Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 219
Sometimes, the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry takes your breath away. In the case of today’s guest, Shakespeare gave him his breath back.
You may recognize actor Michael Patrick Thornton from his roles on TV series like Private Practice and The Good Doctor. Twenty years ago, Thornton had just started out in his acting career when he suffered two spinal strokes that nearly ended his life. He survived, but the strokes took away his ability to breathe and speak. A speech therapist helped Thornton find his way back to breath control… by reciting Shakespeare. He talks with Barbara Bogaev about learning to breathe again with the Bard.
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Michael Patrick Thornton is the co-founder and former artistic director of The Gift Theatre in Chicago. He’s played Iago at the Gift, and Richard III in a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre. Recently, he appeared on Broadway in Sam Gold’s 2022 production of Macbeth starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga and in the Tony-nominated Broadway production of A Doll’s House.
From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 26, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leo Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Daniel Roth in Chicago and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Sometimes, the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry takes your breath away. In the case of today’s guest, Shakespeare gave him his breath back.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
You may recognize actor Michael Patrick Thornton from his roles on TV series like Private Practice and The Good Doctor. Twenty years ago, Thornton had just started out in his acting career when he suffered two spinal strokes that nearly ended his life. Thornton survived, but the strokes took away his ability to breathe and speak. A speech therapist helped Thornton find his way back to breath control by reciting Shakespeare.
Since then, Thornton co-founded The Gift Theatre in Chicago, where he served as artistic director. He’s played Iago at The Gift, and Richard III in a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre. He appeared on Broadway in Sam Gold’s 2022 production of Macbeth starring Daniel Craig, and in the Tony nominated production of A Doll’s House earlier this year.
Here’s Michael Patrick Thornton, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: You have such a long association with Shakespeare. Why don’t you tell me about your first encounter?
MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON: I do remember wandering the stacks of what seemed like, you know, a large library back then and stumbling around to the Shakespeare section. It was the old, I believe, Signet Classics editions. They were all dog eared.
I remember opening it up and looking at the words and knowing, “Okay, I know this is English. I know Shakespeare’s hard, and you know, people say it’s hard to understand and you’re smart if you get it.”
It just felt like there was a really cool universe hiding behind these pages, if only you could kind of unlock the language. If only you knew the code to get past it. I was sort of spellbound by it and started reading as much as I could. I don’t think I grasped, you know, much of it at all.
Then, when we got into high school, I had some great teachers that taught Shakespeare very wonderfully. Mike Peterson being one of them, and said, “Hey. Look, there’s this contest called the National Shakespeare Festival. You should audition for it.” And I went down to the old Goodman theater. There’s like 500 young adults from Illinois competing for to be the person from Illinois to go compete in New York, and I got it.
That was my first time going to New York, was going to compete to do one sonnet and then one monologue with 49 other very dorky, precocious young adults.
BOGAEV: What monologue did you do and what sonnet?
THORNTON: I did sonnet, I believe it’s sonnet 17, “Who will believe my verse in time to come.” The last of the procreation sonnets, if I remember correctly. Then I did Iago’s “O, sir. Content you; I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”
My wife and I were just rolling through—she was walking, I was rolling, because I use a wheelchair—through Lincoln Center in New York, and I just like stopped dead in my tracks and I said, “This is, kind of, where it all started”—This is after having done my Broadway debut last year, in Macbeth. And just being like, “Wow, this is a really cool full circle moment.” Like, I remember being downstairs in the bowels of the Lincoln Center, almost ready to throw up, you know? So nervous. Not even know if I could remember what the first word is, let alone a line. Then flash forward and here you are now doing your second Broadway show. It’s kind of wild.
BOGAEV: Okay, so how did you get from all of that? This is what sounds like an incredible education to acting.
THORNTON: There was no theater program at my high school. So, I did it at the girls school down the road, which was great.
BOGAEV: For you, I bet.
THORNTON: Yeah, it was nice. My buddy Rob was like, “What are you doing, doing these Park District shows? Come over here.” Like, you know, “There’s two guys in every musical. It’s great.”
