If you have a child -- or are a child, or know a child -- who is involved in the performing arts in Northwest Arkansas, it's a good bet that that child has met Mike Thomas or Julie Gabel.
The couple -- married more than 30 years now -- is united in their mission to bring the joy of theater arts education to the area. Gabel has served in a variety of administrative positions with Bentonville's Trike Theatre and has directed and acted in shows there, as well. She's also a director and teaching artist at Arts Live Theatre in Fayetteville. Thomas has taught at several Fayetteville schools including Washington Elementary, Happy Hollow Elementary School and Ramay Junior High School, and he is currently a drama teacher at Fayetteville High School. He also wrote the highly successful traveling play "Digging Up Arkansas" for Trike Theatre, meant to drum up elementary students' excitement about Arkansas history.
"It's funny -- both of them lead from the front, as well as cheer from the bench," says Trike founder and artistic director Kassie Misiewicz. "They aren't involved in everything, but they are a champion of everything."
"I'm directing Trike's musical this summer, and we had an orientation recently," says Gabel. "So around 30 kids and I had a sing-through, read-through kind of thing, and at the end of it, the kids were like, 'Can we start rehearsing tomorrow?' I love that they were so excited. I just love that enthusiasm. And that's what theater does. It brings people together."
Both Gabel and Thomas are Northwest Arkansas natives: She was born and raised in Fayetteville, while he was born in Farmington then moved to Fayetteville when he was young. Those that know the couple would not be surprised to hear them talking about their childhoods -- who they were then closely resembles the adults they have become. Gabel was studious and organized, a gifted musician and vocalist, while Thomas was the class clown, always dependable for a laugh or two -- or 10.
Through Others’ Eyes
Julie Gabel and Mike Thomas
“[Mike] likes to have kids do monologues, where they write about their experiences and lives. That makes a certain kind of kid come alive, because no one has ever asked them to talk about these things, and they get to say what they feel. Some of them are quite profound and heartfelt, and kids will remember that from year to year — ‘Mr. Thomas got me through Drama I and let me tell my story.’” — FHS Drama Department Chairman Warren Rosenaur
“[Julie] is a world-class collaborator when we are working on shows together at Arts Live and other places. We bounce around ideas, some lead to other ideas, others may let us see things a bit differently. She knows what she wants, but is open to suggestions and options. As a producer, she is exceptional to work with. And she is my best friend, so that’s a bonus.” — Mark Landon Smith
“They were the first couple in theater we met before we moved here, and they’re one of the reasons we moved to Northwest Arkansas.” — Kassie Misiewicz
Gabel was the youngest of four children, all of whom excelled at sports -- an area of interest that Gabel did not share. So when her mother allowed her to try dance instead, it quickly became clear that the arena of performing arts was where she would shine.
"When I got a little bit older, I started playing an instrument, the violin, because my mom saw that I was interested in music," she says. "And when I got to junior high, I was in choir -- and that's where things stuck, because then I realized that singing was something that I really enjoyed. I loved dance, and I loved playing violin, but singing was something that I think I really connected with. As an artist, when you have that connection to an art form, you just soar, because you connect with it, you love it. "
Once in college, Gabel continued to study music, though her degree would be in elementary education. She got involved in theater almost as a whim -- a friend of hers knew a director who needed people to audition for a play, so she did. But once she was cast in her first show, she realized it was a natural extension of her musical talents.
Following graduation, she headed to Arkansas State University to work as the choir director and a sort of outreach coordinator for the Baptist Student Union.
"That was my year to figure out what I wanted to do," says Gabel. "And so, in that year, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in theater -- because that was something that had been gnawing at me a little bit."
She would meet Thomas her first year back in Fayetteville as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas.
The fact that Thomas was going to college at all came as a surprise to his family -- and to him. He was 5 years old when his father, who ran the Fayetteville Co-Op, died. Thomas' mother worked hard as a single parent to support her five children (six, when a half-brother was added to the family through a subsequent marriage). The family, says Thomas, was very poor, so it's small wonder that his ability to amuse those around him -- even in the most dire of times -- was welcomed in his family.
"I was just one of those typical entertainer kids that would make everybody laugh," he says. "I love to make people laugh. Even when I was a little kid, I would take a fall, or I'd go put on an uncle's coat and come back out and act like him at dinner, you know, to make everybody laugh. "
"When Mike would come visit [his family], it's like they would just stare at him like he was a television, just waiting for him to entertain them," says Gabel.
Thomas suspects this talent was a natural outgrowth of his family's penchant for storytelling.
"I had a family of characters that just loved to sit around the table and tell stories at the end of dinner," he says. "They were just storytellers, and I was enthralled by it. I loved it."
His skill extended outside the walls of his family home and into school hallways, where Thomas deflected bullies' jabs with humor instead of violence. And, sometimes, he earned a little money along the way, like the time he protested the high school's dress code by wearing pajamas to school.
