Playwright hopes film will stick with local audience


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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

It happened sitting on a Red Line el. Before everyone had a cellphone and there was nothing to do but sit and think.

He noticed different ages, races and styles. 

"Chicago is such a diverse city that way," observed then 19-year-old Tom Markey. "The subway is such a great equalizer. I started thinking, 'What's this person's story?' … These people are from such different worlds; I want to see their world's collide."

That seed of an idea grew until it became a small show in Chicago, then a fully staged production off Broadway and now a feature film. Stuck will be showing locally at the Lake Theatre for one night on Thursday, Aug. 25.

Markey, 32, who now goes professionally as Riley Thomas, took his initial idea and later put music to it, "wanting each character to have their own sound."

His first staging of the show in 2008 was in a Chicago storefront.

"It was a crash course," Thomas said of the group of friends and band that came together. "We had no idea what it was going to take."

Raised in River Forest, Thomas' first foray into theater was when his mom, Peggy Markey, bribed him with candy to audition for Aladdin at Village Players when he was in third grade. He got the part and "it went from there," Thomas said.

While at Roosevelt Middle School, he wrote his first play. It was a spelling assignment to write a scene. His creativity was recognized by his teacher who submitted it to a traveling theater group that puts on acts written by students. They came and performed in front of his class, according to Thomas, who recalled being embarrassed by the spectacle.

He sang in the A Capella and Jazz Choirs, did some writing and arranging, and performed in theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School before pursuing Musical Theater Performance at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio. But Thomas soon realized the role of actor was very different from that of playwright.

"I didn't want to be restricted to telling others' stories," he said and became more serious about writing after college, noting that he is mostly self-taught, taking master classes, going on writing retreats and reading books on the subject.

By 2012, Stuck was accepted by the New York Musical Festival, the most prestigious in the world, according to Thomas. While it led to having his musical staged off-Broadway, it also meant he was thrust into the role of producer — employing professional actors, dealing with union contracts and having to raise thousands of dollars. "It was my grad school," he said.

The director he chose for the production, Michael Berry, also works in film. After the festival wrapped, Berry recruited Thomas for a film project and introduced him to a film producer who had heard about Stuck and asked him to see the script. 

Thomas thought he'd never hear back, but instead got a call about turning his musical into a movie.

The playwright was closely involved in the process, attending most days of filming and giving creative input throughout. The movie premiered in New York City in April and had limited release nationwide, but was not widely seen on his home turf.

Next week's showing changes that. It is also a fundraiser to support his next theater production, My Real Mother, at the New York Musical Festival later this month, July 30 through Aug. 4.

Peggy Markey said her son "moved to New York with a dream, works hard at his craft and waits tables to make it happen."

Thomas' points out that he not only has to support himself, but put on his musicals as well. But he believes everyone who comes to his shows "leaves for the better."

"I've never been afraid of hard work," Thomas said. "I don't need to be the next Stephen Sondheim. I would love it if my (theater) work is the only work I need to do."

See "Stuck" and hear from Riley Thomas, Thursday, July 25, 7 to 10 p.m., Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St., Oak Park. $20. Tickets: 

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