Yeah, I competed in the Shakespeare contest and then went to Iowa. Then, in Iowa, really did an accelerated program. My second year at the University of Iowa was through a program called Literature, Science and the Arts, which was basically independent studies with the professors.
Then, every class I took was either an MFA level or PhD candidate level class in creative writing, philosophy, theater, and did Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tom Stoppard’s Acadia and was just working, working, working constantly.
The director of theater, Alan McVeigh, kind of had a conference with my family and said, “You know, I think Mike’s outgrown the program.” The, sort of, options that were unveiled were, “Okay, he can go for Juilliard. He can go for Princeton. Or, what if, in his third year, he went to a major city, goes home to Chicago or New York or LA, tries to make it? You know, get the [Actors’ Equity Association] card, get the [Screen Actors’ Guild] card and then see how that goes.”
So I left. I left after two years. It really was one of the best and most defining decisions I ever made in my life, because little-beknownst to me and my family, of course, soon after I left in 2000, I would only have three years to really try to make it before I got very sick.
BOGAEV: So, things were going very well, and then in 2003 everything changed for you. So, why don’t you tell us what happened?
THORNTON: Well, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2003 after a reasonable day of reverie compared to previous years, on our way home, in my friend John’s car, I felt a terrible pain in my neck. Within a half hour I was on life support. I was intubated. I was in a medically induced coma for five days. I believe I woke up to a priest giving me my last rites and started to make a tremendous recovery.
All four limbs moving, could do some standing independently from my hospital bed. I was transferred downtown to RIC, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is now called the Shirley Ryan Hospital Ability Lab, but made a great recovery there.
Then, you know, a couple of weeks later, whatever it was, spinal stroke, I had another one. And, that one didn’t have the decency to put me out all the way. I was awake, but it felt like I was breathing out of a coffee stirrer and my diaphragm didn’t know when I would run out of oxygen. All of a sudden, I had to learn how to speak again. So, yeah, 20, 24 years old, and just had my Equity card.
BOGAEV: You know how everyone tells you when you have a loved one in a coma that you should talk to them, because they can hear, because hearing is last sense to go? So, could you hear your family and friends talking to you?
THORNTON: I could. I call that period the dark ballroom of the soul, because what it feels like is… picture yourself in a very large, party room. You have all the chairs in the periphery where there would be a party.
Then, all of a sudden, the lights go out. You know that the room is cavernous and you know that, “Okay, there’s probably 40 steps to get to that wall, and I think the door was behind me.” But you have no really sense of orientation anymore and it feels very large and lonely and cold. The guests that you were talking to now are kind of outside the big heavy doors, and all you can kind of capture is, like, their murmurings.
Then, to further complicate that sense of isolation, I think most of us kind of go through life thinking like, “Okay, I have a body, and then I have a conscience, and then maybe I have a soul, whatever that is.” So, whatever that was, like the soul or the conscience—the piece of you that’s aware that it’s aware, the watcher—Like, if that was, let’s say a balloon inside my skeleton. That balloon was now like 30 feet in that dark ballroom above my body, still tethered to my body.
So, you had this dual realization, while in the dark, that your body was in serious trouble. Because I could hear the sound of the ventilator, which remains to this day, the worst sound in the world. You’d hear that “pshh” and you knew that between that “pshh” and that moment of rest, that silence, that everything hung in the balance.
The breadcrumb trail that I found that I followed out of that dark ballroom of the soul wasn’t, “I need to wake up because of my family,” or, “I need to wake up because I want to be a father one day.” Or, “I want to wake up because I want to marry my girlfriend.”
The thing that I followed out of that dark ballroom of the soul was, “I need to get out of this coma because I need to be an actor again.”
Since then, I’ve been unburdened by that sense of questioning. That imposter’s thing that we all go through, I think, at different points in our life. And that’s a miraculous gift as well, to know for sure. Yeah. For whatever reason this is the thing that I’m built to do.
