“Living Legend” isn’t the sort of term that’s tossed around lightly — even among actors and other stage folk, who can occasionally be, well, a little theatrical. Yet if anyone in Columbia can lay claim to the title, it’s Kay Thigpen, co-founder with her late husband Jim of Trustus Theatre, the Midlands’ longest-running professional theater company.
Now the Trustus Board is honoring the 78-year-old Columbia cultural icon and arts pioneer with its second annual Living Legend award, which will be presented at a special event and fundraiser for the theater at City Art. Cabaret-style musical entertainment will be provided by noted local singers and frequent Trustus performers including Katrina Blanding, Terrance Henderson, Daryl Byrd, and Linda Posey-Collins.
The Thigpens’ legend includes an often-told origin story, in which two high school teachers took out a second mortgage on their house in order to start a bare-bones theater in a second-floor walk-up on Assembly Street that previously housed a punk rock club.
“It all happened,” the theater’s former managing director tells Free Times over lunch, shaking her head incredulously.
“I always say I didn’t really have a choice,” she reflects, pointing to the extensive involvement of her parents, Lou and Hazel Kaplan, in community theater.
Thigpen graduated from Columbia College with a degree in drama, taught in Richland One schools, stage managed the first-ever production presented by Workshop Theatre, and met future husband Jim while participating in a reading of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. A discussion during a long drive home from New York convinced the couple that they could produce small-cast, simple-set plays on minimal budgets while retaining artistic integrity and quality.
The winking name “Trustus” promised a satisfying evening at a play that might be unknown, would usually involve naughty and/or controversial themes, and therefore was unlikely to be done anywhere else. Thigpen says that her faith in audiences has been restored, now that more progressive topics are explored in big Broadway hits. Now in its 35th season and located on Lady Street in the Vista since 1988, Trustus has broadened its mission to include works that tackle issues of social justice, and that speak to the challenges and address the needs of underserved and overlooked populations.
Thigpen’s role was running the box office and managing the group’s finances, although she helped build sets, too, and acted in shows, often opposite Jim in two-character plays such as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire deLune and The Woolgatherer.
“People think I said ‘No’ a lot,” she offers, referring to her often blunt concern for the bottom line, “but that was my job. I just had to find a way to make it happen. Even if it meant you go a month without a salary.”
Thigpen concedes that she is “not a person of many words. I spent them all at the box office.” Yet she is visibly emotional when asked what from her career she is most proud of.
“Just that Trustus still lives, “ she replies. “That’s all we ever wanted, to see that theater continue.”
Current Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson describes Thigpen as his “theater mom,” pointing to “her gift for noticing someone’s potential, and giving them an opportunity to nurture it. She’s been that person for so many theater artists in the country [who went on to have successful careers in the profession].”
Current Production/Box Office Manager Patrick Michael Kelly recalls how “she and Jim shepherded so many young people [in the theater’s apprentice program] into the inclusive arms of the theater, where it was OK to be different where your voice was heard, and you could work on making that voice louder and clearer.”
The passion that Jim and Kay had for the work, and how that work served their community, has always stuck in my mind,” Kelly adds, “and inspired me to follow in their footsteps.”
Trustus board president and theater educator Sumner Bender says that Thigpen “raised me as an arts administrator, and ingrained in me the love and dedication it takes to run a theater, this theater. It has shaped my life, and Kay is a huge part of that.”
Retired since 2012, Thigpen’s greatest passion now is being an active and supportive grandmother to grandson Max, but she still volunteers at Trustus, often as usher on opening nights.
“I hate to go to the theater and not have anything to do,” she says. “It’s not my way.”
Although she adds, half-jokingly, that retiring from the theater felt like “a load of bricks came off my shoulders,” she says that she would not have had it any other way.
“I never had a day that I didn’t want to go in to work,” she concludes. “I cannot imagine a better job than what I did, than what I had.”
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