What does it mean to be an artist? Is it simply an aesthetic? A desire for fame and recognition? For Michael Thompson Brown, it means something far simpler and more powerful. Throughout his journey as an artist, Brown has come to realize that he is the one in charge of defining what art means to him. “[It’s] been sort of a dawning since I got here in New York,” he said. “I’ve been trying to figure out, trying to define for myself who I am as an artist.”
Hailing from Farmington, Utah, Brown graduated from the University of Utah with a BFA in acting in 2015. Though he originally wanted to expand his collegiate horizons out of state, the U offered him a scholarship he couldn’t refuse. After shopping around for a major for a year, he decided to go into the Actors Training Program.
“Still don’t regret it…and I just thought the education was so above and beyond what I expected,” Brown explained, “[I] just kind of fell into it. There was nothing else for me.”
After graduating, he accepted an apprenticeship with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he participated in various productions and projects, including The Humana Festival of New American Plays. “I had an amazing nine months there working with all these visiting artists and instructors and then got to New York,” he laughed. “It was just something that no matter how many people said ‘Oh it’s going to be so hard, it’s going to be so hard’; you can hear that as a hopeful college student but it won’t get through.”
“It’s not that my work is competing against other people’s work for the part, it’s that nobody will even open the door to see me,” he said, explaining how difficult finding work in the big city can be for a fresh actor.
Despite his unintended hiatus, Brown still perseveres. His current pursuits are focused a little more toward music—playing drums in a local band in Brooklyn. He states that his “niche” is being an actor and a percussionist. Brown has played the drums since he was 12, helped create his own “Blue Man Group” in junior high and played in a band his first year of college. One of his first experiences mixing acting and percussion was in the U’s production of Blue Stockings in the fall of 2014, working with “soundscapes” to create “this percussive…kind of world.”
But the experience that really solidified his love of acting infused with percussion happened during his time in Louisville. As an apprentice in the production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” he was not only cast but was also the pit percussionist. Every so often he would run backstage to play the drums, or play a little tune from the Broadway production of Peter Pan on the keyboard. At one point, he ran around on stage with a djembe (a West African drum) playing tribal songs. “That’s what got me excited about mixing acting and music together again,” he said.
Initially, Brown described his ideal “theater and percussion” project as “A 90-minute one-man show of Batman and I’m at the drum set.”
Brown went on to elaborate in a more serious tone,“If I could blend acting and music it would likely be some sort of really cool show where a percussive atmosphere is what creates the tone of the piece, and actors can move through and play music; play instruments, pick them up, put them down, play different things. I don’t know if the play exists, [but] it would be really cool to adapt something and use that…you could get some Shakespeare going…[maybe] The Skin of Our Teeth or…Thornton Wilder, or Edward Albee, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There might be some kind of cool production playing [out there] with music and percussion.”
Brown is a down-to-earth artist with big aspirations. “I teach tennis and barely pay rent,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing. [But] I’m also learning to value the work that I do and learning to be more patient with myself.”