet of handwritten dialogue from his bag to illustrate his point.
His theater training in college paved his way in the profession. When he was offered roles to perform outdoors and in-the-round he was ready because he had performed in those venues with Lafayette’s productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Marat/Sade.
Dwayne Alistair Thomas received more than an education at Lafayette. He got a second family.
Born of an unlikely triad of theater, club rugby, and Delta Upsilon fraternity, the members of this non-nuclear unit remain close. Dennis Melesky ’99, Chris Erickson ’02, Andrew Long ’03, Stafford Michael Levy ’01, and Nick Groch ’01 have all participated in Thomas’ work. Variously, they’ve provided acting talent, camera work, sound work, shooting locations, and moral support.
To these guys, Thomas is “D Train” or “Train” for short. “He would run people over like a train in rugby,” says Melesky, VP sales ESS Energy Products, who met Thomas through theater. “Train took his roles seriously. He was adamant about learning lines. He was the first guy to be off book.”
“I’ve acted in a couple of Train’s films. He always gives me weird, creepy roles,” says a laughing Melesky, who played an abusive husband in The Real. While Thomas doesn’t shy away from exploring painful subjects in his work, Melesky describes him as jovial. “He’s singularly focused in a good way.”
Erickson, a medical social worker at Hospital of University of Pennsylvania calls Thomas “one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.”
Erickson met Thomas at rugby practice during his first year. They shared a love of film. “Train and I would talk about really good movies. Star Wars hooked me and later we moved on to Kubrick and Hitchcock.”
Although Erickson wasn’t part of the theater crowd, he attended all the productions in which Thomas was cast.
Munisteri asked Thomas to comment on the increasing commercialization of art, referring to an Atlantic article “Death of the Artist and Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” which the students had read and discussed earlier in the semester.
“Van Gogh. Da Vinci. These artists were about expression. Honesty is missing now,” Thomas said. “You see this in popular music. Bruno Mars sounds like Michael Jackson or maybe Janet Jackson. Even Justin Timberlake sounds like Michael Jackson.”
Hannah Weaver ’17, theater major, who acts in community theater in New Jersey, asked Thomas for advice on handling the pressure of auditioning against actors with BFAs.
“I’ve auditioned with Juilliard students and I got the part. Don’t be intimidated. Training is tricky. Too much thinking can be a bad thing. Sometimes people have natural ability,” Thomas said. “Be comfortable in your own skin. Stay with the trueness of who you are.”
Nontraditional student Scott Kovacs, film and media studies, who used to work in a BMW parts warehouse, asked Thomas how he secures funding.
“Stanley Kubrick funded his own projects. Do it yourself,” said Thomas. If this means laboring in a diesel parts factory, as Thomas has, that’s part of the deal. After graduation, Thomas said he worked in mutual funds investments earning $65,000 a year. Despite the outward trappings of success, he was unhappy. “Some people don’t vibe to that. We’re not what our jobs are.”
He says his career would not be possible without his “incredible support systems,” first among them his mother, Monica Williams, relatives, and Lafayette classmates.
For the students, candid commentary from a fearless creator was inspiring.
“When an artist comes to campus I recognize the importance of talking to him or her, both for the benefit of having any career-related questions answered, and to make potential professional connections,” said Weaver.
Kovacs added, “A common thread among the speakers is that they have all done their best to stay true to themselves throughout their journey. As a student, it makes you feel like your goals and dreams are attainable.”