Nadine Thornhill Q & A with Nadine Thornhill

Interview by Ren Tomovcik

Award-winning playwright and actor Nadine Thornhill is no stranger to the stage. Her boundless imagination, her passion for creativity, and her raw and honest approach to storytelling has endeared her to the capital's audiences.  This month, she's headlining the April edition of the Spoken Word Plot poetry event, alongside fellow Ottawa performer Jessica Ruano.

Nadine chats with Ottawafocus about writing, learning, blogging, performing, and the beauty of sharing human experiences through the arts.

Nadine, what first sparked your passion for theatre and performing arts?  

My parents took me to my first ballet before I was three, which was the beginning of a steady arts-centric childhood of concerts, theatre and dance.  I’m sure that planted the seed.  Despite being a painfully shy little kid when it came to speaking with people one-on-one, I felt oddly secure when I was performing.  Dance recitals and the like were so simple…just wear the costume, do the right steps and the result was applause, followed by a trip to get ice cream.

My yen for performing blossomed into a full-blown passion when I was twelve and saw my first production of Les Misérables at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.   I was sitting, my heart pounding with excitement and emotion.  By intermission, I had decided I was going to be an actor.

Do you feel that spoken word was a natural progression for you as an actor and playwright, a new and different way to create energy with words and performance onstage?  

I actually started doing spoken word before I began playwriting.   I got started with spoken word when my dear friend, Danielle Grégoire, read my blog.  Danielle has been writing and performing poetry since childhood.  She suggested that the tone of my online writing would translate fairly easily into writing spoken word.  I really had no idea what spoken word was, so Danielle gave me a CD and then brought me to a slam.   The poetry I heard during that first slam was so lyrical and dynamic.  It totally got inside of me.   I was very insecure about my potential as a spoken word artist, but between the allure of performance and Danielle’s powers of persuasion, I couldn’t resist giving it a try.

Nadine Thornhill As an actor, you've played many different characters. But when you perform spoken word as 'Nadine,' do you feel you still have an onstage persona, or do you just get up there and be yourself?

To a certain degree it depends on the audience and where they’re at.  It’s no secret I’m insecure.  If I’m in a room full of strangers and I can’t easily gauge the collective mood, I tend to be a bit more contrived and theatrical in my presentation, as a way of protecting myself.  In front of friends and/or an especially supportive crowd it’s easier for me to be relaxed and genuine.

Your blog is entitled "Adorkable Thespian" - the titular character being you.  How would the dictionary define 'adorkable'?

Before I give you my personal definition, this seems like a good opportunity to confess that I did not invent the term ‘Adorkable’.  A friend of mine had a t-shirt with that word on it.   It captured so precisely my self-perception that I started using it all the time.Obviously the word itself is a hybrid of “adorable” and “dork”.  In my mind there are two definitions:

1.  One who is endearingly awkward, clumsy or diffident.
2. One whose attempts to be adorable are repeatedly undermined by a propensity for awkwardness, clumsiness or diffidence.

I classify myself as Type 2 adorkable.

What role does your blog play in your creative life?  Who is your online writing aimed at, and how does it help you to develop as a writer and as a person by sharing your life with others in this way?

First and foremost, my blog keeps me writing on a regular basis.   It’s a way that I work through thoughts or feelings I have about what goes on in my life.  Often, the subject for a play emerges when I sit down to write a post and realize I’ve blogged on the same topic several times.

I first started blogging at another site about seven years ago.  Back then it was a way stay in touch with my out-of-town friends.  We all had journals and they functioned like a daily conversation, with all of us commenting on each other’s posts.  My friends mean to world to me.   My very first blog follower was the woman who’s been my best friend since second grade.  We grew up together and she’s the closest thing I have to a sister.  After high school,  we moved to different cities but we still wanted that close connection.  In the pre-Twitter/Facebook universe, blogging made me feel that she was still a vital part of my daily life and vice-versa.

Nadine ThornhillLast year during the Ottawa Fringe Festival, I met some cool people who write cool theatre-related WordPress blogs.  I’ve never lost the adolescent desire to be like the cool kids.  I started my own WordPress blog.   The original intention was that the new blog would focus on my artistic career.   But I’m a chronically unfocused person.  Almost immediately, I started using the blog as a clearinghouse for whatever happened to be floating around in my brain on any given day.  

I wouldn’t say ‘Adorkable Thespian’ is targeted towards any specific audience, though it seems to appeals most to people who enjoy theatre, liberal social values and typos.   And my mom. 

Finally, blogging is a great way to fulfill my social and creative needs without wearing pants.  I don’t care for pants.

You wear many different hats in your daily life: partner, mother, actor, playwright, blogger, poet, performer...even "advice columnist" has recently been added to your resume with the launch of your new column, Dirty Laundry, on Apt613.  All these varied voices come through in your blog and your poetry.  What event or major change in your life do you feel has inspired you the most and sparked your creativity?

Becoming a parent.  In one way, it’s unfortunate because it’s also the life-change that’s taken up most of my free-time.    Before my son was born, I was pretty lackadaisical about my life…or at least my working life.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a confident person.  I’m also kind of lazy.  I was afraid that my work just wouldn’t be good enough and instead of trying and possibly failing, I put things off telling myself I had plenty of time.