"I had a guy working for me, a manager, he would say, 'Hey, Thomas is going to wear his pajamas to school, how much would you give him?'" Thomas says. "'Oh, I'll give a quarter, I'll give a dollar,' and he wrote all of these names down, and he said, 'We're at $50, Mike. Are you going to do it?'
"The whole thing was, I was rebelling against the dress code. Kids were getting in trouble for the dress code, but there were no real rules in the dress code."
"So he wore his pajamas to school," says Gabel, laughing. "Shorty pajamas, with shorts, and ladies' slip-on slippers. And tell her what you drove, then."
"I had a motorcycle at that time."
"So he drove his motorcycle in his pajamas, robe blowing in the wind."
"The principal said, 'Do you realize that people are laughing at you, Mike?' and I said, 'Well, at least they're laughing.'"
Thomas says it was his cousin, Grant, who suggested that he try acting. True to his fearless nature, Thomas jumped right into the high school's Shakespeare play --"A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- and fell in love.
"I got a laugh from the audience and got some applause and felt the ensemble effect of hanging out with a bunch of my peers doing something that entertained a group of people, and I thought, 'OK. This is what I want to do.'"
Still, college seemed impossible.
"We were really poor as I graduated from high school, and I had just planned to work construction for my brother," he says. "That's what I was going to do -- be a funny construction guy."
Thomas' mother at the time was doing some childcare for Connie Williams, a UA financial aid employee. When she learned Thomas had no plans to attend college, she offered to help.
"And so Connie Williams filled out all the paperwork for me. And my mom didn't care what I studied, she was just glad that I was in college. She didn't say, 'Get a business degree, get a law degree, get this, get that,' so I chose theater."
Thomas and Gabel's worlds would collide on the first day of school, as they both sat in Kent Brown's "Introduction to Theater" class.
"I had some undergraduate courses to make up," remembers Gabel. "And, of course, because of the nerd I am, I was sitting on the front row, taking notes, having my little recorder in my hand. And toward the end of that first class, Kent says, 'Does anyone have any questions?' And Mike raises his hand in the back of the room and says, 'Is an El Camino a car or a truck?' And Kent looked at him and said, 'Oh, you're going to be trouble. Class dismissed.'"
The two became friends first, hanging out with the other drama department students, getting to know each other through group events. But when they were cast as husband and wife in the department's production of Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam" and had to kiss on stage, things turned romantic.
"She said to me in class one day, 'He makes me laugh,'" remembers friend and classmate Warren Rosenaur. "'He's the funniest man. I fell in love with his humor. He makes me laugh every day I see him.'"
Thomas graduated a year after they married, and a decision had to be made.
"It was either Los Angeles, New York or Chicago," says Thomas. "Those were the three. So we decided if we were going to starve, we wanted to starve some place warm."
But their talent ensured that there was no starvation in their future. The two got work quickly and regularly: Thomas in commercials, Gabel in backing vocals and commercials, and both in theater. Thomas worked up his courage to do standup sets and even got an agent on his first round of head shot submissions -- unheard of in the notoriously competitive world of Los Angeles.
The phone was ringing more often, and the opportunities were opening up -- Gabel even did a run at the renowned San Diego Repertory Theatre -- when, after six years of living in the city, both of their mothers started experiencing health problems: Thomas' mom with Alzheimer's and Gabel's with tuberculosis.
"One day, sitting in the living room there in our little apartment in Los Angeles, we sat there looking at each other and said, 'Do we really want to be this far away from our family while our parents are getting sick?'" remembers Thomas.
The answer, they both realized, was "No." And so the couple packed up and moved back home.
Almost instantly, they got signs that they had made the right decision. Thomas landed an agent in Little Rock and booked a movie shooting locally, and both of them soon flew back to Los Angeles to film a movie they had been asked to do.
"I called my acting teacher and said, 'Hey, we're coming out to Los Angeles to work on a film, we want to see you guys,'" says Gabel. "He said, 'Wait. I'm doing nothing in L.A., and you're living in Arkansas, and you're getting all of this work?' It was just a matter of figuring out your quality of life with living in a city, and then your quality of life while living near family and weighing those options and seeing what opportunities there are."
As they settled back into Northwest Arkansas, they looked to the future. Thomas decided his would include working with kids, something Gabel says seemed like a natural decision.
"Any time we go to a friend's house, Mike is a kid magnet -- kids just love him," she says. "So to me, that was a perfect match."
As Thomas went back to school to get his education degree, Gabel worked for her father at Lindsey and Associates. Their list of accomplishments in theater during this time was long and impressive: They performed in and directed projects with the University Theatre, Mount Sequoyah New Play Retreat and Ozark StageWorks. They also worked on film projects shot in the area. They would eventually help form the improv group Phunbags, and Gabel created the theater troupe Ceramic Cow Productions with Mark Landon Smith. She also served on the Fayetteville Arts Council and on the Chamber of Commerce's Arts Entertainment and Creative Economy Action Group.
