Mention the name Billie Sue Thompson around Tulsa's theatre scene -- mention it to actors, directors, theater managers or improv troupes -- and you'll see the look of respect in their eyes that accompanies a grin of adoration for her work, and with good reason.
Over the past 35-plus years, Thompson has acted and directed with nearly every theater company in Tulsa, and has mentored many of the most celebrated actors around, not to mention Emmy and Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth. She also knows every Tom, Dick, and Harry in every production in town.
I met up with Thompson at the Spotlight Theatre on 13th and Riverside, a big art deco building more historical than the river, apparently. We sit at a table and prepare for a showing of The Drunkard, the longest-running play in the United States, going strong since 1953. She orders a Mike's Hard Lemonade and asks for a bowl of pretzels.
"The guy in the hat is one of my adult acting students," she said to a man sitting near her. She smiles and turns to me. "And the lady in blue up there is one of the best stage managers I've ever worked with. And that guy in yellow is a terrific actor. I've worked with him many times."
She's got a story for nearly every human being in the place, and I listen with delight.
"Well I've been acting and directing since I was 8 years old, in my garage. Mom and Dad owned a filling station and grocery, and I'd take stuff from the store and make up plays," she said.
Years later, Thompson was in a clown troupe, a New Orleans miming troupe, did acting training in New York City, worked in commercial and industrial film, and was a finalist in the Miss Oklahoma pageant. She majored in art, then theater, at Oklahoma State University.
"I love art," she said. "I do a lot of my own stage craft planning and designing. I even did three of those penguins around town, for the zoo."
Thompson and I watch The Drunkard together, booing the villain and cheering at the hero (who is "the guy in the hat" she mentioned earlier). "I've been teaching my improv class here," she said. "I love this space. This building has so much history."
She teaches both children and adults through her own company, Actor's and Children's Theatre, which will soon open at a new location on 15th and Harvard, next to Ty's Hamburgers. She teaches improv, acting, creative dramatics, performance, and offers various private lessons.
"A lot of kids especially need private lessons.
I've prepared quite a few for auditions, college, things like that," she said.
Thompson was a public school teacher for many years, and claims to have a special connection with children. "The children know I love them. I'm blessed to be able to create with them."
But when we hit intermission, she admits to having some dark periods in her life as well. "I had a studio in Tulsa for about 10 years, but I closed it to try and save my marriage," she said solemnly behind the steam from her coffee. "It didn't work."
The sound of the snappy, old-timey piano prances around us as we chat. "I love acting and directing. Not sure which one is better," she said. "Acting is not necessarily easier for me, but it's nice because you're only responsible for yourself. When I direct, I take on the responsibility for everyone's performances."
"Eleanor in Lion in Winter was the most brave and smart character I think I've ever played. She reveals the depth of character, having lost her husband, sons , freedom and kingdom -- and still managing all those things and her own fate as best she can.
"I really like characters I can identify with. I did a show called Playhouse Creatures, where I played a character who feels like she's being replaced by younger, prettier actresses. There were elements of that I connected with."
When the show ends, there is a long line of actors, volunteers, and various enthusiasts eager to greet Thompson. The lady in blue gives a hug and tells her about a tap class she's taking. The emcee comes over to pay his respects, as well as half the volunteer staff.
I notice that she's eyeing one of the actors -- the man who had played the Villain just moments before -- and when he walks by our table, she reaches out and grabs his arm.
"Tell me who you are," she demanded. "You're very good, and I don't know you." The man laughed and introduced himself. When she tells him her name, he is visibly impressed.
"Billie Sue! Yes, of course. I've heard a lot about you," he said, dropping in a few names of actors he's worked with. Thompson lights up.
"Oh, he's my boy!" she said, adding with a wink, "He learned all that good stuff from me."
When her fans have cleared, Thompson is eager to show me around the building. Without needing or asking for permission, she shows me from room to room, having pulled along the theater's president, Larry Stockard, to narrate our tour with historical nuggets. They show me the artwork by Bruce Goff, the dressing room that used to be a hangout for artists and musicians to drink and look out at the river, and the underground tunnel they hand dug to provide a route for actors to transport directly from backstage to the lobby.
"This is my favorite part," she said. "I keep telling them they need to re-do this whole attic area and rent it to me for a studio space. Isn't it incredible?"
We complete our tour and walk to our cars, when I ask her what draws her to theater so intensely. "I don't know," she said, laughing, "I think some of us are just born nuts. It's really nature, I guess, that draws me to it. It's the most natural thing I know."
Thompson will host an open house 2-4p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9 at her new studio space at 15th and Harvard. Student performances start at 4pm. All are welcome. Thompson's classes are primarily held on weeknights or afternoons, and typically cost between $50-$60 per month. Students can sign up by calling 918-455-2953. Her next play to direct will be Life with Father, through Theatre Tulsa.
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