BOGAEV: Wow. Okay, so you did. You pulled your, whatever. You came out of the coma. And your condition, you said, was you had to learn to speak again? Could you speak? Could you not speak intelligibly? What was your condition?
THORNTON: Yeah, well the first time in the coma followed the first incident and I could speak. And then the second recurrence was the devastating one to my ability to speak, which was, it devastated my ability to project.
It wasn’t in so much—when we think of strokes and speech therapy, we think of cognitive, right? We think of like not being able to say the words. That was never the issue. The issue was my diaphragm not really knowing how much gas was left in the tank. So that I would get halfway through a sentence and just pass out because I would start a sentence without remembering to inhale.
I had a wonderful speech therapist. She was like, “You know, what do you love? What literature do you love?” And I was like, “Well, I love Shakespeare.” So. she rented out their theater, which is where they would give medical presentations, really.
I remember sitting inside that little room and trying to do the sonnet that I’d done when I was in high school, and trying to do Iago, and getting through, you know, about two sentences and almost passing out. And gradually, gradually, gradually we kept upping the ante.
We did a day trip, and if I remember correctly, she had contacted Steppenwolf and got me on their mainstage. Just being like, “Oh my God, how am I going to fill this room?” She just kept moving the goalpost. She’s an extraordinary, extraordinary speech therapist, Laura Hinkes Molinaro.
BOGAEV: Okay, I’m interested in your breathing and Shakespeare. What do you think? I mean maybe it could have been anything, but do you think it was something about Shakespeare and iambic pentameter that helped you recover?
THORNTON: I think so. I mean, I don’t think I knew that then. It would have been interesting, you know, if had I started with Beckett or Pinter or some other, you know, playwright who has a different kind of internal syntax cadence. Would I have been able to make a recovery as quickly? Because Shakespeare sentences can go on quite a bit.
BOGAEV: Which speech in particular did you practice then in therapy?
O, sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass,
For naught but provender, and when he’s old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves! Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them; and when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
BOGAEV: “I am not what I am.” Was that the one you did when you were a kid? Or why that one?
THORNTON: Yeah, that was the one I did in high school. That was the one I did at the Lincoln Center. It’s just the most readily available. That and the good old procreation sonnet.
BOGAEV: Did that one particularly speak to you at this time?
THORNTON: I don’t know. I mean, you know, I think I can kind of Monday morning quarterback it and try to unpack the psychology of, here you are in the most powerless moment of your life, with people helping you bathe and dress. So, it makes sense to me that the text that one would choose in that scenario would be this master villain confiding his, you know, plan to somebody. A text that makes you feel powerful. A text that makes you feel in control, and a text that makes you feel like you’re going to get revenge on a world that has wronged you.
BOGAEV: You performed Iago.
THORNTON: I did, at The Gift.
BOGAEV: What year?
THORNTON: 2014, directed by Jonathan Berry, wonderful production. Kareem Bandealy played Othello.
BOGAEV: When you were performing that role, can you pick out any lines or any insights that you had into the role that drew on that meaning of Iago, and that those words for you at the time when you were rehabilitating?
THORNTON: I think, you know, so much of the recovery was uncertain. You know, you would get… I have what’s called—I’m an incomplete quadriplegic. Which as a perfectionist, you know, I really hate that terminology because I’d like to be complete and everything.
An incomplete quadriplegic just means that you have damage to all four of your limbs, and that the incomplete part means that the spinal cord has had some damage, but it’s not severed. It’s not cut, you know.
That’s sort of the good news, in some ways, because the incomplete quadriplegics, some walk with a cane. The medical staff couldn’t really say, “This is where we think you’ll be in six months.”
You would get to these terrifying moments that they would call “plateaus,” where you wouldn’t really have progress for a couple weeks and you would think, “Well, is this the rest of my life.” Then you would just keep working at these breakthroughs. Which is all to say that in recovery, I really had to learn to be okay with the unknown while still driving like a madman towards a goal.
I think a lot of that is applicable to Iago, which is to say that this isn’t Richard III, who I’ve played. Iago is more of an improviser. You know, he is chaos.