But children's theater was something they were both inspired by -- Thomas had worked frequently with Arts Live in the past -- and when Kassie Misiewicz moved to Northwest Arkansas to start Trike Theatre, Gabel hopped on board.
"I just loved it," she says.
Gabel started teaching and directing with Trike, then with Arts Live. Before long, she had enough opportunities coming at her that she quit her job at Lindsey so she could focus on them full time. During her time with Trike, she has assumed various administrative roles -- including interim executive director -- and she just finished a nine-month stint as interim academy manager this month. She says the time she spent away from the kids, working on more administrative tasks, made her realize how much she missed that interaction. Going forward, she'll be working with several of Trike's outreach programs -- like the Dramatic Book Club, 30-minute interactive workshops for preschoolers, and the SmArt Residency program, aimed at helping teachers incorporate arts education into the regular curriculum.
"Julie ... has an exceptional rapport with our young actors," says Arts Live executive director Mark Landon Smith. "When we release our season, the question is, 'Which show is Julie directing?' because they love working with her -- as they do all of our directors. She has great energy with the kids, and patience, and expects a great deal of them. They always rise to the challenge."
Thomas, meanwhile, found out that his combined teaching and theater experience was just what was called for when he signed on to help develop a show that would engage students in Arkansas history.
"I had taught [Arkansas history], so I knew that it was hard," he says of "Digging up History," the educational musical he wrote. "What makes a third grader get it? It has to be real and honest and [can't] insult their intelligence."
The completed project was a huge success -- meant to run for just one year, it will go out to Arkansas schools again this fall, marking eight years of travel to every county in the state.
Today, most of Thomas' energy goes into his job at Fayetteville High School, where he teaches classes to the incoming freshmen and directs at least one show a year. Next year, he says, the department will offer a pre-Advanced Placement course in Theater Appreciation -- the first school in Arkansas to offer such a class.
He says he has no doubt that Northwest Arkansas' teens can handle the challenge.
"I'm really noticing it now in the high school kids who have been involved in theater somewhere," he says. "Now I'm seeing these kids that were taking classes [at the age of 7 or 8] -- they know theater. They're coming to my little theater appreciation class saying, 'OK, but can we do more? We want to do a musical. What musical can we do this year?' Because it's been 15 years or so of this kind of explosion of so much in this area -- so many opportunities for kids in theater in this town."
And, says Rosenaur, those are opportunities that both Gabel and Thomas are partly responsible for.
"They didn't start Trike, they didn't start Arts Live, but they are certainly part of the foundation of those two organizations," he says. "They formed a foundation that allowed those two organizations to expand, explode and flourish, because they were always there, willing to do something in that capacity."
Gabel says her goals in children's theater education have coalesced to one primary, umbrella ambition: to provide a sense of community for those kids that need it most.
"One of the things that I found in art was a place of belonging, and that's what I'm hoping these kids find," she says. "For me, that was the most powerful thing, and there are still kids out there that need that -- they need that acceptance. They need that expression, that tribe, and theater is that place."
A sense of community, says Misiewicz, "is the main through line of the culture" that Gabel inspires.
"Because of that community, the kids are able to take risks, try something new, make mistakes and try it again," Misiewicz continues. "That's the key to anything in the arts. It takes a lot of patience. She's got to see the kids for who they are, in all of their messiness, and be able to approach that with patience and re-direction and with the expectation that they will get there."
"The one thing I really appreciate about Julie is that she has a lot of respect for her actors, and holds us all accountable," says Lucy Rossi. She got involved in Arts Live when she was in first grade, and Gabel directed her in its productions of "The Little Mermaid" and "Hairspray." "I could tell she had a lot of confidence in me and wanted me to always do better."
Rossi would later have Thomas for theater classes as a sophomore in high school, and he directed her in "Terms of Endearment" when she was a senior. She says his sense of humor -- and creativity -- were highlights of her high school experience.
"Me, being terrified of high school, walking into his classroom second period was always so refreshing," she remembers.
"Hopefully, I can be just a slight inspiration to somebody sometime -- hopefully, they remember something I said about just being yourself and going out and taking a risk, because theater is about taking a risk," says Thomas. "Take a risk on yourself. See what you can do."
Spoken like a man who once rode to school in his shorty pajamas, on a motorcycle, women's slippers flapping on his feet, robe flying behind him, like some kind of quirky superhero off to save the world.
"They're so respected," says Rossi. "Their names come up all the time.
"They're two people who have saved so many of our lives through theater."
NAN Profiles on 06/10/2018
Print Headline: Julie Gabel & Mike Thomas