When he stepped into my English 1000 classroom at the beginning of February, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that he was there to talk to us about theater, but I didn’t realize that his unique perspective surrounding human existence would resonate with me on such a deep level.
A true eccentric, he immediately bypassed a chair, and instead chose to sit casually cross-legged on the desk. Thom Vernon was enveloped by an air of confidence, but still seemed approachable. He had my attention.
I was a theater kid, and still love it to this day, so I expected to be transfixed by his opinion on our first-year English play analyses. Yet, he instead opted to open up the floor to questions, choosing to focus on what we wanted to learn rather than what he was expected to teach. While our questions stayed close to the conventional dialogue, and revolved around acting and how to interpret scripts, his answers had a much broader scope.
What truly drew me in was his view on the connectedness of human existence. He spoke about the quantum relationship between every living thing, how every minute detail has an impact on the bigger picture, despite seeming insignificant.
Thom told us, that, “in stillness, we can stop for a moment and allow life to connect the dots. We actually need to do much less.”
I struggled to understand his viewpoint, grappling with the possibility that decisions that I make could have a ripple effect on the lives of those around me. Isn’t that always the case? Struggling to understand the relevance of one’s existence? I love the smell of existentialism in the morning.
I quickly decided to arrange a meeting yet, as the interview approached, I struggled to think of what to ask. Instead, I formed a handful of questions and did minimal research, opting to allow for simple conversation as we’d had in my lecture.
During the interview, Vernon and I chatted briefly about his upbringing in Michigan, and how he always knew that he was destined to be, “a writer, an actor and a teacher.” He explained that, “training as an actor taught [him] how to play again.” This became the seed for his work with an organization called Arts Expand, a Los Angeles-based arts education initiative which he co-founded. This allowed him to work with members of underprivileged communities, sharing the life skills that he gained through acting with, “marginalized people in Los Angeles.”
For Vernon, the last leg of his work with Arts Expand was working with El Salvadoran immigrants who were working to overcome violence and intergenerational trauma. He recognized that these individuals were involved with gangs, but engaged actively with them instead of avoiding them. He and his colleagues worked to prepare these people for the racially-motivated, “culture of targeting,” where certain racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by profiling and violence from police. The 1990’s Rampart Scandal in LA serves as a prime example of police corruption and targeted, racially motivated abuse. In an attempt to combat the, “culture of getting these extremely vulnerable people to admit ‘to guilt,’” Arts Expand used techniques such as role play to rehearse de-escalation techniques while also teaching people about the rights that they have during interactions with police and other officials.
Vernon has had a long and very diverse career; he has acted for film, television, and stage, written books and taught in various capacities. Currently, Vernon is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at UNB. He stressed, however, that his time as an actor has not come to an end. Vernon was encouraging, and talked about the idea that everyone has “superpowers” that can be used to help others.
“I believe we are being called to pay attention…the circumstances are not accidental.”