Then my baby came along.  Suddenly, I didn’t have all the time in the world.  More importantly, I fell in love.  I fell in love with my baby and it was the most intense, disorienting experience of my life.  For the first two weeks of his life, I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything without crying; I was emotionally raw.  

I thought about my life and where I was.  I saw there was an opportunity to immerse myself completely in my child.  I could forget about myself and focus all of my energy on this little person and stop stressing over the fact that I had no direction career-wise.  But every time I looked at that gorgeous new person, who I loved more than my own life, it felt so wrong.  I didn’t want to make my son responsible for my self-worth. I wanted him to grow up to find meaning and purpose in life.  And if that’s what I wanted for him, I had to sack up and do that for myself.  

Once I had that realization, I turned over a new leaf.  Between parenting and the random projects that make up my career, I do more work on less sleep than I could have once imagined.  I’ve never been happier.

Nadine Thornhill
Photo by Tim Ginley

In a recent blog post, you wrote, "We're all the walking wounded; that's nothing to be ashamed of."  This sentiment is echoed in the honesty that underscores all of your creative work. Do you think that the unabashed honesty in your poetry, especially in the pieces that reveal intensely personal experiences, helps your audience connect to you on an emotional level?

I hope so.   When I think of the artists whose work affects me most, there’s always an honest an open quality to what they do.   Right now I’m re-reading one of my favourite books on the subject of writing, written by one of my favourite authors, Anne Lamott.  There’s a great passage in this book, where Lamott explains that good writing, even in works of fiction, is honest.  Even if the specifics of the story aren’t factual, the underlying emotion should still be rooted in truth and hopefully the result will be something a reader or audience can connect to.

Some of your poems contain the kind of revealing "true stories" that many people are too bashful to share even with their friends!  Have you always been this comfortable sharing your thoughts with strangers, or is it something that came with practice?   

Nadine ThornhillIt didn’t come with practice, but I  haven’t I always been this way, either.  In elementary and high school, I tried so  hard to fit in with my peers and it didn’t work at all.  The only thing I accomplished was repressing a lot of my natural inclinations, including a fairly strong exhibitionist streak. 

Once I got to university, I fell in with beautiful crowd of over-sharing, social misfits like myself.   These people talked about everything, with nary a hint of shame.  Once that happened, it felt very natural to open up.  Now I will yammer incessantly about the most intimate details of my life to anyone kind enough to indulge me.

Left: Nadine introduced her monthly sex advice column, "Dirty Laundry," in 2010.
(Photo by Jessica Ruano

You were a featured performer at Umi Cafe's monthly Voices of Venus show a few months ago.  How important do you think it is to have a creative space that's specifically dedicated to female voices?  

I’ve heard some incredible first-time poets, who made their debut at the Voices of Venus open mic.  When I’ve spoken to, or more precisely, gushed at these women, many of them have told me that performing as part of an all-female event is what made them feel secure enough to give spoken word a try.  

I agree there’s something very supportive and comforting being at an event where I can take for granted that everyone in attendance is a fan of women.

Do you think your poetry strikes closer to home for a female audience because a lot of your reflections deal with female experiences, or do you think the messages in your poems are universal?

During my feature set with Voices of Venus, I performed a piece called "Poem For My Son," which, as you might guess, is a poem about my son.   In my mind the piece was very female, very maternal.  I expected the women in the crowd might identify with it, particularly the mothers.   To my surprise, when my set was done, several men came up to tell me that that was the poem that had resonated with them most.  I never expected that would be the case, but as one friend said, “ Everyone has had a mother.“ 

I would like to say that I’m purposefully universal in my writing, but honestly I never know who’s going to relate or for what reason.

You've performed with Jessica Ruano at a couple of open mics, and you've even dedicated a poem to your fellow wordsmith!  How did the two of you meet, and what inspires you about each other as friends and as performers?

I met Jessica about five years ago, at the CBC Poetry face-off.   Jess is the most outgoing person on the planet.  After having chatted for five minutes, she invited me to join her for a late dinner at the Manx.   We ate lots, talked more and the rest, as they say is history.

Nadine ThornhillJess inspires me with her initiative.   While my inclination is to be passive, when Jessica wants to see something happen, she barrels ahead and makes it happen.  Jess also knows that I think she’s a beautiful sexy woman, but what’s especially great is that Jessica is also intelligent and self-assured enough to be sexy and beautiful on her own terms.   When she performs, all of that shines through.   I’ve seen firsthand how  audiences respond to her.  As a result, I’ve tried to be similarly genuine in my own spoken word performances.

What can people expect to hear at your upcoming spoken word performance with Jessica?

A lot of sex.  A lot of humour, some of it dark.  There will be some serious moments, as well as shout outs to some of our favourite Ottawa people. 

Finally, which piece of your own good advice do you have the most trouble following?

Drink lots of water.  Floss regularly.   I rarely remember to do either.

Nadine's sex advice column, "Dirty Laundry," appears on the last Friday each month on Apt613.


The Spoken Word Plot – April Edition
Feature set with Jessica Ruano
Sunday, April 11th, 2010
6-9 p.m @ JR’s Downstairs Pub
Almonte, ON

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