BOGAEV: He rolls with the punches.
THORNTON: He rolls with it. In an uncertain world, he’s going to cause some more uncertainty. And let’s see what that does, you know?
That, I think, is a skill that anybody in a rehabilitative setting learns because you’re just kind of going out into that hurricane with your umbrella and you know, trying to get to safety.
BOGAEV: I want to talk about Richard III in a second, but I do wonder how the day-to-day reality of being an actor struck you when you did go back to work. You went back to work really fast after your second stroke. It sounds like you were—I read somewhere you were directing Language of Angels, the play, and you were holding auditions while you were still an inpatient. You were determined.
THORNTON: That’s correct. We had people—I know these poor actors showing up to RIC with their headshot and resume going, “Where am I right now? What theater is this?”
I didn’t get back on stage as an actor until 2006 in a one-person show called The Good Thief by Conor McPherson.
BOGAEV: That’s three years, but you were auditioning, I imagine. And auditioning, I mean, you show up in all these weird places when you’re an actor to audition. Sometimes there are offices or random floors of high rises. That was my experience in New York City as a voice actor. So, just physically, I imagine that must have been hard for you in a wheelchair.
THORNTON: Yeah, I mean, if you’ve ever seen like, these towns they build when they shoot a movie, whether it’s a Western or something, and you see the front and it’s all highly detailed? It’s, like, the saloon or the old grocer’s, you know? Then, you go around the back and you realize it’s all just two-by-fours and struts,
That is sort of what the world felt like, because all these places that I used to enter to audition, you know, casting offices and whatnot, I literally couldn’t go through the front doors anymore because there were steps. I had to go around the back, and the back world of these places, which is a world of alleys, and a world of disgusting freight elevators that had garbage bags leaking hot soda on the metal floors that would get on my wheels. So that when I got into this place, where you’re trying to put your best foot forward, so to speak, I have, you know, soda on my hands. That became the front of those buildings for me.
I had never even known that that side of those buildings was there. I mean, of course, you know that intellectually, but none of those places were really set up for you being seen in your best light.
BOGAEV: What does that do to you as an actor? Because that’s a fragile moment before you audition. And, emotionally, I imagine you had to come up with a way to deal with this change in your life.
THORNTON: Well, it teaches you that you’re an afterthought. It teaches you that probably, you know, the designers of these buildings and the stewards of the profession would really not care if you would simply go away.
BOGAEV: Were you angry?
THORNTON: I was angry, yes, and still am at points. But you try to make it competitive and be like, “I’m going to ride up to this casting director’s office basically in a dumpster, and I’m going to out-act everybody.”
I don’t have the privilege of going to the bathroom beforehand. I don’t have the privilege of going to check to see how I look. I’m going to be able to not set that aside to do this audition, but actually incorporate it and funnel it and then speak through it, in a way that marries how I’m feeling that day as a human being with what that character is going through in their life. So you learn to improvise.
BOGAEV: Weaponize it, it sounds like. I’m thinking, you’ve been dealing with this for decades now, so have you seen change? I mean, we’ve heard a lot about Broadway, for instance, becoming more accessible. I think the general public thinks, “Well, there are rules, laws about accessibility, so it must be pretty good.” But my impression is, I don’t know.
THORNTON: No. I mean, since I’ve started, yes, the representation has increased now. It is still a woeful paucity of representation. I mean you’re talking about the largest minority in the world and the least represented on TV and film and stage.
You’re talking about one in every four Americans identifies as being disabled, and yet still it’s like, well, where are—it’s like this Fermi paradox. It’s like, where is everybody? Where are the wheelchair users in a Super Bowl commercial? Or, you know, where is the series regular on the TV show that the wheelchair’s not a plot point, you know?
It’s getting better. The last two theaters I worked at, the Longacre and the Hudson Theatre on Broadway, for Macbeth and Doll’s House, they bent over backwards to make those spaces not just accessible, but fun and accessible, and gave me a sense of dignity going to my job.
I mean, for Macbeth, they basically built up a different level for the stage. It was all flat for me, and then built a dressing room with a shower and a bathroom, offstage right. Because there really wasn’t a way for me to get downstairs. It was so small and so cramped, that’s just how those theaters were built back then.
I remember Daniel Craig coming into my room going, “Jesus, this is bigger than my dressing room.”
BOGAEV: That must have been a great moment.
THORNTON: You know, sometimes it pays to be disabled.
But, no, I think it is getting better. I think the next generation is going to have a much easier time than I did. But it needs to get far, far better.
It needs to be more disabled writers in writers’ rooms and disabled showrunners. Not so that we can tell more stories about disability. I don’t want to tell stories about disability. I want to tell stories about humanity that just so happened to feature a wheelchair.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and let’s talk about Richard III, which was staged by The Gift, by your theater. And first, tell me about the concept for the production and what prompted it.
THORNTON: Well, I would go down to then RIC, now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, just to work out or see what they have, you know, cooking in terms of rehab theory, and there was this, sort of, wild machine called an exoskeleton. Which, it’s sort of like a little bit of a chair that has leg attachments that you sit in, strap in, and it stands you up and it’ll walk you.
I started training on this thing and I thought, wouldn’t it be wild if Richard thought, “You know what? I think if I can only get vertical. If I can only look like them, then they’ll love me. Then they’ll see what they’ve been ignoring all this time.” If Richard himself sort of makes of an ableist fallacy, right?
So, we did this production at Steppenwolf’s Garage directed by Jessica Thebus, where our entire second act lights up after intermission, our Richard standing in this fearsome, creepy-looking, insect-like looking exoskeleton that would make this very kind of like mechanical whine when it would step. Our Richard, you know, started in the wheelchair and ascended into the exoskeleton. And literally ended dying on the floor on his knees.
BOGAEV: What was it like for you, that first performance, standing up on stage?
THORNTON: Wild. I mean, here are these actors in this production, many with whom I’ve acted for over a decade. For our entire collaborative vocabulary, they’ve been towering above me and I’ve been literally looking up to them. And now I am absolutely dominating them physically.
To feel that and all the complicated emotions that go with that: that it’s powerful, and then why should it feel powerful? It was very complex. It was very complex for me as the actor, and it really brought complexity to that production.
BOGAEV: Did your Richard change, do you think? Being upright and at eye level or above the rest of the cast?
THORNTON: Oh yeah, I think so.
BOGAEV: In what way? Because…
THORNTON: Well, in one way you are different and you know that you’re being seen differently by both your friends and also your colleagues.
At the same time, you feel more vulnerable because you’re only able to do this by virtue of this brilliant engineering. You’re strapped in and all someone has to do is go up to you and kind of give you a moderate shove on your shoulder and you tip over like Herman Munster.
You feel this weird collision of a very fragile power. Of being exposed and also being defiant.
BOGAEV: Appropriate for a king.
THORNTON: Yeah. Yeah. It’s wild that when that curtain would open and I would see, you know, subscribers to The Gift or, you know, former directors or teachers. They would look—there is this look of awe and pride, you know?
I get that. I get it a hundred percent, to see someone who kind of almost died twice and who had worked so hard. At the same time, I’d be like, “Why are you proud of me now? Because I’m standing?”
I think a lot of the narratives we’ve seen around disability are, like, triumph of the human spirit. You know, when are they going to walk again? That doesn’t really serve anybody. I think the more we can live in context-less dramaturgy is where walkers or canes or wheelchairs can simply exist unexplained, uncontextualized.
It puts the audience into an interesting juncture where they have to decide to spend some mental energy trying to decipher why that person uses a wheelchair or whatever, or just give up and accept it. I think when that happens, something really beautiful happens and humanizing happens in the theater. I think we need more of that.
BOGAEV: Thank you so much. This has been so wonderful talking to you. I really enjoyed it.
WITMORE: That was Michael Patrick Thornton, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Daniel Roth in Chicago and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC has been under construction for the past three years. But we’re looking forward to fully opening our doors again in 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.